Raising Meat Rabbits on a Suburban Homestead
From Hutch to Haute Cuisine
This article was written a few years ago, but still remains one of our most popular, so I decided to bring it back to the top of the line-up.
Second to chickens, I have always thought that rabbits made the perfect homestead livestock. They are quiet, easy to raise and don’t take up too much space. Plus, they are a great food source and provide the gardens with mounds of excellent fertilizer.
With just one breeding trio – two does (female) and one buck (male) – I can raise more than enough meat to feed my family for a full year. And the best part – it’s all done on an 8’ section of our barn wall.
But, before we get too far, as I always say when talking about raising any meat animal the biggest question to ask yourself is “Can You Do The Deed?” meaning, can you butcher your own animals or have them butchered by someone else. If you can, then in just a few months you will be well on your way to raising your own supply of healthy, drug free, humanely processed meat for the freezer.
To me the most important first question is how much meat you want to produce. This will determine how many does and bucks to buy. It will also dictate the size of your rabbitry. The average doe produces about 8 kits (babies) per litter, and she can be bred several times a year. With my two doe’s kindling (giving birth) twice a year I can raise enough meat to put rabbit on the dinner table almost every week of the year.
The next decision is what breed to raise. There are four main breeds used for meat production – New Zealand, Californian, Champagne D’Argent and Florida White. I prefer the New Zealand or Californian, or a cross of the two because they produce good sized roasters with lots of meat and fine bone.
Finding rabbit breeders can be a challenge, the best place to start is locally. Aside from researching breeders on the internet, I would recommend contacting your local or county Farm Bureau office and 4-H Office to find out if they have a list of rabbit breeders. You can also contact local 4-H clubs or FFA chapters for referrals. If your county fair has a Pen of Meat Rabbits class as part of their livestock show they should be able to put you in contact with local programs or breeders. If all else fails, contact a rabbit processor or retailer and track back to the breeder (this is what I did). Most important is finding quality, healthy stock.
Once you’ve decided on the size of your rabbitry, the breed you want to raise and where to buy your stock you can set up your cages. I have a row of cages mounted to my barn wall, one for each breeder. Below is an 8’ growing cage where the young rabbits are fed out. Since I am only raising one litter at a time I don’t need more growing space. But, if you plan to have multiple litters at once you will need more room for the growing babies.
Fed and water are important ingredients for a well managed rabbitry. Rabbits are browsers and like many different foods, but the easiest way to get them all the nutrition they need is to feed them a commercially balanced pellet with a good quality timothy/alfalfa as roughage. The amount of feed depends on their size and if the doe’s are bred. Use the chart below as a guide. Remember though, each rabbit is an individual, and these are guidelines only. You should learn each rabbit’s needs, and adjust its feed accordingly. These are daily amounts. The first amount is for medium breeds, and the next is for larger breeds.
Bucks, 3-6 oz. to 4-9 oz.
Does, 6 oz. to 9 oz.
Does, Bred 1-15 days 6 oz. 9 oz
Does, Bred 16-30 days 7-8oz. 10-11 oz.
Doe & litter 10 oz. 12 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young, one week old)
Doe & litter 18 oz. 24 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young, one month old)
Doe & litter 28 oz. 36 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young, 6-8 weeks old)
Young, weaned rabbit 3-6 oz. 6-9 oz.
If refilling water bottles every day doesn’t interest you then an automatic system can be set up using simple piping and special lick-its designed for rabbits. Check out this link for supplies and installation directions.
With everything set up and your breeding stock purchased, settled in and of breeding age your ready to breed your does. The most important thing to remember when breeding rabbits is to ALWAYS take the doe to the buck’s cage to be bred. If you put the buck in the doe’s cage she will attack him trying to defend her territory. You should also stay close by while the breeding is taking place just in case the doe is not ready to stand for the buck. If she’s not ready to breed she will run around the cage. At this point you can remove her and try another day. If she is ready she will let the buck mount her and raise her hindquarter for him. When he breeds he will let out a high pitched squeal and fall off the doe onto his side. The doe can be rebred 8 to 12 hours later just to make sure she took. With the breeding complete you should have babies in about 31 days.
At this point it’s important to keep a record of the breeding date and the estimated kindling date. You’ll also want to keep the following information for rabbitry management.
• Name of Doe
• Breeding Date
• Buck Used
• Kindle Date
• # Kits Born
• # Weaned
• Weaning Weight
About a week before the doe is due you’ll want to put a nesting box in her cage. It can be a metal or wire nesting box, lined with cardboard, wood or even an old shallow drawer or wine box, filled with hay, straw, wood shavings or shredded newspaper.
As kindling time nears, the doe may become more nervous than usual. It’s important that animals and strangers and anything causing loud noises be kept away from the rabbitry during this time so the doe doesn’t become scared and stressed. After the nesting box is placed in the cage the doe may start making her nest right away while others may wait until the last minute. When she has arranged the bedding she will begin to pull fur from her belly and dewlap to provide a warm bed for her kits and to make her nipples easier for the kits to find and nurse from.
After the doe has kindled, gently pull aside the fur and take a quick count and record it on the Doe Card. Any dead or deformed kits should be removed and the litter covered back up.
The kits will begin opening their eyes at about 10-days and will begin to emerge from the nesting box in about 3 weeks ready to eat solid food. At this point you can take the nesting box out. The growing babies can be weaned and moved to the growing cage at 4 to 8 weeks or left on the doe if she will allow it. The longer the babies are with the doe the better they will grow. I leave mine in for 8 weeks before moving them to the growing cage.
Doe’s can technically be rebred when the babies are 6 – 7 weeks old, but depending on the amount of meat you plan to produce in a year you may want to wait longer. I breed my does in the spring and then again in later summer or early fall, giving them time to get back into shape after nursing hungry kits.
Feeding Out Meat Rabbits
There a few different ways to feed out meat rabbits. One is to leave the babies on the mother for as long as she will nurse them. Some does will nurse for 8, 10 even 12 weeks. Another is to feed them out as you would any other meat animal.
While the kits are still young decide what kind of meat rabbit you want to put in your freezer – fryer or roaster. This will determine how long they stay on feed.
Fryer rabbits usually weigh 3 to 5 pounds at butchering. Roasters can weigh 5 to 8 pounds. The important factor is to butcher before the rabbits are 12 weeks old. This is especially true of the bucks (males). As they reach breeding age their meat can be affected by the increase in testosterone. Females should be butchered no later than 12 weeks, any longer and the meat can become tough and stringy.
I like a larger roasting rabbit so we butcher at 10 or 11 weeks regardless of sex and weight.
If the doe weans her babies instead of nursing them, then you will have no choice but to feed them separately. Move the kits into the growing cage and set them up with a creep feeder filled with rabbit pellets and some alfalfa for browsing. The growing rabbits can stay on this feed until they reach butcher weight.
For a more vigorous growth, add some Calf Manna to the creep. We start our creep ration with ¾ part rabbit pellets and ¼ part Calf Manna then gradually increase the Calf Manna until the ration is ½ and ½. With this combination I can butcher roaster sized rabbits in less than 10 weeks.
Once the rabbits have reached the desired weight they are ready to process.
If you want to learn more about home processing skills check out this link.
These videos are graphic, but well made and informative.
Our favorite way to eat rabbit is a simple recipe of white wine, butter, garlic and a few herbs or slow cooked in a mild mustard sauce.
Rabbit in Mustard Sauce
1 roasting rabbit, cut into parts
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped finely
2 teaspoons fresh sage, chopped finely
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped finely
1-1/2 cups white wine
2 cups homemade chicken broth
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
• Heat olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven.
• Season rabbit with salt and pepper.
• Brown rabbit pieces on all sides. Add more oil as needed; transfer to a plate when done.
• Sauté onion, garlic and herbs in remaining olive oil in the skillet and cook over medium heat until softened. Add wine and broth.
• Bring to a boil. Return rabbit to pot. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.
• Remove rabbit to a warm plate.
• Boil sauce until it is reduced by about half. Whisk in mustard and adjust seasonings.
• Return rabbit to the sauce for a few minutes to reheat it before plating.