Rabbits: The Ultimate Homestead Animal
This article has been contributed by Anne Marie Duhon. Anne Marie is a wife, mother of six and a full time off-gridder. She and her husband currently live in a totally off grid 200 sq foot “tiny home” and are in search of (again) that elusive perfect spot to call home. Besides being a wife and mother she, and her family, have raised many different animals on their various homesteads and have lived and loved being off the grid and many miles from the nearest paved road. She would like to share her first hand experiences and help others to learn to live and love living off grid and being as self reliant as possible.
Most preppers include livestock in their preps, but not all preppers have acres of land to keep that livestock or the experience needed to keep some of the bigger farm animals.
I consider rabbits the perfect prepper animal. In a nutshell they are relatively small, quiet and easy to keep. Rabbits are dual purpose animals. From your rabbits you can get nutritious meat, wonderful pelts for clothes and manure that will have your gardens blooming. Fabulous coming from a ten pound animal! Also because of their small size and quiet nature they can be kept out of sight and raised pretty much anywhere!
I know of preppers that live in the city and raise a few rabbits in their basements or spare bedrooms. This is great for operational security! Another added bonus is that children can be taught to do all the care and maintenance of the rabbits and by taking one chore off your list teach the children a skill and give them something to do! So if you are looking to add animals to your preps consider adding a trio of rabbits.
Read on for more information…
Picking the right rabbits for your homestead
There are over 40 different breeds of rabbits not including all the mixed breed rabbits.
For meat purposes you are looking for rabbits that will be about 10 pounds at maturity and have a blocky build. Some of the desirable breeds are: American Chinchilla, New Zealand, Californian, and mixes of those breeds. Below are pictures:
Besides these rabbits there are rabbits ranging in size from 2 pound adults to rabbits that are almost 20 pounds as adults. The three breeds pictured above are the best meat rabbits but you can eat any type of rabbit if you want to! Check out American Rabbit breeders association for pictures of all the breeds and types of rabbits.
These rabbits have the best meat to bone ratio and the largest litters. American Chinchillas have a beautiful salt and pepper pelt to work with. They are bred for meat purposes and have large litters and great mothering skills. These rabbits are also docile and easy to handle.
Make sure that you buy healthy rabbits with bright eyes, dry noses and clean ears and feet. The rabbit’s fur should be smooth and clean and its teeth in line.
Do not buy a mature female because you cannot always know how old she is. She might for instance have reached the end of her productive life and will be of no use. Long toenails indicate that the rabbit is older. Select your rabbits from parents which have a good breeding record. A female that does not perform well will also have poor offspring.
Buy breeding stock when they are about 6 months old. Replace your breeding stock every 3 years and get rid of poor performers.
Determining how many rabbits to get
The answer kind of depends on how many people you are planning on feeding.
The best thing to do is start out with a trio (one buck –male and two does –females) that are unrelated. This way if for some reason your family does not like rabbit meat you do not have a lot of rabbits to get rid of.
But if your family does like rabbit you can grow your herd by saving babies off the litters instead of having to buy more rabbits.
Watch out rabbits are addictive! We use to have over 200 ourselves! What you as a family need to do is figure out how much rabbit meat you want to eat. Average meat does (females) have litters of 6 to 8 kits and wean most. Those kits would be ready for slaughter by 12 weeks after birth so you are looking at roughly 4 months from breeding to eating!
If you say you want rabbit once a week and are feeding a hungry, growing family of four you would need 104 rabbits in the freezer for a year (two rabbits per meal). So that would mean you would need 18 litters of 6 kits a year. Five healthy, productive does could handle this. Each doe would have 4 litters a year. Six adult rabbits and their offspring is an easy, small start and do not take up much room or feed!
Rabbits can be kept quite simply. Most rabbit raisers keep their rabbits in an all wire cage measuring 30” x 36” x 18”. Rabbits do very well being kept this way. These cages will have to be provided some form of protection from the elements by either hanging them in a barn or some other sort of structure or making a roof and walls for it.
Typically, bedding is not used in wire bottom cages, but on some occasions, particularly on occasions of sudden extreme cold, either straw or hay may be used. Cages with solid bottoms will use wood shavings, wood chips, straw, etc. as contact bedding to help absorb urine within the enclosure. The size and type of wood shaving/chip needs to be taken into consideration in order to maintain healthy animals. Cedar chips should be avoided as it is known to cause upper respiratory issues in rabbits. Bedding can be made out of shredded up newspaper or raked up yard trimmings to keep down cost. Dry pine needles smell great and are good for bedding also.
Colony cage raising
Now for the rabbit raiser that wants to get back to the basics, rabbits can be raised on the ground in a colony where they can forage for some of their food. In a colony cage you will need to make for sure that the rabbits cannot dig out by putting some wire covering the bottom of the cage but allowing the grass to come through.
The colony raiser needs to be sure that the rabbits have protection from elements and protection from predators.
Colony raising of rabbits does have its problems. These are for instance: high mortality of young rabbits caused by the free entrance of does to other does nest boxes, possibility of higher levels of aggression between rabbits, more work keeping colony clean, and lack of knowing when and who was bred. But for the dedicated rabbit raiser it is possible!
We did raise a few rabbits this way ourselves but I highly prefer the individual cage method. The up side to colony raising is that they take care of the breeding chore for you, less equipment to clean and the rabbits are very amusing to watch as they interact with each other and the new kits that are born. For more in-depth information on colony raising here are some links:
Environmental conditions (temperature, ventilation, and light) are important to maintaining healthy rabbits. The ideal environmental temperature range for a rabbit is 55˚ to 70˚F. Rabbits can adapt to temperatures outside of this range with appropriate environmental conditioning.
Many rabbitries are not climate controlled so animals may be subjected to environmental extremes. For these rabbitries, animals must be acclimated to the changes in temperatures. Rabbits do not do well when temperatures exceed 85˚F. Fans, misters, and frozen water bottles in cages are examples of methods to help animals cope with high temperatures. Ventilation during high temperatures is essential to help air quality; ventilation must be provided either by natural airflow and/or artificial airflow with the use of fans, shade trees or air conditioners.
Rabbits are quite hearty in cases of extreme cold, provided they have been acclimated to such temperatures. During cold weather months, animals may require more feed as more energy is used in cold temperatures. Rabbits need to be sheltered from the elements of direct sunlight, rain, snow, wind, etc. Natural outdoor lighting and light cycles are ideal environmental conditions. In cases where natural sunlight is not available, artificial lights need to be provided in a cyclical fashion to mimic natural light/dark cycles.
Nutrition and Water
Proper nutrition is very important to raising healthy rabbits.
It is the easy, fast way to feed rabbits if the primary source of nutrition comes from a commercially produced pelleted food with consideration as to the breed, age, ideal weight, purpose of animal being raised.
Supplements such as hay, oats, sunflower seeds etc. may be given in addition to the pelleted feed. Treats, such as fruits and vegetables, may be given in small amounts as well.
Rabbits will eat almost anything that grows in the soil as long as they are given time to become accustomed to a diet of fresh greens and hay. A rabbit’s diet can include lucerne, grass, green maize leaves, carrots, turnips, cabbage (not too much) and lettuce. Do not feed cabbage to the female while she is in milk as it can lower milk production.
They also enjoy food such as cornmeal, porridge, bread, weeds and leaves of fruit trees. Potato and tomato leaves and rhubarb are POISONOUS to rabbits.
Do not introduce sudden changes in the rabbit’s diet. Do not feed rabbits greens that have become heated, food that has been sprayed with pesticides, spoiled food or moldy hay.
Clean water should always be available. Never leave them without water. Feed the rabbits early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most of the food should preferably be given late in the afternoon.
You can grow your own green material for rabbit food. Growing greens for rabbits is called fodder. Many people do grow fodder and feed only that and hay to their rabbits. It may take a little longer to grow out the rabbits to butcher size and a bit more work on your part but for many preppers there is more “sweat equity” around their place than cash!
Breeding and Caring for Young
Rabbits reach sexual maturity between four to six months of age; however it is not necessarily recommended that they enter into a breeding program at this point. Rather it is recommended that animals enter into a breeding program based upon the relative size of a given breed. For the types we are considering that would be between 8 and 10 months of age.
Breeding needs to occur either in a neutral environment or by taking the doe to the buck’s cage. The gestation of a rabbit is typically 28-32 days. Nest boxes need to be offered to a doe minimally at day 28. The next box needs to be large enough to allow the doe to enter and turn around.
Once a doe has kindled she may be rebred as early as when the kits are two weeks old. If this intense system is used, kits are to be weaned at four weeks of age. Careful monitoring of the doe’s condition needs to be monitored for the health and wellbeing of the animal.
It is recommended that litters be weaned between 6 and 8 weeks of age for optimum growth. Animals need to be weaned before 10 weeks of age to prevent fighting. While it is recommended that litters be weaned into individual cages for optimum growth, litters may be group housed until they are either butchered or selected as replacement breeding stock. Because of this intense breeding system the raiser needs to consider exactly how much meat he has space to store.
Most does have litters ranging from 6-8 kits. So rotating the does spaces out the breedings and reduces the number of rabbits that have to be butchered at one time. The maximum number of litters that a doe may produce in a year is eight litters. This heavy breeding program is recommended primarily for commercial operations. The maximum amount of litters that the average breeding doe will produce in a year is five litters. Should a doe miss a breeding cycle or lose a litter she can be rebred immediately.
If the raiser is raising the rabbits in a colony the breeding will be done whenever the buck can catch a doe. The only way to control breeding in a colony is by removing the buck from the colony cage.
The good part about raising rabbits is that when you kill them you have very little waste.
One rabbit usually dresses out at about 2 pounds of meat. Perfect for one meal for an average family without having any left overs to have to worry about. Rabbits for that reason have been called biological refrigerators!
Rabbits are ready to be butchered when they reach about 5 to 6 pounds live weight at about 10 to 12 weeks unless you are looking for prime pelts then you would need to wait until the rabbit is about 5 to 6 months old. Butchering is a relatively easy process but a subject that deserves its own article.
See some of the additional resources below for more information on butchering…
- Link to Backyard meat rabbits on Facebook
- Link to raising rabbits on fodder
- Raising Rabbits on Pasture
- Joel Salatin vid on butchering rabbits