Keeping meat rabbits has been a viable means of self-reliance for centuries. They are prolific producers and efficient growers.
Meat rabbits are becoming more popular again, with many realizing their benefits. Their meat is super lean, high in protein, and tastes a lot like chicken.
A History of Meat Rabbits
In the second century, the Romans started keeping meat rabbits in large outdoor colonies, and also used their fur and pelts. Since then rabbits progressively became commonplace in people’s backyards. In the early to mid 1900’s it was normal for most people to have chickens and rabbits in their backyards.
Since big agriculture has taken over our food systems, we no longer expect to raise our own meat in our backyard. However, many people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from, and are choosing to be more self-sufficient, including meat as well as vegetable gardens.
Keeping meat rabbits is a fantastic choice for those who want to be more self-reliant, especially for people who see the need for reliable protein sources. Rabbits offer a simple, affordable solution, especially to those that cannot have chickens where they live.
How Much Meat will Rabbits Produce?
Rabbits are very efficient in turning their food into meat. As we discussed in Top 5 Meat Animals Best Suited for Your Backyard, it takes about 3lb of grain to produce 1lb of rabbit meat. This is a similar conversion to chickens and about 3-4 times more efficient than cattle.
Meat rabbits will typically have 7 litters in a year. You can expect of an average of 7 kits per litter surviving to slaughter age. That is 49 kits per year per doe. This is an average estimate, they can have up to 10 litters a year in an intensive breeding program and some will raise 8-10 kits per litter.
Forty nine kits slaughtered at 5 lb, will dress out to about 2.5 lb of meat each. This works out to be 122.5 lb of meat per year per breeding doe. A trio of one buck and two does will give the average family enough rabbit meat for 2 meals per week quite happily.
Keeping Meat Rabbits – Cages or Colonies?
Keeping rabbits in your backyard is easy. In most states consider rabbits as pets not livestock. As such you are free to keep them if you wish.
I suggest that you talk to your local authorities to see if there are any limitations as to where on your property you can have them. Also, please note that any buildings you build will need to meet your local building codes.
There are two main ways of keeping rabbits – in cages or in a colony.
Rabbits live in an individual wire cage. These are often hung in a carport or shed to protect them from the weather.
Rabbits need to be kept cool in summer and away from wind and rain in the winter. Most people will remove the grow-outs (the weaned babies) from the mother’s cage at between 4 and 8 weeks to allow her to rest before her next litter.
The standard single rabbit cage is usually 36″ wide, 30″ deep and 18″ high for the does and 30″ wide, 30″ deep and 18″ high for the bucks.
Does that are ready to kindle (have kits/babies) need to have a nesting box put into their cage. The cages will also need a resting mat to help them get off of the wire and prevent sore hocks (feet).
Benefits of Cages:
- The rabbits are easier to catch.
- The cages are easy to keep clean as the poop falls out the bottom.
- The rabbits have no opportunity to fight.
- You can stack many cages into a small space.
The Downside to Cages:
- The initial setup cost is high.
- Feeding and watering takes a long time each day.
- The rabbits don’t get to be social.
- Moody caged rabbits are more likely to feel threatened and bite.
A rabbit colony is a group of rabbits raised together. How this looks varies widely.
A colony can be as simple as two rabbits in a hutch together, to a shed with several does and a buck right up to a full on warren with a fenced paddock complete with burrows.
Colonies need to allow 10 square feet per buck and 20 square feet per doe and her babies.
Most colonies have permanent nesting boxes or areas for burrows, as well as other obstacles and activities for the rabbits.
The Benefits of a Colony
- They are easier to feed – one or two feeding stations is enough.
- Deep litter makes great compost.
- The rabbits get to express their natural group social structure.
- They develop a natural immunity and hardiness.
- Rabbits tend to be less aggressive to each other and to humans.
The Downside to a Colony:
- Less control over who breeds who, and when.
- The young can be more difficult to catch – but a closeable pen around the food station helps this.
- Some rabbits never adjust to the colony lifestyle.
For more information about colony raising meat rabbits Piwakawaka Valley has a large resource of information.
Meat Rabbit Breeds
Once you have made the decision to start keeping meat rabbits, and you have chosen a style of raising them that will suit you and your lifestyle, next you need to find some rabbits.
There are many rabbit breeds suitable for raising for meat. The top performers, and the most popular, are the New Zealand White, Californian, and the Standard Rex.
New Zealand White
History: This breed was developed in America as a meat breed. They are the pure white, red eyed rabbits used in laboratories around the world. They also come in red and black.
Adult Weight: 9-12lb
Temperament: Can be friendly with handling when they are young. Make fantastic mothers once they gain experience.
Litter Size: 8-12 kits – they are unlikely to be able to successfully feed more than 10 kits.
Slaughter Age: A good line of NZ whites will reach 5lb at 8-12 weeks.
History: The Californian was developed by a man named George West in California. Himalayans, Standard Chinchillas, and New Zealand’s were all used in forming this breed.
Adult Weight: 8-10lb
Temperament: Californian rabbits have a very even and friendly temperament. They are usually calm, and enjoy human company and make great mothers once they have gained experience.
Litter Size: 6-8 kits
Slaughter Age: A good line of Calis will reach 5lb at 10-14 weeks.
History: The Rex rabbit originated in France in the 1920s. Their name refers to a gene responsible for its unique type of fur. It is prized for fashion wear. They are a good dual purpose breed, often grown to roaster size. This means they are slaughtered at 6 months for their pelts and meat. Pelts from fryers (under 6 months) are too delicate for clothing use.
Adult weight: 7-11 lb
Temperament: Rex are known for their calm, solid temperament. Rex will often happily foster other baby rabbits.
Litter Size: 6-8 kits
Slaughter Age: Many breeders grow Rex on to 6 months of age for their pelts. The subsequent meat is good for roasting and slow cooking. As fryers they should reach 5lb by 14-16 weeks.
Flemish Giants are often added as a cross in a breeding program. However the kits tend to grow bone weight before meat weight, so at 8-12 weeks they have much the same amount of meat as the other meat breeds.
Meat mutts are a mixture of breeds that a rabbit raiser has mixed to suit their own requirements. Although they do not have a pedigree, they are often more productive and faster growing than an individual breed.
Day to Day Care when Keeping Meat Rabbits
Rabbits have simple needs. They need a high fiber, moderate protein (18%) feed. Some rabbit raisers prefer to use a formulated pellet. Pellets take the thinking and guess work out of feeding time and give predictable growth results.
Make sure your pellet is 16-18% protein and from a reliable source. Then you can supplement the rabbits with hay and fresh greens/forage.
A cheaper, more self sufficient way of feeding rabbits is using a combination of grains, hay, alfalfa and forage. Rabbits fed this way may not hit their slaughter weights quite as quickly, but the feed also won’t cost you as much.
Ensure the forage you feed has not been sprayed, and is safe for your rabbit to eat. Grass and clover are common favorites for the rabbits. There is a book called Beyond the Pellet which has information about raising your meat rabbits without the need for pellets. I really recommend it.
You can raise rabbits on pasture in tractors, with free access to hay. Rabbits need the long fibres of the hay to prevent bloat which is a horrible, untreatable condition that will kill rabbits.
Rabbits need constant access to fresh drinking water and benefit from a salt lick if they are not having pellets.
You will need to protect the rabbits from overheating. In cages this often means fans, iced bottled to lie beside and even air conditioning. For colony rabbits, allowing them to burrow is the best way to protect them from the elements.
Rabbits also need protection from cold winds and rain/snow. They are fairly hardy animals are are more likely to die from heat exhaustion than the cold.
Harvesting your Meat Rabbits
Harvesting the rabbits is quick and easy. The best thing about rabbits over chickens is that you don’t have to pluck them. You can simply skin them like you are peeling off a fluffy jersey. Elliot Homestead have a detailed guide to harvesting your rabbits.