Meat rabbits are making a comeback; here’s how to start raising your own
Raising rabbits for meat should be considered a cornerstone of efficient and effective homesteading. Though never as popular as chickens, home-raised domestic rabbits were once a common meat source on the farm and in town. The popularity of rabbit as a food source, and thus as a type of livestock, has waned over the years as most folks turned away from producing their own food.
With the recent resurgence of interest in quality, home-grown food, rabbit husbandry for meat production is primed for a comeback. On our homestead, we’ve been breeding and raising rabbits for meat for many years. They have transitioned from an occasional meal to a staple of our food planning.
What are meat rabbits?
Meat rabbits—the specific breeds of rabbits that are large and produce a good meat-to-bone ratio—are a kind of livestock often raised on small-scale homesteads. Rabbits are easy to keep and can do well on the homestead, even with limited space dedicated to them. They reproduce quickly and go from birth to consumption or reproduction size in just a few months.
Rabbit’s white meat has a high-quality flavor that needs to be eaten to be believed, but even on a more objective measure—nutritional value compared to other domestic meats like chicken, beef, and pork—rabbits come out on top. Rabbit meat has a better protein-to-fat ratio, is low in cholesterol, and has high concentrations of important vitamins and minerals.
Building a rabbitry
Once the decision to raise meat rabbits on the homestead has been made, the first step is to build a structure to house them: a rabbitry. The options for rabbitries can vary widely by the skills of the builder and the needs of the homestead. Rabbits can thrive in almost any climate as long as they are kept dry and have the ability to avoid cold direct winds, but have good ventilation.
While colony keeping is an option, most keepers choose to keep each adult animal in an individual pen. Commercially available pens are usually a simple and versatile wire cage, available from most ag and feed stores, that can be used indoors or out, suspended, or placed on the ground or a shelf. These pens come individually or can be purchased and used in groups. Other pre-made rabbitry structures can vary greatly in size and cost and can be made for indoor or outdoor use. If building your own, there are free plans available online, or you can build your own design, as long as some basic criteria are met.
Building rabbit pens
The rabbits will need space to move comfortably. An individual pen should start around 30-inches by 36-inches by 18-inches. The grow-out pen, for animals raised for meat, is more flexible in size but should be large enough that the young rabbits have room to spread out a bit. The rabbit keeper will need pens that are easy to access, with doors large enough to reach all parts of the pen for regular cleaning.
Hardware cloth is a great material to use for rabbit pen walls and floors. It’s durable enough to keep rabbits in and predators out. It also allows poop pellets to fall through the pen’s floor into bins for easy collection for the garden. We’ve even suspended rabbit pens above a chicken run, allowing the chickens to eat rabbit waste and any food they spill. Rabbits need a solid place to rest their feet, though, so a tile or a mat should be included in the pen. We have large ceramic tiles in ours. They have the added benefit of feeling cool to a hot rabbit in summer.
Food, water, and shelter for the rabbits
When locating the rabbitry, ensure a supply of electricity for lights and fans. A water source and food storage should be as close as possible as well. Rabbits also need a feeder, a waterer, and a nesting box for birthing and raising kits. The nesting box can be purchased or built and should correspond to the size of the rabbit breed. They are easy to construct with minimal skill and tools and there are free plans available online.
Feeders can be for both hay and pellet feed and may need to vary in style by individual rabbit, as some are more prone to food wasting than others. A common waterer is a bottle style with a straw that the rabbit drinks from. These are easy to fill and keep clean but freeze rapidly in winter in colder climates. For winter, a flexible rubber bowl works well, as it is easy to pop the ice out and refill with fresh water. This may not be a chore for every locality, but it is important for places that have long, cold winters like our Michigan homestead.
Feeding your meat rabbits
Quality feed is critical for quality, healthy animals and will likely be the biggest continuing cost of raising rabbits. Fresh, clean water should always be available to all rabbits. As long as the nutritional needs are met, there are multiple strategies that can be effective for feeding rabbits.
Most adult rabbits will do well with a 12 to 15 percent protein ratio. Pregnant and lactating does need closer to 20 percent. This can be achieved through a combination of hay (depending on composition) and commercial pellets. You can also supplement with fresh plant material. Many homesteaders grow crops just to feed their rabbits (kale, swiss chard, other greens) as well as feeding them select weeds pulled from the garden. For example, we fill a wagon as we weed our garden to provide fresh greens for our rabbits. Any new foods should be started gradually to avoid gastrointestinal distress. Adults should be fed to maintain a healthy weight but not overfed. Grow-outs can be given free choice feed to get them to butcher weight quickly.
Additional ways to make your rabbits happy
Once housing, food, and water have been sorted out, rabbits are low maintenance. Other considerations are optional but may help with rabbit temper and health. They also have a compulsion and a physical need to chew. Feeding them hay helps with this, but they may still like a piece of wood to chew. Maple and applewood are safe options, but several other untreated kinds of wood are acceptable, too. In particularly hot and humid weather, frozen water bottles (steel works well) placed in the cage allow them to stretch out against them to cool off.
Finding rabbits to start your rabbitry
Once the rabbitry is complete, it’s time to bring rabbits home! One buck and a couple of does would be a good start. Depending on breeding protocols, each doe will have four or more litters of six to ten kits per year. Those kits should reach a dress-out weight of around 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds at 10 to 12 weeks. That can add up to a heck of a lot of meals through the year; approximately 192.
Finding rabbits to purchase for breeding stock can vary by locality; online forums, as well as local 4-H or Future Farmers of America groups, can be great resources. There are many good modern and heritage breeds to choose from. Mixed breeds are a viable (and often cheaper) option as well. Each breed and mixed combinations have size, growth rate, fur, and temperament traits that need to be considered. Care should be taken to select healthy animals, as they will be the foundation of the rabbitry. Ideally, a reputable breeder is available to purchase from and will have proven—or already completed breeding—bucks and does to choose from.
Uses for rabbit ‘waste’
After the processing is done and the carcass is cooling, the “waste” products associated with meat rabbits can be easily used. The heart and liver are edible for human consumption. If there are laying hens on the homestead, the scrap parts can be fed to them to provide a quality protein boost. Depending on the number of hens, the offal can be fed all at once (boiled first, if desired) or frozen and fed in bits over time. Watching hens chase each other for these scaps makes for great homestead entertainment!
Composting is another efficient option for your rabbit carcasses. Given the right style of composting, the offal will break down and return to the soil. Meat does well in compost bins that maintain high temperatures, get turned often, and when meat is a very low percentage of the material in the bin compared to natural vegetation (like broccoli stems, apple peels, and wilted lettuce).
Pelts, sometimes considered another “waste” product, are easy to preserve and use, even for a novice. The nature of rabbit pelts is such that there is very little difficult tissue left attached after skinning. Specialized tools may not be required to prepare them. While few of us wear full furs as our daily clothing, rabbit pelts have many uses. This includes lining outdoor gear like hats or hoods, stand-alone mittens, fly-tying materials, crafting materials, or other purposes.
Rabbit manure is homestead gold
The products of butchering day are certainly not the only, and may not even be the best, reasons to raise meat rabbits. Rabbits spend their whole lives dropping little brown pellets of homesteading gold in the form of manure!
Rabbit gold is a top-notch soil amendment. It can be composted or even added directly to the garden as it doesn’t get as hot as the manure from most other animals. Rabbit manure is also more nutrient-dense and easier to harvest and use than most other animal manure. Improving the soil on your homestead literally improves it from the ground up and should be a priority for any homesteader.
Rabbit husbandry is an ever-evolving process, moving with the needs of the rabbit and the rabbit keepers. We’ve built and rebuilt our rabbitry several times. This includes adjusting as we’ve added more rabbits and moving the whole operation into one of our buildings. Meat rabbits are making a comeback because they are low maintenance compared to other livestock, simple, enjoyable, and fit perfectly into small-scale homesteading.