by Debi Boylan
The domestic rabbit has the potential to become one of the world’s major sources of meat protein. As human populations continue to put pressure on the resources of the food providers, the farmers, the rabbit is likely to begin to interest, not only the farmer, but the family interested in providing food for it’s table.
The rabbit is truly an amazing converter of food into meat. They convert forage more efficiently than do ruminants, such as cattle and sheep. In fact, rabbits can produce five times the amount of meat from a given amount of alfalfa as do beef cattle.
Their major drawback to the large producer is the fact, as one local breeder told me, that they are very labor intensive. Once you have reached the point of needing to hire help to keep up, the profit margin may be lost. This, of course, does not apply to the family interested in raising a few rabbits in the backyard for meat for the family. Nor need it worry the commercial operator who keeps his enterprise to the number of animals he can care for in whatever time he has allotted.
It should be noted that France is the world’s largest producer of rabbits and the average doe herd is six animals. It is an industry based on a large number of small producers. In the U.S. there is more often to be found large-scale producers with up to several thousand does in production. These are often family businesses.
Rabbit meat is white, fine grained and not strong flavored. It is low in fat and low in calories. It can be prepared in any way chicken can and in many ways chicken does not lend itself to.
The meat is the major product of the rabbit but the pelts are of financial interest also as they are used in various ways for apparel and there is a market for all sizes and colors of domestic rabbit skins. The combination of meat and skins will give the maximum return on investment and labor.
There is also a market for laboratory animals and the wool rabbits, the Angoras. If these interest you, contact your extension agent for information.
Whatever the reason you are interested in raising rabbits the success of your enterprise will depend on careful research into their care and making sure you are ready before you bring them home.
Most rabbits spend their entire lives in close confinement. The nature and cleanliness of that confinement can determine the success or failure of the enterprise. There is one major type of confinement used for rabbits at this time. That is the hutch or cage system. The small backyard breeder often uses a combination of wire bottom and front. Crocks are the food and water holders. This system will work fine as long as you remember that rabbits do chew on wood and that the cages will have to replaced and repaired more often than all metal cages. The crocks should be cleaned frequently as the animals will foul them with droppings.
The other form of cage is all wire and should last a lifetime with proper care. Whatever form you choose it should allow sufficient room for the rabbits’ size while allowing you easy access. The length of individual quarters should be adjusted according to the nature of the breed. Most publications recommend two to three feet for smaller breeds, four feet for the medium sized breed and six feet for the giant breeds. These are inside measurements. The depth of the cage should be no more than two and a half feet so that there is ample access for the breeder to reach the rabbit. A small area of straw or a board may be placed on the wire bottom of the cage to protect the feet of those animals which do not have sufficient padding or hair to protect their own.
The rabbitry, depending on it’s size, may consist of single, double, or triple tiers but it should be kept in mind that with the addition of each tier sanitation becomes more difficult and ventilation poorer, not to mention the irritation felt by the basement dwellers in the highrise.
A roof that covers all of the cages is recommended, especially if your area receives much rain or snow. If room is not a problem the all wire cages can be hung from this roof allowing easy access to the manure and excellent ventilation, which is very important in hot weather. Even if you Jive in a mild climate the animals will need some form of protection from the occasional bouts with wind, rain, and hot sun.
Some breeders use canvas or plastic tarps which can be stowed away when they are not needed. Check and see how the breeders in your area are doing it. Many breeders house their animals inside buildings which are erected so that the cages face out with an aisle running between for the operator. In a building of this type the animals’ ration will have to contain a vitamin D supplement due to the lack of sunshine.
Ease of feeding and cleaning should be striven for but not at the expense of the rabbits’ health. The beginner should contact his state extension agent, plunder his library and visit local breeders before building a rabbitry. It will save time, money, and disappointment later.
Nest boxes will have to be provided and can range from such things as fruit boxes to ready made galvanized boxes which fit onto the outside of the cage. There is also a newer system called a drop box which sits below the floor of the cage and so satisfies the doe’s instinctive urge to go underground when kindling, giving birth.
Whatever type you decide fits your system you should ensure that the box is clean and well bedded when put into the cage. In cold climates the survival of the litter will depend on the bedding. Too little or the wrong kind can spell disaster. A local breeder told me the story of a man who used wood chips because they were free and cheap and he did not have one litter live until he woke up and changed his bedding.
Straw seems to be the most common and liked in my area but other things mentioned were sawdust, wood shavings (not chips), cotton hulls and even cotton. The main requirement being that it is absorbent and will mix readily with the fur the doe will pull from her body as the time approaches to have the babies. Remember that rabbits in their natural state burrow. She will have no objection to having to burrow into the bedding to kindle.
Feed and water containers for wire cages are usually suspended from the outside of the cage with the opening for the rabbit protruding into the cage. Feed hoppers which allow the breeder to feed pellets, usually a day’s supply, are the most common. Water bottles with a no-drip valve are cleaner than crocks and the water stays fresh and uncontaminated. Fresh, clean and abundant water is very important to raising healthy rabbits. They drink an astonishing amount of it for their small size and in hot weather will require perhaps twice their normal consumption. Crocks work fine for many people and as long as they are kept clean they are quite adequate. They are certainly less expensive though the feed hoppers and water bottles are not terribly spendy. Automatic waterers are becoming a familiar sight in many rabbitries. If they interest you plans can be had from your extension agent.
Hay racks which are built on the inside wall of a cage are used by many breeders. They can be used for not only hay but the offering of green food. If you decide not to feed a pelleted feed you will have to provide a salt spool. These should not come in contact with the sides of the cage as the salt will eat up the wire. Hang it from the hay rack.
The cost of feeding is the largest expense in keeping rabbits after housing. Feed may be bought commercially in pellets which have everything added or the breeder can mix and match his own feed. The pellets are by far the easiest but you may wish to investigate the nutritional requirements of rabbits and devise your own feed mixture. Rabbits should have at least 16% protein.
It might be better to start with a commercial ration and experiment carefully in changing it. Hay is well liked and utilized by rabbits. A good Timothy type or alfalfa is best. Green foods should be fed carefully as digestive upsets may occur, especially in young rabbits. Root crops such as sweet potatoes, turnips, mangels, beets, and Jerusalem artichokes are also liked by rabbits. Cabbage and it’s family is not so well liked and can cause digestive trouble so is best avoided. Of course, all of the leafy garden vegetables and palatable weeds and grains are liked also. But when -picking weeds be careful to not include milkweed as it is poison to rabbits as is the urea found in some feeds. Look out for it on the label and do not buy feed to which this supplement has been added. Rabbits re-ingest part of their food, that is, eat the feces that have passed through only once. These are called night feces though the rabbit passes them at all times. It is not a sign of disease or nutritional deficiency but is the rabbits way of obtaining the vitamin B complex vitamins. Wire cages will not interfere with this process as the rabbit will consume the feces from its anus.
Diseases of rabbits are varied and beyond the scope of this article. It should be mentioned though that many of them are the direct or indirect result of overcrowding and a lack of attention to cleanliness. Cages should be kept clean and have the hair burned off with a propane torch at regular intervals. Cages which have had one rabbit in them and are now destined for another should be both burnt with the torch and scrubbed. All new stock should be quarantined before being put into the main rabbi try. When buying your foundation stock look for healthy animals with no sign of discharge from eyes or nose, no sores on the hocks and a good shiny coat. These precautions will save you both money and grief. Often it is less expensive to destroy an animal than to treat it and years of good breeding can be lost.
You may have already decided on a breed of rabbit. Perhaps your neighbor down the road has offered you a good deal or the breeder that gave you advice has offered to sell you some foundation stock. The beginner is advised to start, no matter the breed, on a small scale. One buck and two to ten does is plenty. More can be added as the breeder becomes familiar with the new enterprise and decides that they will continue in it.
For commercial or meat production, the New Zealand White is the prominent breed. They are an all white animal which has a rapid growth rate, breed well, mother well, and dress out with a good carcass quality. The other major meat breed is the Californian. For the back yard breeder who is raising the rabbits for personal consumption the choice of a breed is not so important; personal preference for color and type can lend a greater influence. If children are involved they will probably get more enjoyment out of a variety of colors. If you are interested in commercial breeding then perhaps you could get the kids a few of their own and let them choose the kind they like best.
The New Zealand White is also used the most extensively in the laboratory and so should that be your interest you should probably stick to that breed. However, the Dutch is also used so check out your market before you buy your foundation stock.
Information on the breeds of rabbits can be obtained from the American Rabbit Breeders Association. The New Zealand as has been mentioned is the most commonly raised in this country but there are more, including Californian, Flemish Giant, Himalayan, Chinchilla, French and English Lop, Checkered Giant, Champagne D’ Argent and the assorted Dwarf rabbits. There are many more besides, all suited to a different purpose and many kept only for pet and show purposes. The rabbit lends itself very well to youth projects, 4-H, FFA, etc.
Rabbits should not be bred until they reach adult size and weight, which depends of course on the breed you have chosen. The doe that is bred too young will not attain her full potential. The small breeds can be bred at five months, nine or ten months for the larger breeds. Her housing should be fairly close to the bucks’. When in heat she will thump her feet, grunt, and rub her chin on whatever meets her fancy, be it her water dish, her feeder or you. She is ready to breed. Grasp her firmly (not by the ears!) and place her in the bucks’ pen. Usually he will mate her at once. It is normal for him to scream and fall over at the end of a successful mating, or at least we must assume so as the doe never looks surprised. No more than three does should be bred to a buck in a week’s time as this may impair his fertility. Bucks, by the way, once mature, should be housed separately from other bucks or fighting will break out. Does can be housed two or three to a cage but often this is not a good idea especially when she is kindling. After mating the doe is always returned to her cage in a commercial operation but the backyard breeder often leaves her with him, removing her from his cage by the 25th day of the average 31 day pregnancy. Her nest box should be provided to her at least five days before she is due to kindle. Failure to do so or moving her too close to the kindling may result in her rejecting or even killing the newborn babies, which are called kits.
Most litters are kindled at night and no attempt to inspect the litter should be made until the doe has settled down. There is no one cause of cannibalism among rabbits but messing about with a freshly kindled litter is surely one of them. So don’t. A day or so after the litter has been born, the breeder (not her noisy four year old) can carefully lift the lid and inspect the litter. Check for dead kits or excessively large litters. More than seven or eight may be to many for her to nurse so culling may be called for or if there is another doe with a litter the kits can be fostered to her. Rub the adopter’s and the adoptee’s nose with a little Vicks to confuse the issue though this precaution may not be needed. Rabbits are not usually upset by the addition of unknown young into their nests.
Weaning takes place between four to eight weeks. My local breeder friend weans at four weeks, others later. See what works best for you. Slaughter age is usually between eight to ten weeks.
Records of varying complexity can be kept on the rabbits. They are very important to the commercial breeder, helping him in his breeding and feeding plan but are probably of much less importance to the person who is raising a few rabbits for the home table. There are records cards available through different sources and your ever-ready extension agent can help you in this regard also.
There are a number of ways to kill rabbits. A sharp blow to the head, immediately in front of the ears is the most common. It will stun the animal which is then hung by one hind leg and its head removed with a sharp butcher knife. A sharp blow to the head where the skull joins the neck is also used, as is dislocation of the neck, which requires more practice. All of these require bleeding out.
The novice should be warned that rabbits often will give out a terrible scream if the person doing the butchering is not yet efficient at the process. Have a breeder show you the first few times and you will feel more capable and less cruel when it is time to do it on your own. It would help if the silly things weren’t so cute.
Gloves are a good idea as rabbits have sharp claws and can tear you up if they begin to struggle. Rabbits which have been handled are less apt to do this.
Suspend the carcass on a hook or nail inserted between the tendon and the bone of one hind leg just above the hock. Make a cut through the hide only, around the heels and around and down the inner part of the hind legs to the root of the tail. Cut off the front feet, tail and head. Now pull the skin down over the carcass until it is a separate tubular piece. If intended for tanning it should receive proper treatment at this time.
After the skin is removed open the animal’s abdomen with a shallow vertical cut along the median line of the belly. Remove the intestines and unbroken gall bladder, saving the kidneys and liver. Rinse the carcass in cold water to remove hair and blood but do not soak, as the meat can absorb water. If you are selling to a commercial buyer they may have requirements that differ from these. Many buyers purchase live rabbits and do their own slaughtering while others will have guidelines to the way the animal is cut up. In some instances the animal’s liver is left in the carcass.
One other by-product of rabbits is the manure which is rich in nitrogen. The local breeder I have mentioned uses all of hers on her garden but is sure she would have a market for it if she chose to advertise it. Anyone who has seen her beautiful garden would agree. Often landscaping companies can be found who will purchase manure as well as other home gardeners. The manure is good for lawns and shrubbery and will not burn even when fresh.
There is a saying which goes, “all parts of the rabbit are useful except the squeal.” I think it’s very true.
Following is a recipe for canned rabbit which can be used to make Rabbit and Dumplings, Creamed Rabbit etc. Any recipe for chicken will work for rabbit.
Cut rabbit into equal sized pieces and sprinkle with salt. Use a small amount of oil, not too much, in a heavy skillet. Fry each piece until golden brown. Put the finished pieces in a large pan and put in oven heated to 300 degrees to keep hot. When all pieces are ready, pack into hot jars leaving about an inch of headspace. Add a half teaspoon of chicken bouillon per quart. Pour two quarts of water into the drippings in the skillet and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve. Pour over the rabbit in the jars. Finish filling jars with boiling water ti! there is an inch headspace in each one. Wipe rims clean, then put on lids. Process quarts for one and one quarter hours at 10 pounds of pressure.
The following publications were used in preparation of this articles and are all recommended reading:
Rabbit Production by Cheeke, Patton and Templeton, available through Interstate Printers, Danville, Illinois and the Oregon State University Rabbit Research Center.
Country Women, published by Anchor/Doubleday Press.
Making the Most from Rabbits, published by Crown Mills.
Rabbit Production, Farmers Bulletin No. 1730, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.