I enjoyed the recent blog article Rabbits for a Stable (and Staple) Protein Source, by S.F.D. in West Virginia. With all the rabbits running around this year I have been thinking about giving this a try. I had a couple of questions after reading though and hope you or S.F.D. can answer them.
1. Food pellets won't be readily available after the stores shut down. What would you recommend for easily replenishable year-round rabbit food?
2. The temperature swings here in the South between seasons can be drastic. Is there special care needed in extreme cold or heat?
3. Is there a particular breed that is recommended? I could easily catch wild rabbits here to start, but they are kind of scrawny.
Thanks, - G.S.
JWR Replies: I've raised rabbits off and on since the early 1990s. Although feeding hay is more messy than using pellets, rabbits do quite well eating hay. Growing up in California's Central Valley during World War II, my mother raised rabbits and for their feed simply cut weeds in vacant city lots. Alfalfa is particularly nutritionally dense, but Timothy and Latar Orchard Grass also make good rabbit feed. (Latar is a favorite in the Inland Northwest.) Unless you have a large number of rabbits, you can grow your own and simply harvest it with a hand scythe. If you don't have room to grow hay, then you can buy it by the bale or more cost effectively by the ton. (Incidentally, Alfalfa bales are heavier than grass hay bales, so there are fewer bales per ton.)
Rabbits can handle cold temperatures well, although they should be sheltered from rain and wind chill. It is heat that kills most rabbits. In hot summer weather, one expedient is providing each cage with a frozen 2 liter water bottle. (Used sodapop bottles work fine.) If you have a double set of bottle sand carefully rinse clean the bottles before refreezing them, it is quick and easy to keep up to a dozen bottles in your chest freezer at all times. Evaporative cooling (using an old terry cloth towel hung vertically near each cage, and kept wet with a dripper system) works moderately well, but only when combined with a box fan.
Don't try breeding wild rabbits! Not only will the wild does tear you up when you try to handle them, but there is also the risk of endemic diseases, such as tularemia. Most meat rabbit breeders use the New Zealand breed. They were bred specifically for meat production. They put on weight quickly, which makes them economical to keep. If you want a combination breed (for meat and fur), then I recommend Rex rabbits. Rex bunnies are also cute, so you will also have a chance to sell some of your rabbitry's offspring for pets. But regardless of the breed that you select, be sure to get your breeding stock from a good breeder that has proven healthy bloodlines with does that have a history of large litters and good nurturing instincts. It is better to pay more for your first few rabbits, so that you get started with solid genetics. If you start out "on the cheap", then you will probably have lots of problems down the road. (Small litters, babies left on the wire to die, and so forth.) You should also swap bucks with other breeders once every year or two, to prevent excessive inbreeding,