Raising Meat Rabbits on the Homestead
Choosing a Rabbit
Many breeds are suitable for home grown meat, but the medium sized breeds, such as the New Zealand and Californian, are best because they've been specifically bred for meat production. Since a homesteader isn't producing for a specific commercial market, smaller rabbits like the Dutch might also be useful. Remember that it costs as much to feed and house a good rabbit, as it does to feed and house a bad rabbit, so buy the best breeding stock you can afford. Be aware that rabbits are also raised for show, and that a show rabbit may or may not be a good breeder for meat production. Ask to see production records from the parents of the rabbits you are considering.
Housing and Feeding
Rabbits should be housed in wire cages up off the ground to prevent them from getting parasites. A rabbit will grow quicker when exclusively fed a commercial rabbit pellet, but the homesteader might be more concerned with economy than speed of growth. If you have the time to do so, you can save money by feeding some greens and hay to the rabbits in addition to a commercial ration. Be sure to make any dietary changes slowly and find out what plants are safe for rabbits to eat. Some plants are poisonious to rabbits.
The Doe rabbit should be taken to the Buck's cage for mating. After mating has taken place, she should be returned to her own cage. To help insure fertilzation, it's ideal to put her back with the buck a few hours later.
A rabbit giving birth is called Kindling and the resulting babies are called Kits. An average New Zealand or Californian doe will have 6-8 kits in a litter. Some does will have a lot more.
Twenty-eight days after mating, the doe should be provided with a nestbox filled with a suitable nesting material such as hay or straw. The nestbox can be made of wire, or solid metal or wood. Wood nestboxes are difficult to clean, and won’t last as long, but might be warmer for the babies. If you are using a wire nestbox, line it with some corrugated cardboard to insulate the kits against any drafts.
Just prior to kindling, the doe will pull fur from her dewlap and make a nest. The babies are born hairless with their eyes closed. They will remain in the nestbox for about three weeks and they should stay with the doe for 6-8 weeks, depending on when the doe is being re-bred.
If you spend plenty of time with your rabbits, it should be no problem for you to gently pull back the fur in the nestbox and inspect the kits. If the doe does seem upset by this, you can try distracting her with a treat she likes. Don’t allow strangers to handle the kits as their scent may cause the doe to reject her kits.
If you have more than one doe, and have the space to do so, it’s ideal to breed them around the same time. In the event one doe has a very large litter, or if something unfortunate happens to one of them, it will be possible to foster kits to another doe. Place a small amount of something strong smelling such as vanilla on the foster doe’s nose before transferring kits into her nestbox. Cover them up with her fur. Once the scent on her nose wears off, the new kits will smell the same as her own and she should accept them.
Kits can be weaned as early as five weeks. If you are not in a hurry to get the doe re-bred, they can stay as long as eight weeks as long as they don’t fight. To wean the litter, it’s ideal to remove the doe from the cage and leave the kits behind. This is less stressful for the kits that moving them to the new cage.
Commercially, young rabbits are usually butchered at 5-6lbs live weight, but for your own table, you might wish to allow them to grow a little longer so you get more meat. At any rate, the rabbits need to be processed at some point. You might wish to learn to do this yourself, or find a commercial processor. In Ontario, if you wish to sell any rabbit from the farm gate, it must be processed at a government inspected facility.
A rabbit having four litters of 8 and raising all of them to 5lbs, will produce 256lbs of live rabbit. Even after considering the dressout percentage, that still amounts to a lot of meat from one 9lb rabbit!