Two good friends of ours, Nimue and Warhound, who are married and decided to start their own homestead wrote a great introduction for meat rabbits and I wanted to share it with you all. They have helped me and my ol' lady out with our own meat rabbits more times than I can count.
We personally raise rabbits in the heat. If you want to hear more about how we managed to do that let me know.
Ok enough blabber, here's the good stuff.
All the photos (except the dispatch) are from their homestead.
Raising rabbits for meat can be a fun and rewarding way to have a self sustainable meat source that is also extremely healthy. Per gram, rabbit meat has more protein and less fat than any other meat. It has a lower carbon footprint than beef, and takes up less space than chickens. It’s very easy to butcher and prepare; done correctly your suburban neighbors will never even know! And if someone were to see rabbit cages, you can often keep “pet” rabbits even in strict HOA neighborhoods. Making rabbits the ideal meat source for both rural and suburban neighborhoods.
Beyond meat, rabbits have many useful byproducts. Their droppings are one of the only “non-hot” manures available. Meaning you can scoop directly from the cage to your garden; no weathering, waiting, or cutting with carbon. They also have lovely furs that you can tan to use the entire animal!
Keeping rabbits is fairly simple, they need very little space to live (though of course, they will use however much space you choose to give them). At minimum, a full size rabbit needs 4 sq ft (or a 2ft x 2ft cage
). If it’s a breeding female, this space increases to 7.5 sq ft (or a 3ft x 2.5 ft cage). Rabbits love to dig, so any flooring needs to be chew and dig proof. Either solid, or a wire grate. Rabbits move horizontal or down, not up; so their cages do not need to be very tall, a foot and a half is plenty tall. Rabbits subsist very well on basic rabbit feed pellets, and don’t need additional treats. If you choose to give fresh greens or produce, then they need a ration of hay as well for balanced digestion, and a chew block to wear down teeth – pellets are ready to go balanced, and provide tooth wear. A bottle licker provides water as needed, though they can also drink from a bowl.
Rabbits do much better in cold than in heat. Rabbits can tolerate temps below freezing fairly easily, even without shelter. In winter, a wind block is most of the time all they need. However, they do not handle heat well. Temps above 85F can often make male rabbits sterile. Temps above 95F can cause heatstroke. It is possible to keep rabbits in hot environments, but it’s more difficult. In general, avoid breeding in summer if at all possible. Spring, Fall, and even Winter are better.
There are many different schools of thought on rabbit necessities, but those are the basic minimums. Some choose to provide more cage enrichment, but that’s the personal choice of the owner. Often more is not better and causes problems. If rabbits start having health issues, an easy solution is to go down to this minimal setup, wait for rabbits to recover, then add in extras one at a time to ensure they are not causing
problems. (Example 1: fresh produce is often too rich for bunnies, and can cause diarrhea. Example 2: letting a rabbit on the ground can expose them to parasites or bloating issues).
Domestic rabbits are not wild rabbits! They have been selectively bred
for domesticity, and have very different needs. Wild rabbits are very difficult to keep in captivity, and should not be done by anyone but a professional animal rehab center. Wild rabbits in fact have a different number of chromosomes than domestic rabbits and CAN NOT interbreed with domestic rabbits (despite tales to the contrary), so do not try to put a wild rabbit and a domestic rabbit together in an attempt to get some kind of hybrid. Most likely you will just stress the wild rabbit, and expose your domestic rabbit to assorted parasites and diseases. At worst, they may kill each other.
Rabbits are actually fairly territorial, at least the females are. NEVER bring a male rabbit to the female’s cage to mate them. She will react defensively and attack the male. Female rabbits are known to castrate male rabbits if they get irritated by an overly intrusive partner. For this reason, ALWAYS bring your female rabbit to your male rabbit’s cage, and keep an eye on them while they mate. After two “fall offs”, or successful ejaculations, remove the female back to their own cage. If you want to ensure impregnation, you can bring her back an hour or two later and repeat the mating. But do not leave them alone together.
There are always exceptions, of course, some bunnies get along fine and are very tolerant. Many people keep their rabbits in “colony” setups, where rabbits are free to mix at will. However, best practice is to keep them separate. If you do a different setup, things may be fine…. Until they’re not. If you choose a different setup, be prepared for what you will do in the case of a rabbit fight. Or what you will do if your male(s) get castrated. Or if a young female is mated before she is fully mature and rejects a litter.
Rabbits are prey animals at heart and will easily reject a litter if conditions are not to their liking. They do not have strong maternal instincts. In a bad scenario, the mother may even eat her young to reabsorb the protein. Many times rabbits need a ‘practice run’ in order to be a good mother. Do not expect your rabbit’s first litter to live.
Often the female will not make a good nest the first time, will have the babies outside the nest, or will cannibalize or “over groom” the babies. Do not panic, have a plan in place. Either give surviving babies to another mother to foster, or remove dead babies, give her time to recover, and re-breed her. Most times the second time goes much better than the first. However, it is good to have a “three strikes” policy in place. Maternal tendencies, aggression, and domesticity are all inherited traits. If there is a rabbit that is causing problems, you often do not want to keep them in your breeding program. Even though starting over is a headache, keeping problematic traits in your herd will cause bigger (and recurring) problems in the future.
When you finally get a breeding program going, babies generally are weaned around 5 weeks. Though they can stay with the mom until 7 weeks if they have enough space and she’s not getting too irritated by them. The “golden standard” of a meat rabbit is 5lbs live weight by 8 weeks old, which yields a 3 lbs butcher weight. However, many rabbits are under this and a more lenient and achievable standard is 5 lbs by 12 weeks. If your rabbits are less than 5lbs by this point, do not keep them in your breeding program. You can certainly eat any size rabbit, but in terms of feed in and meat out, you want to maximize your rewards and minimize your costs.
To get to this “golden standard” of meat rabbit, some breeds are preferred over others. New Zealand Whites are considered the bread and butter of meat rabbits. They are also the preferred rabbit of research labs! This is because they are essentially just meat bricks. Most NZWs just sit in a corner, eat, shit, and sleep. They are not feisty or very personable. Flemish Giants are the largest rabbit, but most of their weight is gained later on in maturity, and their early growth is devoted to bone growth. They can hit the 5lbs at 8 week mark, but your meat yield will be much less. Most of the weight will be large, scrawny bones. Smaller rabbits mature faster and reach their max weight fairly quickly, but that max weight may not be what you are hoping for. In an ideal world, you want a large and fast maturing rabbit. And everyone has their own preference for what meats that standard. Other common meat breeds are: Silver Foxes, Californian Rabbits, Standard Rex, New Zealands (of other colors). Many will also do crossbreeds. Other breeds bred to NZW or to Flemish Giants are very common.
When you have grown a rabbit to eating size, dispatching a rabbit can be done in a variety of ways. The most humane is considered to be cervical dislocation or brain destruction. Brain destruction is commonly achieved by shooting the rabbit in the head. Less commonly is using hammer or other blunt instrument. If done correctly, it is still considered humane. However, the potential for error is much greater, not to mention more gruesome and messy for the dispatcher.
dislocation is the common method used for those without guns, or those looking to keep the head intact (either for skull use, or brain use in tanning). Cervical dislocation is the separation of the head from the base of the spine. This can be achieved in a variety of methods. Commercially you can buy a “hopper popper” or “rabbit wringer”, which is a piece of metal where you slide in the rabbit’s head, then pull down at the rear legs. This “pops” the head off the spine, and death is instant (though nerve firings and muscles will continue after). A more DIY and cheap way is the “broomstick” method, where the rabbit is placed on the ground, and a firm bar placed on the neck, right behind the skull. The rear legs are then pulled up while standing on the bar/broomstick. A sling or noose can be used in the same way as the “hopper popper”, where the head is inserted into a loop of non-stretching material, the noose tightened, then the rear legs pulled firmly and suddenly downwards.
In all methods, the dislocation should be sudden and abrupt. Do not allow the rabbit to suffocate, or for a dislocation to occur lower in the spine. Not only is it inhumane, it will also result in much tougher meat, as stress hormones flood the body.
Exsanguination is also possible for rabbits, though not as humane as it is for chickens, as rabbits do not “shut off” in the same way as a chicken does when upside down. However, if done properly it can still be considered humane, though there is much more room for error.
Drowning, freezing, suffocation, gassing, etc are all inhumane and should not be used as a method of dispatch. Not only is it considered cruel, it can result in less desirable meat. In the case of some gasses, you can also poison the meat and make it unsafe for consumption.
When it comes to butchering your rabbit, you want to hang it upside down and remove the head. If cervical dislocation was used, this is very easy as the bone is already separated. In other methods, you may need strong scissors to cut through the spine, or a very sharp knife. Once your rabbit has been drained of blood, you can remove the skin. Once skinned, the intestines and internal organs are easy to take out (though be careful not to puncture the bladder). Take a moment to look at organs like liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart. These can also be indicators of health in the rabbit, and if any have issues, it is highly probable that your living rabbits have the same issues. So finding parasites or liver issues in a dispatched rabbit allows you to treat your living breeders, even if they are not showing symptoms.
Rabbits can be cooked immediately. However, if not consumed immediately, then allow rabbit to sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours. A short time after dispatch, rigor mortis will set in, and if cooked at this time, rabbit meat will be very tough. If given 24-48 hours in a cool environment, your meat will be much more tender. Some people may brine their rabbits for added tenderness, though this is often not needed in young grow outs. If eating an older rabbit, it can add tenderness.
Rabbit meat can be used in any recipe where one would use chicken. It is very versatile and tastes similar. Many people can’t even tell the difference between a rabbit dish and a chicken dish! If you are used to eating wild caught rabbit, domestic rabbit tastes different. Domestic rabbits are much more tender with absolutely no “gamey” flavor. They have lived soft lives, and are eaten at a younger age than wild rabbit.
There are many articles and anti-meat rabbit proponents who will talk of “rabbit starvation” as a reason to not raise meat rabbits. This is absurd in a modern lifestyle. Rabbit starvation was an issue of the frontier… when hard working people were living a bare bones life, living off of the land, and only getting small game as a meat source. They “starved” because of a lack of fat in their diet. In a modern world, if you cook your rabbit with olive oil or butter you’re set. Or if you had a donut for breakfast… or ate fast food in the last month…. You get the idea. The thought that someone could “starve” from a lack of fats in our current world is laughable.
In actuality, rabbit is a very health, high protein, easy to raise, and eco-friendly method of meat. It can fit into any lifestyle, from a 100 acre farm to a small city apartment! You do not need a lot of rabbits. Two full size breeding does can produce over 600 lbs of meat in the course of a year. That’s more than a cow! But you can also breed less often and only have the occasional rabbit dinner. It is entirely up to you. That’s the wonderful flexibility of the meat rabbit.