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Raising Rabbits for Meat: An Urban Farming Guide for Sustainable Living
You may not have considered it, but raising rabbits for meat is a great idea for anyone looking to become more self sustainable. Even if you don't have a lot of room to work with, rabbits are fairly easy to care for and don't take up much space. They are also a great starting point for someone new to meat farming
Housing for Rabbits
Caring for rabbits is quite easy. You need to start by building or buying a house for them. There are nice steel rabbit hutches that are easy to clean and come with built-in feeders. We keep our rabbits in these kinds of cages most of the time. You can also get a dropping pan to go under the cage if you're thinking of keeping your rabbits indoors. We got all our cages and accessories from a local farm supply store.
If you prefer, you can also build a hutch quite easily using salvaged lumber. Make sure your design makes it easy to get into every corner of the hutch so you can properly clean it. We ran into this problem the first time we built ours. Also be mindful that some salvaged lumber could be pressure treated or have lead paint. This is not good to raise your rabbits in. Hardware cloth is something that can be used to build cages with, although I don't recommend it. It's often more expensive to buy the hardware cloth than it is to buy a fully built cage.
If you have a decent amount of land, you can consider using a rabbit tractor instead. A rabbit tractor is a shelter that doesn't have a bottom. By moving it on a daily basis, your rabbits will have access to fresh grass and greenery. Not only does this take care of your lawn mowing chores, but the rabbit droppings make good compost. You shouldn't need to worry about your rabbits trying to escape as long as they have enough food to eat. If your shelter is made of wood, they may chew on it and dig holes if they do not have enough fresh vegetation to munch on. I always add a small dish of feed pellets to the shelter just to make sure they have enough to eat.
Diet: What do Rabbits Eat?
Rabbits can live off commercial feed pellets. You can get bags in various sizes at just about any pet or farm supply store. I recommend buying from a farm supply store because you'll get bulk pricing when buying large bags and some stores also give you the option of feeds with different nutritional values. For a treat, you can give them some kitchen scraps or alfalfa hay.
Always make sure your rabbits have a constant supply of fresh water. Try to avoid plastic watering containers as the rabbits might chew them. I use a glass water bottle like one you would see in a hamster cage. Ceramic or stainless steel dishes would work fine too.
Best Rabbit Breeds for Meat
New Zealand White
Most commonly used for commercial meat production. Converts feed to meat very well.
Commonly used for commercial production or to cross with New Zealand Whites
Small, but dress well. These small breed rabbits have large litters
Which Breed to Choose
There are several different breeds of rabbit. It may be difficult to choose which one to go with. The New Zealand White and Californian breed rabbits are the most commonly used for meat. They have a good feed to meat ratio and deliver consistent results. The Florida White is another good option if you want a smaller rabbit. They dress well because of their small extremities and small bones. If you're looking to go even further with your rabbit farming, you can keep the pelts and have them tanned. The Rex is a meat rabbit with a velvet coat. It would be a good choice to raise for its pelt as well as its meat.
Rabbits can be slaughtered as young as 10 to 12 weeks of age. At this age, they are called fryers. Fryers usually weight about 4 to 5lbs (live) and will provide about 2 to 2.5lbs of meat.
Roasters are older and larger than the fryers. This is typically at the stage we cull our rabbits. They weight about 6 to 8lbs (live) and will provide about 3 to 4lbs of meat.
Finally, stewers are rabbits that are older than 6 months. They generally weight 8lbs or more, but the meat is tougher.
You can choose to slaughter and butcher rabbits from your home, or send them away to get done. By sending them away we'd loose profit, so we do all our processing from home. Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett explains how to properly cull and dress your rabbits. I highly recommend his technique.
So how many rabbits should you start with? It depends on how much meat you want to produce. We started with three rabbits; two females and a buck.
Consider that rabbits can have litters with anywhere between 2 and 12 young. So if you breed both females, you could expect to get about 10 to 15 baby rabbits (assuming they are decent breeders). In 12 weeks that would add up to 25 to 35lbs of dressed meat.
Rabbit meat is delicious if cooked properly. Young fryers can be prepared just as you would a chicken. The meat is very tender and fine grained.
Roasters are a bit less tender than fryers. It is best to cook with oil or other liquids to keep the meat moist and tender.
Stewers are good for, you guessed it, stew