When it comes to raising animals for food, rabbits are a great option, right up there with chickens, goats and pigs. Rabbit meat is high in protein, and by most accounts tastes pretty darn good. They’re fairly low maintenance to raise, needing only small spaces and not making a ton of noise or mess. They’re also (re)productive; a doe (female rabbit) can produce 20-40 new babies a year.
FINDING THE RIGHT RABBITS
Your first step is getting hold of some rabbits. This shouldn’t be too difficult a task (provided you aren’t Elmer Fudd). Other farmers or owners that raise them for food are your best bet, as they are most likely to be the type of breed that fit your goals by having a good feed-to-meat ratio (how much you must feed them daily vs how much meat they produce).
You want one buck (male rabbit) for every 5 does, and want to rotate who mates and keep the gene pool diverse and healthy.
You’ll have to select a type of breed. Medium-sized breeds weigh 4-7 lb at maturity. They consume a cup of feed per day, and take up about 5 square feet of cage space. American Sable or the English or French Angora breeds are examples of medium-sized rabbits.
Meat rabbits weigh 8-12 lb at maturity, and as you might have garnered from their name, are the kind of breed raised for their meat, since they offer the best feed-to-meat ratio. They consume 1.25 cups of feed per day, and take up 7-8 square feet of cage space. Some examples are Blue or white American rabbits, Beveren, or Californian rabbits.
There are also some “giant” rabbit breeds, such as the Checkered Giant or Giant Chinchilla, which weigh over 10 lb. These are sometimes raised for meat as well, although their feed-to-meat ratio isn’t as good, and stronger cages are required.
CREATING A PEN FOR YOUR RABBITS
You’ll want a wire mesh pen for your rabbits, with 3/4 inch holes or greater for their droppings to exit. Remember the space guidelines for your rabbits as listed above. Have a separate area for your rabbits to stand on as well, as standing on wire mesh all day can hurt their feet.
Place something underneath the cage to catch the droppings, such as newspaper or cardboard you can dispose of, or a tray you can clean weekly (remember not to use bleach when cleaning it, as it will mix with the rabbit urine to produce a harmful gas). Rabbit droppings make a great fertilizer.
Also remember never to put two bucks into a pen together. They will feel threatened, and may castrate each other (ouch.).
During the summer, keep your pen in a shaded and ventilated area, as rabbits aren’t too keen on hot summer days. During the winter keep your pen covered to protect it from cold winds.
FOOD & WATER
For water, you’ll want something that avoids getting contaminated by all that rabbit poop. An elevated water bowl or a bottle waterer are both good options.
For food, there are rabbit pellets for sale that are designed to give your rabbits all the nutrients they need. You can also feed them hay- red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, alfalfa and Kentucky bluegrass all work well. Make sure the hay smells sweet, not damn, as the latter is an indication of mold.
There’s a reason we have expressions in our language about two people who can’t keep their hands off each other being like rabbits. And that reason is this- rabbits like to do it. A lot.
This comes down to their biology. Some rabbits are ready to breed as early as 6 months old. Does can conceive at any time of the month, they stay pregnant for about a month, and are ready to conceive again hours after giving birth. In short, they spend most of their existence ready for procreation. Life is good for a buck (except for that whole castration thing mentioned above).
To initiate the mating process, place the female in the male’s pen (doing the opposite will scare the female, and she may attack). If they don’t get down to business, remove the doe and try again a few days later.
2 weeks after mating, you can feel the area above the female rabbit’s pelvis to check for pregnancy. If it’s swollen, then she is.
You’ll want to have a separate, private pen (2 square feet or larger) for a mother to give birth and raise her young. Make sure there is plenty of fresh, dried hay in there before hand. It is important not to disturb them, as the smell of humans on the young can threaten the mother, and she may kill them. It’s also important to keep the father away from the young, as rabbits don’t make the best fathers, and he too may murder them. It’s a tough life for a newborn bunny.
Leave them alone for 6-8 weeks to grow, after which you can separate the young from the mother.
SLAUGHTERING A RABBIT
Ahh, now to the fun part…
(Not really, it can be pretty disturbing the first time you kill an animal you put a lot of effort into raising.)
Do not feed a rabbit for a day before slaughtering it. The best way to kill a rabbit is to hold the animal upside down and strike it sharply with a pipe behind the ears, where the neck and skull connect. This is quick and painless for the rabbit (not so much for you if you accidentally hit your fingers. Be careful here).
You’ll need to open the rabbit up and remove the visceral material (intestines, etc) to avoid contaminating the meat. Remove the head and limbs, skin the rabbit, and then store the carcass in an appropriate container and chill immediately.
You now have rabbit meat ready to eat.
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Good luck and stay prepared!