What if you could have a protein source that is inexpensive to maintain, that would not draw attention the attention of prying eyes and ears and it actually produces valuable bi-products that can be used/traded/sold to help offset remaining costs? Consider the common domestic rabbit.
Rabbits have been kept as a meat animal since before the times of the Roman Empire. They have fed people during good times (as a farm or ranch animal) and in bad times such as: wars, famines, even in America during the Great Depression and both world wars. Today you can find rabbit meat in some grocery stores, available online and shipped to you frozen and on the menus in some fancy big city restaurants.
Six ounces of rabbit meat contains up to 60g of protein. This is more protein than in similar sized portions of beef or chicken. They are an excellent a source of iron, phosphorus, and potassium. Additionally, 6 ounces of rabbit meat has about 300 hundred calories – though not a problem for most Americans these days, this could be a possible issue in a TEOTWAWKI situation where calories are likely being burnt at much higher rate than most people do in a typical day at the office in these fatter times. A larger herd of rabbits could be the answer to that issue.
Raising rabbits takes very little space and 6lbs or 7lbs of rabbit meat can be raised on the same amount of feed that it takes to produce about 1lb of beef. Rabbits are also much quicker to be ready for consumption. A “fryer” rabbit is harvested three months after being born and when served-up with some easily stored pantry food likes beans, greens and rice you have a well-rounded, filling meal - the bones can then be boiled for a soup base for another meal. Another advantage with rabbits is unlike purchasing a calf or hog, your investment is spread-out over many animals and you can eat fresh meat, much sooner (daily if you keep enough animals) without the need to burn valuable resources processing hundreds of pounds of large animal in a relatively small window of time.
My least favorite aspect of raising rabbits is killing and processing them. On a positive note, it really makes you stop and think about where your food comes from. The good news is you get about the same amount of meat from one rabbit as a same sized chicken, but without nearly the same amount of work. The other good news is you can process a rabbit (from start to finish) in less than fifteen minutes, after your first couple of experiences completing the job. A quick “rabbit punch” to the back of the neck quickly and humanely kills the animal. I process mine well away from where I keep the other rabbits in a small processing station where I have a laundry sink, cutting board, knives, paper towels and a couple of buckets close by. Hang them up by the rear feet, cut off the head and letting it bleed out for a couple of minutes is best, then carefully and shallowly cutting them from anus to chest - which allows you to removed organs (many people like the heart, kidneys and liver – but these go to our dog). Skinning them is easy – start up and around the hind legs, make a circle with your knife around each leg and then slice down to your original incision and peel it down toward the shoulder and front legs (easiest to do while the rabbit is hanging upside down with a hook in each hind leg). This method allows you to quickly skin them. After this you place the carcass in some cold water to clean it and keep it fresh. You can then quarter it up to cook immediately or place it in the refrigerator or freezer to store for later use – that is, as long as the grid is up and power is working. It might be a good idea to try canning a few meals into jars and processing them in your pressure canner.
There are additional benefits to raising rabbits too. Rabbit pelts can be processed and turned into an asset (more on that below), their manure is not a “hot” manure and can be placed directly into the garden without composting, but the real fringe benefits of the manure being produced is the worms that can live in it. Worms can be free feed for chickens, used (or sold) as fish bait and they make the rabbit manure into something even better – worm casings (worm poop) which is an even better supplement for your garden (and also a possible income/bartering source).
Some people tan or cure the skins or sell them to an outside processor – I think they would be good for crafts, etc. but it would take a lot of work to get enough of them to make clothing or a blanket for an adult. Thus far I have not been successful finding a vender interested in purchasing the raw skins so these are currently being discarded. This is unfortunate, as I hate to waste anything, but at this point I have found more pressing issues requiring my time.
These easy to handle animals are a handy commodity to have at your disposal, they can be sold as pets, food, 4H projects, and in rural areas even high school students in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) needing a project for their Vocational Agriculture classes are potential customers or they can be traded for something else you need. You are only limited by your space and time commitments and your imagination.
Caring for two dozen rabbits takes about the same time as caring for two rabbits. A mineral block, fresh water, some commercial pellets, hay and occasional treats are about all they need food-wise, though it is a good idea to handle them regularly to keep them familiar with you and thus easier to manage when it time to sell/trade/process them. Well cared for rabbits take up little space, are quiet and will not draw attention if you are careful about your placement of their hutches. Rabbit hutches are simple to build using some purchased “rabbit wire” and scrap lumber (though it is important to avoid using treated wood where they might be able to chew on it) and the hutches need to be placed where the occupants will have plenty of shade and ventilation. Rabbits can generally handle cold weather, but they really don’t like to get too hot. Keeping them safe from predators is important too – not just woodland creatures, but your neighbor’s dog, your dog, your neighbor (think SHTF type of situations). An existing building such as a garage or tool shed, with proper ventilation, can easily be modified to house your rabbits and their hutches. People even have kept them in their basements when the situation called for it. Stacking the hatches from floor to ceiling with trays or tin flumes between the levels to capture or channel dropping and urine will go a long way to keeping everything sanitary and discreet.
It is a good idea to keep good records of the production of your does – how large their litters are, the number of surviving kits, which buck you bred them with and how long they have been producing. If the doe consistently produces large litters of healthy kits and this is documented, the records can then sometimes be used to place a higher value on any of the rabbits being traded or sold from that doe’s litter. Good record keeping will also show you which does haven’t produced healthy litters of kits or which were does were not very good moms – this can help you cull the less productive animals and keep track of the pedigrees of the best producing members of your herd. Some rabbit breeders tattoo numbers in one ear of each of their doe’s and buck’s to keep track of who is doing what and that is especially important if the rabbits are being kept all together, but based on the compact size of my rabbitry and the fact that each animal has its own hutch, I have never felt the need to go this trouble.
Some people use a colony approach for their rabbitry with the rabbits all living together in a big pen (picture a hippie commune), but I prefer to keep them in individual hutches (think bunny apartments). I have found they are easier to care for this way, it is easier to keep records and if one of them becomes sick, you can quarantine it from the others until it can be treated. It is also easier to monitor how much food each one is eating and their individual water intake.
Expanding you herd is simple enough to do. Take the female (the doe) to the male (the buck) for breeding and then return her to her cage. Never take the buck to the doe’s cage as she will likely injure or kill him – I believe Marlin Perkins from the old “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” series called this behavior “territorial ferocity” - call it what you wish, but avoid this simple mistake. I have found that if you take her over to the buck’s cage in the early morning, they will usually breed within a half hour or so. After they settle back down, I usually remove the doe back to her cage and bring her back again that evening. Sometimes they don’t breed when they first are introduced (especially if one of them is young), but the afternoon meeting usually goes well. Sometimes they breed morning and afternoon – hence the term breeding like rabbits. A healthy buck can take care of a dozen does (though not a good idea to have him that busy all at once). If you have more than 6 does, I have found that it is a good idea to have 2 bucks to keep some diversity in your rabbit herd.
The cycle goes kind of like this: start out breeding the rabbits when they are about 6 months old. The pregnant doe will usually have her nesting instinct kick in about 25 days after breeding. Place a nesting box into her cage and give her some soft straw to complete her nest, don’t be alarmed when she pulls her own fur out of her underside and places it in the nest too. She will give birth about 30 days from the date of breeding. A couple of days after she has her litter of baby rabbits (kits), check the nest for dead or deformed kits that may need removed, but don’t handle any of the healthy ones, as the doe may reject them. She will nurse them for 7-8 weeks and they will transition to pellets and hay during this time. I let the doe rest for a few weeks in her own cage, the rabbits of the new litter (soon-to-be- fryers) are fine to be kept together. They will be ready for your skillet or for sell or trade a few weeks later and the doe can then be bred again to restart the cycle.
If you follow this schedule, one doe can produce 1,000 times her body weight in a year’s time from four separate litters. If you have 6 does on slightly staggered breeding schedules with each producing 4 litters each per year (with about 5-6 kits in a litter) you are looking at some serious protein being produced. That is easily enough rabbits for a small family to have a couple of meals a week and still have some stock for trading/breeding/etc. A larger family or group to feed could also keep a larger number of rabbits on hand.
There is a lot more detailed information available online and in books and magazines that goes into much greater detail than a quick internet article can, but nothing beats hands on experience. With all of the benefits that having a rabbitry can provide, it may be good idea to incorporate one into your long term planning. Consider the possibilities.