Raising Rabbits for Meat , by Pete C.

Saturday, Apr 19, 2008

In most industrialized countries, including the United States, rabbits are not commonly considered a meat animal. However, before a TEOTWAWKI situation arises, small retreats may seriously want to consider raising rabbits as a reliable source of meat to feed their family, to use as barter or charity.

Rabbits are fairly easy to raise which makes them especially adaptive for small retreats (to include urban areas) where limited space for other livestock - cows, hogs, goats, chickens, etc., are just not practical. In addition, many localities may not consider rabbits as live stock since they are often pets. Thus they may be permitted where other animals would not be. If you keep the area clean and the smell down, neighbors might not even know that you have them.

Picking your breed:
Before you purchase your rabbits (or any animal), learn as much as you can about keeping and raising them. Books, breeder magazines, and the internet have a wealth of information on every topic imaginable. So before you jump in, do your homework.

Once you decide to raise rabbits for meat, your most essential requirement is that you get good quality breeding stock, from a reputable breeder and not your local pet store. Purchase the best animals that you can afford, since the quality of future litters will depend upon the parents. I recommend either the Californian or the New Zealand White. Both types are by far the most popular meat rabbits, of a medium-weight (8-11 pounds), have high milk production, frequently procreate and have large litters.

Since rabbits are more suited for temperate or cool climates better than hot ones, those living in warmer climates will need to purchase stock already accustomed to such weather. Also, make sure that your stock rabbits you receive are clean, alert, bright-eyed, with dry ears and nose, and no sores on the feet.

How many to start with?
As with many things, when we get started, we often make mistakes. For those new to rabbits, the most common mistake is starting off with too many at once. A good rule of thumb might be one buck (male) and three does (females). Usually does are larger and can be distinguished by the presence of a dewlap, which is flap of fur below the chin that she pulls to cover her nest during pregnancy.
Rabbit prices can vary considerably depending on quality. A young rabbit could go for next to nothing (family just trying to get rid of a litter) to a few hundred dollars (high quality show rabbit) – do not worry because you want meat rabbits. Most of the time however, you will not find breeding age rabbits, especially for meat. It just does not pay for a breeder to feed a young rabbit to breeding age if he does not plan to use the rabbit for himself. If you do find breeding age meat rabbits, they may be inferior or too old for breeding. It is always best to start with newly weaned rabbits (eight weeks) and care for them for the four months or so, so that they can become acclimated to their new environment prior to breeding age (of six months). You should be able to find decent quality newly weaned rabbits for as little as $15.00 each.

As you become comfortable and more accustomed to the work/time required and what you just got into; should you then increase the size of your herd. Maybe another buck (or two as insurance if something should happen to one of them) and three more does, but no more than a one-to-five ratio.

Disease:
Rabbits are very hardy and have few diseases. However, since most rabbit diseases cannot be cured, it is recommended that the diseased animal be disposed. Removal of one sick animal can also save your entire stock, since disease can spread quickly between the herd. Most rabbit diseases cannot be transmitted to humans. Remember, cleanliness is the single biggest contributor to your stocks health. Clean living space, quality feed and fresh water at all times go a long way.

Space & Housing:
Rabbits are also fairly easy to care for once you have established suitable housing. It can be something very basic (wire-mesh hutch), since cold is no real problem for rabbits. The hutch should however, provide protection from drafts, rain and intense heat. Each rabbit should also have its own hutch (or cage). This way if disease should hit an individual rabbit, it will not easily spread and potentially wipe out your entire herd. Individual cages can be placed in a garage, an empty shed or outdoors (these should be well protected from the weather). Space is often not a problem because cages can be stacked on one another. When comparing rabbits to larger meat animals (cattle, hogs, etc.,) rabbits are much more efficient users of space.

Hutches should be approximately two feet by three feet and at least 18 - 24 inches in height with one inch mesh for the sides (allowing for adequate ventilation) and half-inch mesh for the floors (so that droppings can fall through to the cleaning tray) without catching the rabbits’ feet. Mount cages at a convenient height that will make feeding, cleaning and maintenance easier for you. Clean and disinfect the trays on a regular basis; scrubbing and disinfecting the cages/trays between each litter.

If the hutches are outside, they should be placed in a partially shaded area. The rabbits should always be given their choice between shade and sunshine. If cages do not have shade, they will need to have a double roof in order to help keep the rabbits cool. In addition, canvas or plastic flaps can be added (to be unrolled) to cover the mesh when it rains. The does’ cage should also have space for a nesting box – one foot high by one foot deep and approximately twenty inches wide with a six inch high front panel to help keep newborns inside. The males’ cage should be located between the does’ cages. The Memsahib Adds: I encourage rabbit owners to build (or buy) all metal cages. Wood frames get urine-soaked and eventually become a health hazard. The only wood included should be a resting board (to prevent the rabbits from getting sore legs and feet, and those boards should be changed regularly. Also the Memsahib strongly disagrees with the statement that the rabbits should be in a partially shaded area. Rabbits are much more sensitive to heat than cold. We have always located our pens on the north side of the house in full shade. We have never lost a rabbit to cold, but people who have purchased our rabbits have lost rabbits to heat stroke mid-summer when they have not followed our advice. When the temperature climbs above 90 degrees, we wet down the entire rabbit area to provide cooling through evaporation. Some rabbit fanciers put a block of ice in each pen. Others have fans to cool down the hutches. But these last two methods will be useless, post-TEOTWAWKI.

Food & Water:
Specially prepared rabbit pellets provide the best diet for a breeding herd. Pellets are nutritious, inexpensive (our local feed store sells 50 pound bags for less then $12.50 each), store well and are easy to feed. Of the many different types of pellets, you should get those that are small in size, placing them in a hopper so as to avoid waste. Pellets can be supplemented with tender hay, fresh grass clippings, vegetable greens / roots, apples, apple branches, and weeds such as dandelions, which may be easily available. Just like us, rabbits also require salt. Therefore, you may want to provide your herd salt licks.

To supplement the rabbit’s diet while giving them a bit more exercise (to help maintain a healthy herd), place several rabbits in a movable wire pen (approximately four or five feet square) and placing the pen throughout your yard. As the rabbits eat the fresh grass and weeds to a comfortable height; move the cage to another location. The yard is quietly cut and the rabbits are fed with little effort at all.
As with any animal, clean fresh water is essential. Water bottles may be used when temperatures are above freezing (otherwise metal pans or crockery bowls may be used). Change the water on a daily basis. A doe and her litter may drink as much as one gallon of water per day.

[In the Memsahib's experience mature does are too territorial to be placed in such a confined area. This would work with littermates of the same sex before they reached sexual maturity. The rabbits should all be put in the pen at the same time.]

Mating & Birth:
Medium-weight rabbits such as the New Zealand White are ready to breed at about six months. Signs to look for in females are restlessness, attempts to join other rabbits, or a tendency to rub her head against the cage. Once a doe reaches maturity, it is fertile almost continuously. Place the female in the male’s cage; where mating should take place almost immediately. If it does not, bring the female back to her own cage and try again within a few days. Never bring the male to the female’s cage. She may see him as an intruder and attack him out of fear.
Approximately twelve days after mating, check for pregnancy by feeling the abdomen area just above the pelvis, trying to locate the small marble-shaped embryos. Make sure that you handle the doe gently and use only light pressure. If you feel nothing, check again in about a week; re-breed if necessary.

[Memsahib I think there is too much chance of injury palpitating the embryos. Though does can mate at any time, conception is improved by mating them when the does' vulva is swollen and dark. Careful observation will show this happens on a three day cycle. If the doe is not receptive to the buck, she likely will be the following day or the day after. Mating can take place in as little as 15 seconds. But usually the buck and doe will chase each other around the pen for a few minutes. If the doe grunts and stomps her hind feet place her back in her own pen immediately. Be careful that she does not bite. If the doe is receptive she will stop and slightly raise her haunches. If the buck is successful he will suddenly fall off the doe like he has been shot. Watch for this! It can happen very quickly. Return the doe to her own pen. Mating will stimulate ovulation so be certain to bring the doe back to the buck's pen for a repeat mating eight hours later. In this way you will maximize the size of the litter. Using this method I have never failed to get a doe bred.]

Birth ["kindling"] occurs within 30 days after conception, providing an average number of seven young (called “kits”) per litter, but can range from two to twelve. Since a doe can become pregnant, given the right conditions, by the simple act of mating; she can get pregnant soon after birth. For the animals safety however, it is recommended that each doe have no more then three or four litters per year. Make sure that you place the nesting box (with fresh hay to insure warmth) at least five days before the young are due. The doe will begin pulling fur from her dewlap to line and soften the nest as well.

Most likely, the litter will be born at night. Complications are rare when the doe is in good condition and not over feed. Make sure not to disturbed the new family for a day or two, so that the doe can calm. Then distract the doe with some tempting food so that you can look inside the box; removing any dead or deformed young. Be assured, the doe can take care of her young herself. Therefore, no hand-raising or special equipment, such as incubators or brooders will ever be needed.

Kits are born hairless with their eyes closed. Their fur will begin to grow in by day five or six, after ten to twelve days the kits' eyes will open. At the age of three weeks their mother will begin to wean them off milk (but will continue to nurse them until they are eight weeks), during this time, the kits will begin to eat hay and pellets becoming accustomed to the feed. Anytime thereafter, from eight to twelve weeks old, they will be ready for butchering, dressing out four to five pounds of meat each.

You may however also decide to keep a few of the new rabbits for more productivity or to replace a buck or doe that you might have lost. Although rabbits can live anywhere from seven to twelve years, having a few extra never hurts.

Slaughtering, skinning and butchering:
These are the tasks that no one really likes, but remember these animals are providing food for your family. Again, there are many resources describing the different methods employed and you are encouraged to read up on each. Each task however, is fairly simple and straight forward. A skilled person can take a rabbit from cage to fryer in under 30 minutes or less. Note: To facilitate butchering, do not feed the rabbit for at least twenty-four hours prior to slaughter. This will help to clear out the animal’s digestive system.

I will discuss one interesting method that was first given to me as instruction of survival during my training at the U.S. Army Ranger School. It will cause the animal the least amount of stress, it is considered quick, painless, and humane.
Begin by holding the rabbit in your arms, petting it to make sure that it is calm. After a few minutes, hold the animal by the hind legs with one hand, placing your thumb of the other hand on the neck just behind the ears and your fingers under the chin. Stretch the animal by pushing down with your thumb; then raise the animal’s head with a quick movement to dislocate the neck.

The next stage may sound strange but will assist you in skinning the carcass. The objective here is to quickly remove the animal’s pelt cleanly, neatly and with minimum damage to either the hide. Since skinning is a skill that requires experience; I will explain what I call the “pen method.” For this, make sure that you have your black US Government Skillcraft pen disassembled and on hand, as you will need it.

With your skinning knife, make your first incision small on one of the back legs just below the hock (insert the blade under the skin so that only the hide gets cut). Now take the pen placing the silver tip in the incision, between the hide and flesh. With the half-pen sticking out, blow hard into the opening. The forced in air will go between the hide and flesh separating the two, making the rabbit the size of a basketball. (This same method can also be used on chickens, producing a skinless bird, no plucking required).

Use your knife a second time to increase the first incision by cutting around the rest of the leg. Do the same thing on the other leg. A cut is then made along the inside of the back legs from one foot to the base of the tail; continue the incision to the other leg. The hide can now be easily removed by pulling it off like a sweater. There should be little resistance, however if there is any, use the knife to free the hide. The last step is to free the pelt by incising a circle around the neck. The pelt can also be saved to make clothes, used for barter or even charity.

Once the skinning is complete, remove the head so that the carcass can bleed out. Next remove the entrails. To do this, split the body open down the medium line of the belly near the anus to the sternum. Special care should be taken not to nick the gall bladder as this will taint the meat. The entrails are then removed; the kidney and liver can be saved. The sternum is then cut and the lungs, heart and trachea are removed (save the heart as well). Lastly, cut the pubic bone and remove the rectum.

Wash the carcass with cold water, giving it a thorough rinsing to remove stray fur and blood. Drop the carcass in a bucket of cold (ice) water for five minutes. Repeat with a second bucket; helping to further cool the meat. This will complete the bleeding process and making it easier to cut into pieces. Note: Do not leave the carcass in the bucket for more than fifteen minutes since it will absorb water.

Lastly, use your knife to divide the rabbit into serving pieces (usually seven to nine cuts – high in protein/ low in fat). Never use a cleaver so as to avoid leaving bone splinters. You can now bake, boil, fry, roast, salt or smoke your rabbit as you wish. Review your survival cooking library for delicious recipes, and enjoy.

Conclusion:
Since rabbits are fairly inexpensive, have few diseases, multiply quickly and are easy to care for, it is recommended that small retreats with limited space consider raising them as a reliable source of meat. Not only will you be able to feed you family, but help others in need. Remember, as with any new skill, do not wait until a TEOTWAWKI situation arises as the time to learn something new. Good-luck and God Bless!

References:
American Federation of New Zealand Rabbit Breeders
American Rabbit Breeders Association
Professional Rabbit Meat Association
Angier, Bradford. "One Acre and Security". Willow Creek Press, 2000


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