Seeing the meat shortages and supply chain issues we had last year (just-in-time delivery), I glanced over my pantry and food storage and realized I had only really accounted for my small family’s needs for about 3 months. And adding more rice and beans just didn’t make sense. I wanted to be resilient against future supply chain interruptions by producing some percentage of my meat needs. I set out looking for the most self-sustaining backyard meat source that could be kept in the suburbs. I have never raised meat animals, but didn’t want to wait until it was actually an emergency to scramble and learn. That’s as optimistic as buying a “survival seed pack” and keeping it in a drawer for a bad day. You’re not going to just throw a handful of those seeds over your shoulder and start eating a week later. Same for the meat thing.
I wanted livestock that had maximum feed conversion (max meat output to a given feed input), took up little room, and wouldn’t raise concern with my neighbors. I live on just under an acre, so a herd of goats or a cow is obviously a no-go. Since I’m sort of an information aggregator, I decided to throw together this 20,000 foot view of raising rabbits for meat, based on all I’ve learned in the last year.
Here’s a crash course. The end of the post will list books and resources if you want to know more. Almost all of what I know is accumulated knowledge from third parties, and my first breeding is scheduled for the end of the month. I’ve only had the breeding pair for 5 months. So, much of this is hypothetical at the time of posting. But I’m confident in the information listed.
When looking at ‘suburban meat farming’, only two livestock kept coming up in my research. Quail and Rabbits. Quail are cool because you can eat their eggs and meat, they are quieter than chickens, they are easy to process, and you can sustain your lines through line breeding. But, they lose VS rabbits when looking at a pure efficiency standpoint (feed conversion, production volume/time), and HOA rules (rabbits are often considered pets, lol). Also, I already have some chickens for the eggs. So I set out to buy my breeding pair (now a set).
The most popular meat breed is New Zealand White. An albino rabbit that is used for meat and fur production. Also popular are Californians and Champagne D’argents. You can eat any rabbit, but some have been specifically bred to maximize growth rates, max meat on the loins and legs, delicate bones, and feed conversion. Avoid anything with Giant in the name, they have heavy-ass bones. Buy the best stock you can afford, and ask the important questions of the breeder (link below). The minimum to have a sustainable breeding program is 1 male and 2 females for the backyard breeder.
You can feed rabbits from the garden, but the easiest way to do it is feed a complete pellet feed. So in a medium/long term disaster, you could grow your own forage and feed them weeds and grass. They wouldn’t thrive, but they’d survive. A 50# bag of complete feed is between $13 and $18 and will last 3 rabbits several months. One bag will also be more than enough to feed a doe (female) and her 6-12 kits (babies) up to market weight. You can water them with crocks (they drink more this way but the bowls get dirty ) or tubing nipple waterers (freeze easily but more sanitary). Commercial producers like the nipples in general, it seems.
With two does (females) and a buck (male), you can aggressively breed them every 10 weeks or so, and expect to get a total of 10-24 kits (babies) between the two. Each bunny has a butchered weight of 3.5 lbs if you butcher at 10 weeks/5lbs each. So you’re looking at something like 300+lbs of meat a year from 3 animals. You can select the best looking/growing kits and start a line breeding program to sustain your lines, until forever. They have a 30 day gestation period, and can be weaned at 4-6 weeks and immediately rebred if desired.
Wire cages made of galvanized wire, a 14-16gage 1/2×1” floor mesh allows poo to fall through and keeps diseases down. Avoid wooden hutches as they soak up urine and the rabbits will eat them over time. You can collect the poo in a pile under the cages, or use a more management intensive method like trays. The advantage of trays is you can stack cages and increase space vertically. Cages are easy to build. If you’re making less than 5, it’s cheaper to buy a cage kit and assemble. I am using 36”x30”x18”tall cages. There’s lower limits on cages and it has to do with rabbit breed size. Save the poop. It’s a cold manure (can be directly added to garden beds with no aging) and your garden will love it.
They are cold hearty, and heat intolerant. Keep them dry and out of direct wind and you’re good. If it’s super hot, you could consider a more heat tolerant breed (tamuks) or get fans set up and rotate frozen 2liter bottles of water as a cooling pack during the hottest days. Shade as much as possible. Their teeth constantly grow (they are lagomorphs, not rodents), so they need to be able to chew. A chunk of untreated 2×4 makes for a chew toy that keeps them entertained.
They have a few main health problems, the most common of which is coccidiosis, which is a parasite that is contagious within the herd. It can be treated via horse medicine (ivermectin) in your breeding stock, but you should just cull the grow-outs and eat them if you find it. It will mostly show up in the livers of the grow-outs as white spots. You can eat the meat, but throw away the livers. They also are sensitive to food changes. Introduce new feeds slowly and mixed with what they’re used to. Bloat and intestinal stasis can result. Sometimes they can be saved by giving baby gas drops, but often it’s fatal. There’s other diseases, but these are the ones I see people talk about the most in the fb groups.
Rabbit poo has zero smell. It can be directly applied to the garden as an excellent balanced fertilizer. Their urine, however, is another story. Extreme ammonia smells. The best recipe for managing the volatile smelly stuff is frequent pan cleaning OR sequester it with wood chips. I use pine bedding from the feed store in a layer at the bottom of the large tupperware I use to collect their waste. It acts like a litter, and the high Nitrogen pee starts the composting process with the wood chips. I wouldn’t want too many rabbits inside my house. Plan on keeping them outside.
They breed like rabbits. Take the doe to the buck, as the opposite can result in the doe castrating the buck. Wait for three ‘fall offs’, which is when the buck seizes up and dramatically rolls off the back of the doe. Does are open for business 25 days a month and ovulation is triggered by being in proximity with a buck. So if it doesn’t work the first time, just wait a day.
Very easy. Cervical dislocation (Broomstick method, choke chain method, or hopper popper), or air rifle are both easy and foolproof. Bleed them and clean like any other small game. Keep the ears, lungs, liver, heart and dehydrate them for dog treats. Give the entrails to the chickens to pick at. Drop the carcass into ice for a day or two before freezing or cooking. Yes, they’re cute and fluffy. Yes, I’m anxious about the dispatch day. Yes, I will still deal with it because I know they will have an excellent life right up until the end
Anything that you can make with chicken, you can make with rabbit. https://hostilehare.com/rabbit-recipe-index/
You can sell one or two bunnies from each litter at 8 weeks and pay for the feed cost of raising that whole litter. Some people have luck selling the poo (it’s gold for the garden). You can find raw feeders and supply pet food. But mostly this is about on demand meat production. Meat on the hoof doesn’t spoil, so I started keeping some rabbits.
Documentaries and Youtube Channels:
Cage and rabbitry supplies