Food Security/Urban Agriculture/Human Health Benefits If you are thinking about raising rabbits as a superb food source because you fear global, national, or personal economic collapse - you are definitely not alone. We get several contacts weekly by folks with just such thoughts. We don't encourage raising your own food out of fear, because there is a commitment to raising animals that is not present with a few cases of freeze dried survival foods. We realize how lucky WE are that we live where we can provide ourselves with lamb, deer, wild turkey, catfish, rabbit, chicken & eggs as well as fruits, nuts, and vegetables - but the majority of the U.S. population no longer lives in a rural setting. In an urban/suburban situation most forms of agriculture are prohibited by short sighted government. Most Americans are now TOTALLY dependent on food being brought in to them YEAR ROUND by trucks and the fears of potential food scarcity are real and widespread. Rabbits are quiet and non-aggressive animals, thus restrictions on raising them in an urban setting are few. Rabbit manure, which will not burn plants, can be used to grow organic vegetables. The idea of rabbits as an emergency or survival food supply is not new. During W.W.II, many Americans used rabbits as part of what were called "Victory Gardens" to provide for themselves and save food resources for the troops. The rabbit has been a staple of Homo Sapiens since man first learned to throw a rock. If you are thinking of adding good organic home grown lean protein to your family's diet, a "trio" of rabbits can provide what is needed. You can alternate breeding your 2 rabbit does to a single buck and have a constant source of low fat high protein organically grown meat. If you are planning however for a long term survival food supply, you may want to consider a minimum of 4 genetically diverse does and 2 unrelated bucks to allow for a sustainable herd of replacement animals that are not in-bred.
Efficient/Family-farm Friendly/Sustainable/Sideline Opportunities
As seen on this graph, rabbits and chickens are much more efficient at turning feed into meat than ruminants such as cows. When you add the fact a rabbit can be bred 5-6 times a year and produce 6-10 kits with each litter, there is no comparison. Rabbits win - hands down!
rabbit chicken pig goat sheep cow
As seen in the photos above, they grow FAST!
Other factors that make the rabbit so good for a family farm (or urban agriculture) is that you can raise them on any amount of acreage, you do not have to worry about the weather or predators, and they are non-seasonal - you have control over your "crop" more than any other form of agriculture. They can be raised by men, women, kids, or grandparents. Startup costs are much lower than most other forms of animal based agriculture. There are sideline opportunities as well utilizing rabbit skins for crafts and rabbit manure for composting for gardens and for growing worms.
Rabbit raising is sustainable agriculture!
Sustainable agriculture is the practice of farming using principles of ecology and an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that will last over the long term. It is designed to provide for human food needs while making efficient use of nonrenewable resources and integrate natural biological cycles into the farm operation. As world populations rise and there is less land to raise quality food the rabbit will play an increasing role in our food supply. They can be raised by "backyard breeders" or larger commercial farm enterprises. One rabbit can produce over 300 pounds of meat in a year and are 6 times more efficient than a cow in turning feed into meat. They breed - well like rabbits! With proper nutrition and management a single rabbit can produce 6-7 litters a year with 6-10 bunnies per litter. At Chigger Ridge, we feel the rabbit may just be among the perfect "farm" animals - whether or not you own a farm.. The manure from rabbits can be recycled back to gardens and fields as the perfect organic fertilizer as it will not burn plants.
A Chigger Ridge Example of utilizing rabbits in sustainable agriculture: We utilize rabbit manure on fields we have planted in sunflowers, the sunflowers provide excellent feed for the rabbits and sheep and pollen and nectar for our honey bees, the bees increase the harvest of sunflowers while providing us with honey. The sunflowers are turned into rabbit and lamb meat, while those animals are making more manure to put back on the sunflower fields.
BREAK THE FAT HABIT - SWITCH TO RABBIT!
The movement in the United States and elsewhere around the world is toward seeking lower fat, lower, cholesterol, lower calorie foods which are still a good source of protein and yet actually taste good. Sounds impossible, right? Not if you consider one of the oldest sources of meat on the planet - the rabbit! 20 million coyotes can't be wrong.... Seriously, it will not be long in coming before health insurance providers require people to watch their weight and cholesterol levels or suffer a raise in insurance rates. You don't have to suffer soy burgers to accomplish this - rabbit is a fine grained, tasty, mild flavored all white meat which can be fried, grilled, braised, stewed, or roasted and is lower in fat, cholesterol and calories, and higher in protein than any other meat including chicken.
Disclaimer: We have found that we receive numerous e-mails all with the same questions from those who are just getting started with raising meat rabbits for their own family or to sell to others. We will do our best to provide some of the very basics of commercial rabbit breeding here. When we say commercial, we mean that you are raising a fair number of rabbits, not just a few bunny pets. This means sanitation and health, ease of care, breeding success, and growth rate of kits are paramount. Please remember that what works for us may not work for you in your situation. We are just providing some practical free advice on a few of the things we have learned (sometimes the hard way). We are not veterinarians or experts by any means.
We recommend that anyone interested in raising happy, healthy rabbits obtain a good book or two. They are available (along with just about everything else you need) at Klubertanz or Bass Equipment Company - two of your most notable rabbit equipment specialty companies.
YOUR RABBIT HOUSE:
Your first consideration of course is how to house your rabbits. There are several considerations here. The first is obviously the weather in your area. Rabbits do well in cold temperatures as long as they have adequate calorie food and unfrozen water, but they need to be protected from winter winds. They absolutely hate heat and temperatures over 95 degrees can be lethal. Taking the above into account, for a commercial rabbitry of any size, we recommend a rabbit house with electricity rather than individual free standing hutches. The animals can thus be better protected from the elements and water systems set up that will not freeze. On the other hand, we are not saying you need to invest in a $10,000 building for your rabbits. A simple pole barn structure with chicken wire as walls can be covered with burlap or canvas in the winter to provide protection from winds and these can be removed in summer to allow air circulation. For those of you living in "tobacco country" like us, we have found old tobacco barns can be converted into excellent rabbitries as these barns are made to draft heat up (and away from the animals). The wide doors on the barns can be opened in summer to provide nice breezeways. It should be noted here that rabbits have extremely strong urine and without adequate air circulation (winter and summer) ammonia buildup can lead to respiratory problems.
The reason we would not try to run a commercial rabbit breeding facility without electricity will become evident below. In short, electricity allows you to set up freeze-proof automatic water systems (saving you tons of time in rabbit care), fans in the event of a heat wave, and controlled lighting to prevent winter breeding slumps and to increase your kit growth rates.
Finally, you have to consider what is to be done with the rabbit droppings. There are basically three options for this. 1) Catch pans which can be removed and cleaned - not really an option for a rabbitry of any size as it is too time consuming. 2) A system set up for hosing out underneath the cages. 3) Raising rabbits over worm beds. The third choice is our favorite, as the worms turn the droppings into the finest compost (it grows really big tomatoes). This also allows you to sell worms or the composted droppings to organic vegetable growers. Rabbit droppings are one of the few animal manures that can be applied to gardens directly and will not burn plants. We are talking sustainable agriculture here!
EVERYTHING ELSE YOU MIGHT NEED:
1. Healthy Rabbit
Rabbits can be obtained from reputable breederswho select for commercial traits and WHO KEEPS RECORDS OF PRODUCTION!
The rest can be obtained from rabbit specialty equipment dealers such as: Klubertanz or
It is recommended a doe and her nest have at least 6 square feet of space minimum. We have found that anything over 2 feet deep, however, makes it difficult to reach into corners for cleaning or to catch that elusive baby bunny (unless you have arms as long as my husband's!). Our favorite size after trying several: 2 feet deep by 3 feet long. If you are going to take up floor space with food and water dishes (not recommended for inside the cage anyway) the cage dimensions may have to be increased.
The wire on the sides is 1"X2" and the floor is 0.5"X1" to allow droppings to fall through. "Baby Saver" wire has a strip of the smaller size wire along the bottom of your walls to prevent kits from falling out of the cage if they end up out of the nest.
When you are talking of a commercial rabbit operation, it is essential that large numbers of animals are able to be fed efficiently and that the feeders remain sanitary. Thus the "fine-x" feeders situated outside the cage is our choice. There is no opening and closing of rabbit cage doors to slow down feeding and pellets stay outside the cage where it can't be contaminated. The pellet "fines" (fine dusty particles found in all pelleted feed) drop through the screen of the feeder and outside the cage. Otherwise these particles (which rabbits will not eat) build up in the feeder and if they get moist can lead to toxic mildew. With bottom screened feeders (such as "Fine-X" situated properly, your feeders very rarely have to be cleaned out at all.
Whether or not it is necessary at all to feed hay to your rabbits is somewhat controversial among breeders. Almost all of the commercially produced rabbit pellets claim to have "adequate" fiber and require no additional hay. We feed hay daily to provide our bunnies with occupation and a more natural food. They love it and begin to eat it at a very young age. It seems to eliminate potential problems with diarrhea as the kits move to solid foods.
Here at Chigger Ridge Rabbitry, we have had virtually zero problems with enteritis (infectious diarrhea) in our rabbitry which we attribute to our hay policy. It is essential however, that like your pellet feeder and watering system, the animals not be allowed to contaminate their hay with their droppings. Just throwing a handful of hay in the door is probably worse than not feeding it. We use outside hanging feeders situated so the rabbits only pull in a piece at a time. We have found the largest size feeders placed so that it is shared between two cages as pictured above, helps to lower feeder costs.
Water bowls are time consuming to clean and refill. This can lead to a more unsanitary environment open to the spread of disease as the babies especially may easily contaminate them. Water bottles are a better option, but still require a lot of time to clean and fill. A nursing doe with older kits can drink a LOT of water. In winter in colder climate areas, there is also the problem of freezing of either water bowls or bottles, necessitating the need for filling them more than one time a day.
We recommend some sort of automatic watering system in a rabbitry of any size. These systems incorporate a small cheap bird bath heater and recirculating water pump to keep the water from freezing or alternatively heated wires run through pipes. PVC pipe is run through the bank of cages, and small rabbit size lick valves are installed along the pipe for each cage. These systems can even be plugged into a "thermo cubes" to automatically switch it on as the temperature drops toward freezing. With such a system, watering turns into a small part of the rabbit care.
This can be almost anything that is not cage wire and that the rabbits can't eat. It is simply to provide a different surface to prevent pressure points known as "sore hocks". Large rabbits (such as the Altex or heavy New Zealand Whites), need these more than the lighter breeds or younger rabbits. Some"Rabbiteers" use wooden boards, but we don't. Wood is organic and is difficult to disinfect properly. You can purchase resting boards from rabbit supply houses, or use your imagination as you walk through Lowes... We like large ceramic floor tiles (cheap) for example, although the board in the photo above is one designed specifically for rabbits and allows droppings and urine to pass through.
After a doe has her babies in the nest and raised them for a couple of weeks, you can imagine it is not the most sanitary of containers. For this reason, we like a disposable cardboard nest box insert set in a wire nest box and filled with straw. The cardboard sides can be cut down in the summer to allow better air circulation for the kits. Wood is difficult to disinfect properly - so again, we do not use it.
GENERAL RABBIT SOCIAL INFORMATION:
Rabbits are very social as kits and actually seem to do better in larger groups of 7-9 rather than just 2-3 together. They feel safer, will play together, groom each other, and sleep in a pile for warmth if it is cold. At three months old, however, the males may begin to fight and must be housed separately from this point. Females can often be kept in smaller groups of 2-3 until they are old enough to breed at five to six months. Then they become territorial and want their own "space". They still seem to feel more comfortable if they are close to other rabbits though, even when they reach maturity. A very few people try to set up breeding "colonies" of rabbits, where larger groups are kept in larger cages. As rabbits do not do this in the wild, we try to keep to what is more natural for them. As adults, rabbits are solitary and territorial.
At five to six months old, most of the meat rabbit breeds are sexually mature. They can breed earlier however, and females should not be kept in with males after about three months old. Always take the female to the male to mate. She is protective of her cage and will attack a male put in with her. Rabbits are seasonal breeders in the wild, so by having electricity run to your rabbit barn, you are able to regulate "day length" with full spectrum lighting to help prevent seasonal winter breeding slumps. We set our lights on a timer to allow 18 hours of light, as our barns are in shaded areas that do not allow a lot of natural light. Selecting your breeding stock for prolific easy breeding doe lines is also of paramount importance. If the mating does not occur within minutes, it usually won't. You can try the doe with another buck, and/or the buck with a different doe or if necessary wait to breed that doe again the next day. Some people use their bucks with more than one doe a day, but he can not be used with doe after doe in a short space of time and be expected to replace sperm. Overweight or stressed (including heat stressed) rabbits, are the most common reasons for poor breeding performance. In the winter, however, according to the experts, inadequate caloric intake can also reduce mating success. Note: Altex or other large breed rabbits may take longer for the females to reach sexual maturity.
NESTING, NURSING, AND WEANING:
We put straw filled nest boxes in at 28 days after breeding. Some does immediately begin pulling fur and making a nest to their satisfaction, others wait until just prior or even just after giving birth. It is best to keep strangers out of the rabbitry at this time and a nesting doe should never be housed next to a buck, as she may try to "protect" her kits by eating them. A doe has 8 nipples and a good NZW doe may have as many as 14-15 kits. If we know she is a good milker, we may leave 9-11 in with her to raise, but more than that and the weaker ones will often die, or the whole litter may live but be stunted. If you have another mom with kits who has a smaller litter, she will readily accept more to raise. You don't have to do anything special with them, just place them in the nest with her kits (rabbits can't count!). Never of course, take babies from a sick doe and place them in with a healthy litter. It is usual to put a doe on full free choice feed while she is nursing. One must remember, however, that for the first few days the babies are not drinking a whole lot. If you throw the doe on full feed immediately, it may encourage her to make more milk than the babies can drink, thus setting the stage for possible mastitis. Feed should be increased slowly over several days.
The kits stay in the nest until their eyes are open at two weeks. They begin "popping" out of the nest at three weeks. Nests can be removed as early as two weeks, but we leave in longer in the winter.
At four weeks the kits can be weaned. Some breeders keep the kits in with the mom until they are grown. We believe this is harder on the mom, who can not get away from the litter to wean them. Every time she may go to eat or drink, the babies try to nurse. This can lead to a doe losing body condition and even to having injured nipples. (We have hand raised some kits, and at four weeks they can chew through any small animal pet nursing bottle!). If you have a creep feeder for the kits, you can begin to cut the doe's ration before weaning to allow her milk to dry up. If not, you can cut the ration somewhat and remove the largest kits first and just leave her a couple of the smallest to help her dry up more slowly.
We are always asked the question: How long does it take from weaning at one month until it is time to harvest a meat rabbit? This depends on many factors. It is impossible to give an exact number of days. At the same time, it is a most important aspect of a successful commercial rabbit venture. From one month to harvest is when the rabbit will eat increasing amounts of feed, and begin to slow in growth rate - thus this time period needs to be as short as possible from an economic standpoint. Also, as a rabbit ages, like any other animal it has less tender meat. A rabbit is usually harvested at 4.75 to 5.75 pounds for a commercial end product. If you are just raising for family meat, 4.5 pounds will still give you a good meat to bone ratio. You need to reach this goal in less than 4 months to have what is considered a "fryer" (as opposed to tougher "roaster") rabbit.
There are four factors that we consider to be the most important in moving your harvest time from the maximum of 4 months, closer to the 2 month mark. If anyone out there is hitting 4.75 pounds in much less than 2 months with a normal 8 bunny litter, please let us know - we'd like your secret!
1) Rabbit genetics. You can't beat a good commercial New Zealand White for a maternal breed. They are often crossed with Altex, Flemmish Giant, or even a good Californian to give hybrid vigor. Along with litter size, strong immune systems, nesting and milking ability, and ease of breeding, your replacement does and bucks should always be selected from your fastest growing stock.
2) Feed Quality. In a commercial enterprise, one always has to balance the protein and fat content of the available feed, with the cost of that feed. You need the best feed that will give you pounds of meat per dollar spent. Next to breeding stock genetics, feed is the most important consideration of the rabbit enterprise.
3) Ambient Temperature. Your grow-outs will eat less in the heat and there isn't a whole lot you can do to change this if you don't have a temperature controlled facility. Locating your rabbitry in shaded areas and providing fans when needed helps somewhat, but you can count on a little slower growth during extremely hot temperatures no matter what. They much prefer cooler weather, and will generally grow quite well in the cold as long as they are protected from winds and have adequate fat and calorie food to maintain themselves.
4) Daylight. Dr. McNitt of the famed Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Louisiana, maintained a Rabbit Research Facility for many years and he told us his findings indicated that 18 hour of light contributed almost more than any other single controllable factor in rapid weight gain.