Many homesteaders and small farmers often get started in livestock with chickens, but there are other options available that may be just enjoyable and rewarding.
Rabbits are one of those options. While the animals do not provide eggs, for a dedicated homesteader, a few rabbits can produce hundreds of pounds of meat every year.
If an operation is large enough, selling the skins either to wholesalers for fur production or local craftsmen can mean extra income, which is always appreciated by small scale farmers.
According to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, raising rabbits for meat animals has many benefits for farmers:
• Rabbits can provide extra income through the sale of meat and skins
• Rabbits do not require much space
• Rabbits do not require the same physical demands as other livestock operations, like cows
What do you need to raise rabbits?
Rabbits, like any other animals raised on a farm, require shelter, food and water.
Penn State’s Agricultural Department suggests sheltering rabbits inside an enclosed structure to minimize extreme temperatures, but many small scale breeders deal with the issue by using heating lights and fans in their shelters.
A rabbit shelter, or hutch, should be made with the rabbits comfort in mind. While many different recommendations for size are made, a good rule of thumb is for every pound the rabbit weighs, it requires one square foot of space.
Many breeders keep their rabbits in hutches with wire mesh flooring, including a “resting board” for the rabbits to lie on for comfort. The mesh allows droppings to fall through facilitating cleanliness. Some breeders, however, feel a resting board is not enough and use a solid, untreated wood flooring to maximize comfort for the animals.
Make sure, if you do decide to use solid flooring, to keep the cage cleaned at least once a week to promote good health for your rabbits.
The sides of the hutch can be made of metal or wood, but proper ventilation and predator protection must be a factor.
A nesting box should be provided to allow rabbits a place to sleep, stay warm and — in the case of pregnant does — give birth (known as kindling).
Does, castrated bucks and juvenile males can be kept in the same enclosure, bearing in mind the size requirements mentioned above. Intact bucks, however, should be kept separately to prevent fighting and out of control breeding.
Rabbits need a run in order to exercise and socialize. It also helps the rabbits remain stress free. Veterinarians suggest a run be at least 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and two feet high. It must be big enough for rabbits to actually run in, not just hop.
Make sure the run is enclosed on the sides and top to prevent predators. Use stones, bricks or pavers around the inside edge of the run to keep the animals from digging out. Breeders can use 6 inch corrugated drainage pipe to make a “tunnel” to the run from the hutch to allow unfettered access to the area. This also helps prevent tunneling, as the pipe helps replicate a rabbit’s natural tunnel.
What do rabbits eat?
Rabbits are herbivores. Commercial rabbit food, usually made from alfalfa, is widely available and provides most of the nutritional needs of a rabbit. Rabbits should also have hay available by choice. The food should be kept in a durable container, preferably anchored to the hutch somehow.
Avoid plastic feed containers, as rabbits will chew them to pieces. Hay hangers and commercially available feeders can be purchased at any pet supply or feed store.
Breeders who want to achieve maximum sustainability can cultivate their own rabbit food, either for use exclusively or as a supplement to store-bought feeds.
Rabbits enjoy oats, red clover, wheat grass and other assorted grains. Avoid whole corn, as many rabbits have trouble digesting it. The animals often enjoy “weeds” from the garden, including most grasses and dandelions.
In our experience, rabbits will not eat weeds from the garden that are harmful to them, but do not take this as “gospel.” Use your own judgment and do as much research as possible. And while everyone knows rabbits enjoy the occasional carrot, do not depend on it as a staple of your bunny’s diet.
As with all livestock, the important thing to remember is animals enjoy a diet rich in variety which also helps ensure good health through the life of the animal.
In addition to a solid feed management plan, rabbits also require salt and mineral blocks.
An unlimited supply of water should always be available. The well-known water bottle is a great way to provide it for rabbits, just make sure enough bottles are provided.
One per rabbit helps make sure the bunnies stay hydrated throughout the day.
Breeding rabbits is notoriously easy, but some key tips should make the process safer and more productive.
Rabbits are territorial, so when the time comes to breed a doe (which should be at least six months old) place the doe inside the buck’s hutch. If you put the buck inside the doe’s hutch, she could become violent toward what she considers an intruder onto her space.
Mating should take about 15 minutes. You can tell a doe is mated when a buck throws itself off the doe. Many bucks thump their hind legs after mating (although some do not, so do not take this as a sign of mating).
At this point remove the doe from the buck’s hutch and return her to her own. A buck can be bred to several does in a single day, provided there is an ample rest period between matings.
Once the doe is pregnant, kindling (birth) takes place about 30 days after the breeding. Make sure, if you haven’t already, a nesting box is in the hutch for the doe to give birth in and care for her litter.
Make sure to keep an eye on the baby rabbits (kits) after birth. Many young does will attack and even kill their offspring.
When the kits are weaned, they can be removed from their mothers and put into a “growing” hutch, when they are raised until big enough for slaughter.
A doe can be bred again almost immediately after birth, but for the health of the rabbit and her kits, it is best to wait two weeks after weaning to breed her again.
With a little work and some preparation, you will be enjoying rabbit meat in no time.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the latest issue of From Scratch magazine. Want to read more of From Scratch? Click here. If you haven’t subscribed, you can fill out the form below. Don’t forget to verify your email, if you do not, you will not receive great content like this when our next issue comes out on December 1.