If you are interested in becoming more self-sufficient, you should consider raising rabbits. You can start with only a few animals, and within a year, you will have a fine supply of organic meat for your larder.
However, you can’t just stick a couple of bunnies in any old cage, throw in table scrape, and expect to end up with food for the family. Like any other farm animals, rabbits require precise care and attention.
Raising rabbits is a little different than raising meat chickens or wiener pigs. With chickens or pigs, most growers buy babies in the spring, feed them, and then butcher them in the fall. Your venture into rabbits will be more all-encompassing because it will involve the breeding process. Another way to think about this is that the mother rabbit will be doing most of your work for you.
How to start raising rabbits
You will want to start your foray into rabbit production by purchasing at least two females (does) and one male (buck). These will be your breeding stock. If all goes well, each doe will give you 32 babies per year.
Since you are raising your rabbits for meat, you will want to buy one of the fast-growing, medium-sized breeds — New Zealand White, Californian, or Champagne d ‘Argent. You might be tempted to choose one of the giant varieties like Checkered Giant or Flemish Giant. They seem appealing because of their size, but they are actually less efficient than the medium breeds in converting feed into flesh.
Much of their seemingly larger size is big bones. If your feed store has no breeding stock available, check with your county agricultural agent for the names of reputable breeders in your area. Pick out your rabbits and check that they are well-developed and healthy. Ask to see the breeder’s records.
Before you bring your rabbits home, you should have their cages ready. You’ll want a hutch for each rabbit. You can buy these or build your own. They should have wire bottoms (but not chicken wire), so the droppings can fall through. Most people use all-wire cages, but you can also use some wood.
In fact, if you do end up buying a giant breed, you might want some of the floor space made out of wood to protect their quite tender feet. You can put some kind of matting to cover the wood. Cages should measure about 3X3 feet and stand 1 and 1 1/2 feet high. Make the doors large enough so you can take nest boxes in and out. For giant breeds make your cages a little larger. A mature giant rabbit can weigh about 14 pounds.
As I said previously, when raising rabbits, you also need to consider the breeding part. You can start breeding does at five to seven months old. You’ll breed your doe by taking her to the buck’s cage and leaving her there for a minute until he breeds her. Watch to be sure. Keep a record of the breeding date. Don’t bring him to her cage. She may attack him and kill him.
About 25 days after breeding, put a nesting box in the cage with your doe. The box should have a bottom, top, and sides. Make its entrance several inches above the bottom of the box so that the babies couldn’t possibly fall out.
Fill the box with good nesting materials, about five inches in cool weather and two inches in warm weather. The doe will mix her own fur in with the nest. You want the doe to have her babies in the nest, so they will stay warm and not fall through the wire. Hopefully, she will oblige you. She will have them somewhere between day 28 through 32.
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When born they are hairless, blind and deaf. About 24 hours after birth, count her babies. Mate out any deformed or dead babies, and reduce the litter to seven to nine babies. Your rabbit can feed about nine babies, but not more. At about four weeks old, the babies will start coming out of the nest. At this point, you can remove the nesting box, but still, keep the babies with the doe until weaning age at eight weeks.
At this age, you can butcher them. They should weigh about four pounds, and dress out at two pounds. You can keep harvesting the babies for meat up to six months old, but after ten weeks old, you’ll need to house each rabbit in a separate cage. You will want to butcher all of the males, as well as any females that don’t have perfect features. Save your best females to increase your breeding stock.
Feeding and Caring for Rabbits
Rabbits eat greens, grain and hay. You can use commercial feed, home-raised feed, or a combination of both. The feed should be about 15% protein. The simplest method is to buy a commercially prepared rabbit feed, which is a pellet with a combination of grain and hay in it. Or you can feed grain to your rabbits, supplemented with roughage cuttings.
Rabbits like all the green feeds from the garden, but if you feed too much of your garden products or table wastes (which actually contain a lot of water), the rabbits may not consume enough of their other feed to make adequate weight gain. Too much wet feed also can give the rabbits diarrhea.
If you use a pelleted feed, you can keep it in front of the rabbits at all times. However, you must be watchful that your breeders do not get overweight. If they get too fat and sluggish, they may not breed. Also, the doe can actually produce too much milk which can cause breast problems. The stores carry some different rabbit feeds. Read the labels carefully. Some feeds contain chemicals that you won’t want to feed your rabbits.
Don’t be shocked if you see your rabbits eating some of their soft, partially digested fecal pellets. It’s simply something that rabbits like to do. The word for this is coprophagy and it’s pretty common when raising rabbits.
Keep water in each cage at all times. If you use those upside down waterers that rabbits suck, you won’t have to worry about them spilling their water. When raising rabbits you need to keep in mind that they can take a lot of cold, but not drafts. Don’t place the cages where the wind can blow through them. A man I know lost all of his rabbits from locating his cages improperly, and it happened in one night.
Overheating and excitement
Overheating can also be a serious problem when raising rabbits. Too much heat will kill rabbits equally fast. If you see they are overheating, try putting ice cubes to their ears. Or better yet, locate your hutches where your rabbits can’t over-heat, even in super-hot weather.
Try not to excite your rabbits. Strange noises scare them. Some growers keep a radio playing so that the rabbits become used to a noisy environment. If by chance your rabbit gets so excited that she doesn’t care for her young, give her another chance or two to breed. If she continues letting her young die, cull her.
If you have a garden, you should consider raising earthworms right under your rabbit cages on straight rabbit manure. The earthworm-rabbit connection is a real plus for the serious self-sufficient farmer.
Raising rabbits and breeding is not hard, the butchering part takes some time to learn.
Although now I can say that butchering a rabbit is quite easy, at first I was not convinced I would get used to it. Here is what I recommend.
Nail a board to a fence or wall at your eye level. Hammer in two #16 nails (long nails) about eight inches apart from each other… but don’t hammer them in very far. You’ll be hanging the rabbit from these nails after you stun it. It works best if your nails slant upward. That way the rabbit can’t fall off of them. You can keep your butchering efficient by having four containers at your side before you begin.
You will need two pans of water — one for washing your hands and knife, and another for washing and cooling your rabbit. A third little dish for the heart and liver would also come in handy. The fourth pan will hold the throwaways, such as the head, intestines and blood.
There are two ways to kill a rabbit. Take your pick. You can break its neck, or you can stun it by hitting it in the head.
To break the neck of a rabbit, hold the rabbit by its back legs with one hand and by the head with your other hand. Put your thumb on the back of the rabbit’s neck, just below the ears. Put your four fingers under its chin. Now stretch the animal out. Then press down with your thumb, and at the same time raise the rabbit’s head rapidly. This motion will dislocate the neck. If you did it properly, your rabbit is now unconscious.
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Sarah, one of my neighbors, had difficulty breaking his rabbit’s neck with this technique “I was taught the method by a fellow who has very strong arms,” explained Sarah. “But when I tried it, the rabbit started screaming. I don’t know if you have ever heard a rabbit scream, but it is a loud, high-pitched scream that just devastates you. Apparently, I didn’t have the arm strength to break its neck fast enough, before it knew what was going on”’
Sarah prefers to kneel with the rabbit between her legs. The rabbit sits up in its normal position, with Sarah straddling it snugly. When the rabbit feels calm (and Sarah feels calm), she strikes it on top of the head with a large rubber mallet. Then he hangs it up and cuts off its head.
Another method to stun a rabbit is to hold it upside down and strike it at the base of the skull. One of my closest friends stuns rabbits with a hammer. He holds them by the feet with his left hand and swings the hammer with his right hand. It takes less than a second. You aren’t really killing the animals with either method. You are just knocking them out.
He can hit them in the head and have their heart out before it stops beating. In fact, he can butcher a rabbit from start to finish in five minutes. Such speed comes from killing 50 or 60 rabbits at a time, and he says that when you do that many, you get fast so you can get finished.
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Immediately after stunning the rabbit, cut off its head. You may find that it is easiest if you hang the rabbit up first and then cut the head off. Or you can cut on a table, and then hang up the headless rabbit. In either case, cut the head off as high up as possible, right behind the ears.
My friend doesn’t cut off the head until he finishes skinning, but he works very fast. If you are slow, you are better off cutting off the head and bleeding the rabbit, so that it won’t have any pink taint around the joints. Now hang up your rabbit. Make a little slit in the back legs, just above the hock. The hock is the bend in the leg above the foot, like an ankle in reverse.
Feel for the spot between the tendon and the bone, and pop your knife in there to make a convenient little hole for hanging. Cut the skin around each hind leg. To do this, you will run your knife in a little circle right below your nails. Cut a slit in the skin between the two hind legs. Run your knife from the inside of one leg to the inside of the other leg. Cut off the tail. Cut off the front paws.
Starting at the hind legs, carefully separate the skin from the carcass. You want to leave all fat on the carcass and not on the skin. Work your fingers between the hide and body as you pull the skin off. Basically, you can peel the skin off like a sweater.
If need be, you can run your knife between the skin and body, to help separate one from the other. In an older rabbit, this may be necessary. Remember to be careful if you plan to save the skin. You don’t want to slit it.
The skin is off, and you are ready to clean your rabbit. You will be cutting the rabbit open, from a point between the two back legs, all the way down the belly. Insert your knife between the hind legs, and cut the pelvic bone. Now slit down the belly. To make sure you don’t cut up the intestines by mistake, keep your finger ahead of the knife as you slice downward. If your knife strays, it will hit your finger, and not the rabbit’s bladder. Cut all the way down to the chest.
Now that the intestines are entirely exposed pull them out by grasping the stomach with one hand. At the same time, hold the liver in place with the thumb of the other hand. You don’t want to pull it out just yet. Throw the intestines and stomach away. Now remove the liver being careful to cut off the gall bladder without breaking it.
The gall bladder is the little green sack that is hooked to the liver. Throw it out. Remove the heart, also, and save the liver and the heart in your little dish. The lungs and kidneys are still inside the carcass. Pull them out, and throw them out with the intestines and other refuse. If you can’t get the kidneys out, just leave them inside. You can now rinse off your carcass with cold water.
If you want to cool it rapidly, you can leave it in cold water for 10 to 15 minutes for cooling. But don’t soak it too long. Water adulterates meat. Chill in your refrigerator. If you’ve butchered several rabbits, wrap each one in a heavy plastic bag, and freeze them.
A last word on raising rabbits
Raising rabbits is a rewarding experience and it’s not a complicated job. Breeding them requires a little bit of experience and observation, but it can also be easily achieved. As for the butchering part, you will learn to do it better and faster as time goes by. Raising rabbits is an experience that every self-sufficient prepper should try.