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www.sharpenedaxe.com
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Hi All. I've been thinking about posting this for a while. It's a piece I put together for a rabbit class I'll be teaching this summer. If you're thinking about raising rabbits, these are tips and tricks I've learned over the years. These are just my opinions and some folks will say I'm wrong, but it is what works for me. Feel free to add your .02.

www.tinyhomesteaders.com
 

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www.sharpenedaxe.com
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My family and I raise our own meat on a half acre of land. We officially began homesteading in 2010 with the addition of rabbits onto our plot. In our four years of homesteading, we have raised rabbits, angora rabbits, laying chickens, meat chickens, bees, and we've had a few successful gardens (for being at 8,600 feet above sea level).

In this writing, we will learn about raising rabbits. Rabbits are a great resource for families that are interested in raising their own meat in small or large spaces.

Why raise your own meat?

With the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and industrial agriculture, choosing rabbits just makes sense. You have the power to know where the food that you eat comes from and that it was treated properly during its life. It can all happen right in your back yard.
Rabbits can be raised in small spaces and respond well to dietary supplementing with natural forage. On the Half Acre, we supplement our rabbits' feed with approximately 25-40% natural materials.

Finding Good Meat Rabbits

You can eat just about any rabbit, as long as it is healthy. There are many breeds and sizes of rabbits available on the market today. For your investment, you should avoid smaller breeds, such as dwarf rabbits. Dwarf rabbits grow slowly and only grow to be a light weight in full maturity. In contrast, inexperienced growers will sometimes purchase larger breed rabbits, such as Flemish Giants, in hopes that the young will hit their grow weight quickly. While Flemish Giants do hit the targeted harvest weight quickly, their bones are larger than other meat breeds and their muscle, or meat, is generally less than breeds commonly used for meat, such as New Zealands and Californians.

New Zealand and Californian rabbits are readily available on any local market. I have raised both breeds and they are good, hearty rabbits. However, in my experience, they are expensive to feed. They have insatiable appetites and will eat as much food as you give them. We currently raise California/New Zealand/Standard Rex crosses. Standard Rex rabbits are a good meat breed, but don't grow quite as quickly as New Zealands and Californians. Standard Rex rabbits are generally thrifty with food and have a fantastic, velvet-like coat. My suggestion is to find good rabbits from several different breeds and to cross them, making your own style of meat rabbit that will meet your needs. We have been working towards our own line of rabbits since 2014 and are still refining our lines.
When purchasing rabbits, you should be aware of signs of disease. I do not buy rabbits from people that show their rabbits in competition. No exceptions. Many people disagree with me and suggest that you buy only pedigreed rabbits. Rabbits that are shown are exposed to many different diseases and the money that you invest could be wasted if the rabbits that you buy die or spread diseases throughout your rabbitry. I try to buy from people that I know and trust, if possible. If I don’t know them, the rabbits that I buy will be contained to a one month quarantine away from the other rabbits in my herd. During that month, I will look for signs of illness such as diarrhea, sneezing, mucus around the nose or on the front paws, discharge around the eyes and I will also check to make sure that the rabbits ears are clear and that they show no signs of ear mites. If a month passes and I see no symptoms, the rabbit is introduced to the herd.

I also look at the state of the rabbitry that the rabbit is coming from. Rabbits can be messy. Bucks will often spray urine around their cage and each rabbit passes a large amount of manure each day, which can pile up quickly under cages. I can overlook those things, as I do not have time to clean my rabbitry every day, either. Things that you should look for are proper ventilation, that each rabbit has enough space to move, and that no rabbits in the herd appear to be sick or abused. An abused rabbit can be a very vicious animal. Spend a small time on the internet and you will see that a bite from a rabbit can be a horrible wound. I can't say that I don't tolerate rabbits that bite. Rabbits have their own means of communicating. If a rabbit bites a human, there is something very wrong and the rabbit, in its limited intelligence, is trying to communicate that by biting.

Cages

In general, I like larger cages for rabbits. They don't need much space, but a rabbit that can move is a happy rabbit. The general rule about cages is one square foot per pound of rabbit. So, if you have a rabbit that weighs eight pounds, it should have eight square feet of space. There are may different designs for rabbit cages, most of which are available on the internet. I suggest that along with a caged area, you give your rabbits a place to rest their feet and get out of the elements. I usually put a wooden box of some sort in the cage. Standing on wire mesh all day can irritate feet and cause for injury to your herd. This is especially true in cold weather, when a rabbit's feet have constant contact with cold, metal wire mesh. Rabbits are hearty animals that can withstand bitterly cold temperatures. On the coldest nights, I add hay to their boxes to act as insulation and to keep their feet from freezing.

Bedding

In each box, I put down some sort of bedding. Many people use wood shavings. They smell nice and soak up urine and feces. Avoid cedar shavings. They are believed to cause respiratory illness in rabbits. You can also use straw, hay, dry grass or wood chips. I've had success with all methods, but usually stick to straw or hay because it is affordable.

Feeders

J-Feeders are popular among rabbit enthusiasts and are readily available at ranch and feed stores. There are many alternatives to the j-feeder. I've made feeders out of used license plates, metal soup cans and retired camping cook wear. J-feeders with lids are nice because closing the lid protects the uneaten feed from moisture. When raising large litters, I usually make trough-style feeders out of pallet wood. It gives all of the kits access to food and they will not have to fight to get their meal.

Water

Most people that raise rabbits use water bottles that have ball valves. These waterers are great, but do have a few drawbacks. Over time, the rubber o-rings deteriorate and the water bottles begin to drip. O-rings can be replaced by cutting a scrap of leather or rubber, using the original o-ring as a template. Some people use ceramic crocks for watering, as well. In colder weather, having a water container that can be tapped to remove ice is very, very handy. We still use water bottles in the winter and spend a lot of time rotating bottles inside to let them thaw.

Feed

Rabbit pellets are readily available at most feed stores. Most pellets vary from 14-16% protein, which is a good range for most rabbits. Finding organic rabbit pellets in the our area has proven difficult.

Natural Feed

As I mentioned at the beginning, we try to supplement with as much natural feed as possible. I usually spend 10-15 minutes each evening collecting grass around the property to feed to the rabbits. Some forage can be poisonous to rabbits, so I avoid plants that I don't know. I focus on blades of grass, dandelion greens and flowers, plantain, and clover. If I am feeding the rabbits something that I'm not familiar with, I begin with very small portions.

Start slowly with natural feeding. Rabbits need to build flora in their gut to handle fresh greens. If you give rabbits unlimited greens in large portions from the beginning, it could kill them. I start off with a few greens at a time and build up the amount I give a rabbit over a few weeks. It usually starts with the first dandelion greens of the season and grows from there. By June, I give my rabbits unlimited greens and they are well adjusted to it. In addition, you must use care when introducing rabbit kits to greens. I'm about as unscientific as they come, but I've read a little about it. What I've read is that if the mother eats greens while pregnant and nursing, the kits will get the proper gut flora for eating grass from the doe. If you give kits greens that have had no maternal exposure, it could kill them.

In addition, I like to feed the rabbits branches and leaves. Aspens, which are plentiful here in Colorado, are always a good choice. I snap off branches and put them in the cages. I also like feeding the rabbits pine and spruce boughs. Evergreens are available all winter long and provide a rabbit with roughage when it is not readily available from the ground. Pine, in particular, is high in vitamin C, which can add a healthful boost to your rabbits' diets. The rabbits will chew off the bark of boughs. Their teeth never stop growing, so they need to chew to keep their teeth down.

Breeding

Most rabbits become sexually mature at around six months of age, give or take a few months. There are specifics to both genders which should be observed before breeding.

Bucks: Young bucks lack experience when it comes to breeding. They will often mount the wrong end of a doe or will be too aggressive and less successful in breeding. It is often good to put a young buck with an older, more experienced doe. Young does may be hesitant to breed, which will further confuse the buck. At any age, the doe should be brought to the buck's cage to breed. Many writings state that a doe should be brought to a buck's cage because most does are territorial and will attack a buck who is put in her cage. I disagree with that statement and will go into further detail after a few paragraphs. The reason that I believe it is not a good idea to put a buck into a doe's cage is that many bucks are curious and will sniff around the unfamiliarity of the doe's domain, which will lead him to be too distracted to breed quickly and efficiently. Once a buck is experienced, watch his behavior. You want a relentless buck that will not give up if a doe resists. Some bucks, especially fat ones, are passive and will not pursue a doe if she resists. That is not the buck that you want for your breeding program. Find a buck that is persistent and gentle with the does. Also monitor each litter for the number of kits born. Small litters can be the result of a poor buck or doe. If your litters are small (under six kits), consider using a different buck or doe, monitor the results and draw your own conclusions. When you first introduce a buck and a doe, the buck will likely urinate on the doe. Stand back! I've been marked more than once. From there, the buck will usually take time to sniff the doe, mount her, and breed. Some bucks will pull fur off of a doe's neck with their teeth. Don't worry about it when it happens, unless he draws blood. It is normal. It is important to watch the breeding happen. When the buck completes the deed, he will usually become tense, roll backward off the doe and grunt. I've seen some bucks pass out for a few seconds. If you don't see this behavior, the deed was probably not completed.

Does: Inexperienced does have a lot of the same issues mentioned above. Some does don't understand the purpose of breeding and will mount a buck. A good doe will respond to the mating rituals of the buck by laying flat and lifting her tail for him. Inexperienced does will often run around the cage and whimper. Don't be alarmed. Let the buck coerce her into submission. If a doe attacks a buck, take him out of the cage unless he is bigger than her or very persistent. If you have to remove the buck, try placing his cage close to hers. He will mark her with urine and she will get used to seeing and smelling him. Try again in a few days and she will likely not attack him again.

Cohabitation: Many rabbit resources say that if you put a buck and a doe together to live, the doe will attempt to kill or castrate the buck. I've never had that experience. Rabbits are social animals. They like to cuddle and benefit from each others' company. I will house a buck and a doe together right up to the time of kindling. When a doe is close to giving birth, she will tire of the buck. She needs her space to create a nest and give birth in peace. If you leave the buck with the doe during the kindle, the buck will bother her to no end. When the buck sees the doe in the distress of labor, he will become curious. When bucks get curious, they will attempt to mate with the doe. Mating will distress the doe during labor. Remove the stress by removing the buck. In addition, if a doe kindles in the presence of the buck, the buck will generally try to mate with the doe immediately after she gives birth. Does are ready to breed again shortly after birth. However, the doe needs time to not be pregnant after kindling. Nursing kits while being pregnant is very hard on a doe's body.

False Labor: Sometimes an unsuccessful breeding will still lead a doe to make a nest after a month has passed. It is instinctual. The doe's body sometimes tricks her into thinking that she is pregnant when she is not. In false labor, the doe will often pull out her fur and make a nest, even though she is not pregnant.

Kindling: A rabbits' pregnancy cycle usually lasts 30 days, give or take a few days. When a rabbit gives birth, it is called kindling. A doe needs a box to give birth in. Kindling boxes are available at feed stores. I usually make my own. If your rabbits are indoors, an open topped nesting box can be used. If outside, I suggest a box with a hinged top on it. I'm always on the lookout for wooden boxes. I like the lid to be hinged for easy access. The doe will also need nesting material. Hay, straw or shavings will work. When the doe feels that the time is near, she will begin to pull fur off of her belly with her mouth and put it in the nesting box. Don't be alarmed if a doe pulls all of the fur off of her belly and her belly is bald. It will give the kits easier access to her nipples and the extra fur will keep them warm. After the doe gives birth, you will see a giant ball of fur from her in the box. The kits will be beneath the fur and huddle together for warmth. There is no need for heat lamps. I've had does kindle in -10 below weather. The kits huddled together and they all survived.

More important than anything is to not interfere with the process. Having a doe give birth for the first time is an exciting process. As humans, we assume that we are smarter than the animals that we keep. We may be intelligent, but we have poor survival instincts. Trust the doe and stay out of her business until the deal is done.

Kindling Problems: You will almost never watch a rabbit give birth. When their instincts kick in, they realize that they need to keep their kits safe from predators or threats and that will usually include you.
I allow first time mothers to fail. New mothers sometimes don't understand what to do when giving birth. Some does will not pull fur for the nest. Even at 80 degrees, kits born without fur for a nest will get cold and die because they lack fur and are moist when they are born. Other times, does will have their kits on the cage wire and not in the nesting box. If you are around, you can attempt to put the kits in the nesting box. place them closely together so that they can keep each other warm. If a doe has kits and does not pull fur, you can hold her and pull fur from her belly yourself to make a nest. Some does will tolerate this and some will not. The pregnancy hormone makes the fur easy to pull out with two fingers. Pull the fur that you feel is needed for the nest, then pull twice that amount. The kits need plenty of fur and some will be lost by sticking to the doe as she nurses the kits. If a doe loses an entire litter, I wait a few days and rebreed her. I've had very few does that were unsuccessful on their second litters. If a doe loses two litters in a row, I generally retire her from our breeding program.
In most cases, you will never see a doe nurse her kits. As a matter of fact, you might think that your doe is a lousy mother because she ignores her kits. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rabbits are prey animals. The last thing that they want to do, instinctually, is lead a predator to their nest. Does usually feed their kits one or two times a day. That is enough.
And, in the worse case scenario, some does will eat their young. Yes, it is gross, but it is somewhat normal. Does will usually eat their young because they feel that they are unsafe or if there is something wrong with the kit, such as a birth defect or genetic abnormality. Dead or half-eaten kits need to be removed from the nest. The smell of death may get on the other kits, causing the doe to believe that they are dead as well. Remember, for animals, it is instinct, not intellect, that rules them.

Beyond Kindling: For the first three to four weeks, the doe will take care of her kits completely. There will usually be one runt and often times, the runt will die. Don't feel as though you failed if that happens. In larger litters, it is hard for some kits to find a nipple to themselves. Most does have six nipples. I've had does that have given birth to as many as 13 kits. The kits that aren't aggressive don't have ready access to a nipple. They will usually become weak and die. It is completely natural; only the strong survive. Some people will try to foster runts. They can be given to another doe with a smaller litter, which is sometimes successful. Some people will foster a kit with Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR) or goat's milk. Both are good replacements. In my experience, it is not worth the time it takes to foster a runt. If they aren't strong, they die, even though you have put forth effort. I let nature take its course. If it lives, good. If it dies, it dies. To have a truly strong genetic line of rabbits, you must not caudle the weaker ones.
After three to four weeks, you will notice the kits leaving the nesting box. They need to explore their world and become accustomed to it. Kits are very fearful and will often run and hide when they perceive a threat (in this case, you). When you pick up kits, they will sometimes scream in fear. This is normal. I believe it to be a response to predation. If a predator picks up a rabbit kit and it screams, it could be disturbing enough so that it would cause the predator to drop the kit.

I handle kits from birth, if I choose. Some does will be territorial and nip you or bite you when you are accessing the kits. Some does become downright violent. They will try to charge and bite you and growl while they do it. Don't be angry or upset with a doe if it does this. She is following her instincts. Instead, try to distract the doe with a treat like grass or an apple slice when accessing the kits. The more a kit is handled from birth, the friendlier it is in adulthood. As a rule, we don't handle our kits that much. Our rabbits become meat for the table and it is harder to dispatch a rabbit if you have a close relationship with it. However, if I pick a kit that I'm going to keep for breeding early on, I will let my children handle it as much as they want.

I free feed a nursing mother and growing kits. I give them access to as much food as they want. It makes the kits grow quickly and keeps the mother in good health. A nursing mother should never be without food.
Harvesting Weights: If you have a good line of rabbits, the kits should be ready to harvest at 12 weeks of age. The target weight is five pounds. A five pound rabbit should net two to three pounds of meat. If a rabbit is kept beyond twelve to fourteen weeks, the meat will become tough. Young rabbits make the best meat. Depending on the genetic lines of your rabbits, it may take 14-16 weeks for them to hit the target rate. I rarely wait much past week 13 for a rabbit to grow. I figure that by that time, I've invested enough time and money into the rabbit and if they are slow growers, I don't need to invest even more into their growth.

Rebreeding and Weaning: After giving birth, a doe is almost immediately fertile again. Most people wait six to eight weeks before rebreeding a doe. A doe needs time to nurse her kits and wean them before starting the pregnancy process again. Kits are usually weaned at four to six weeks of age, but sometimes range up to eight weeks. Kits should not be sold until they are eight weeks old. By then, they have the fur to stay warm and the skills to fend for themselves. Some breeders remove kits from the mother's cage one at a time, so that the does milk dries up slowly. I usually let the mother do the weaning. She knows when the right time is to stop. I usually leave the doe with the kits until the time of harvest, or until she is ready to kindle again, if I have room.

In closing, raising rabbits for meat is very rewarding. There is no better feeling than to have meat on your table that is not pumped full of antibiotics, genetically modified, frankensteined or otherwise altered from its natural form. For families in urban settings, rabbits just make sense. They are food efficient, grow quickly, are quiet and need minimal care.
 

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Thank you for all the information. I have been thinking about raising rabbits but I do not know if I could do it right now. I have butchered a chicken (my first and only kill) and helped skin and butcher a deer though so I am learning.

I think I will start with laying hens and go from there :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
That's awesome! If you can skin and clean a deer, you can do just about anything. Rabbits,in my experience, are some of the easiest mammals to clean.
 

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One thing I might add is to be very careful in allowing strangers entrance to your rabbitry. In fact don't do it!
Once had a man and his sons who claimed to be 'visiting breeders' kill off most of the young stock in an entire county! Turned out they were actually looking for a pet for the youngest boy, and visited every breeder in the area, handling stock. Somewhere they picked up something and spread it around. Even the state lab couldn't figure out what it was.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
I'm glad you guys found it useful enough to print out! Share it with someone, if you can.

In the writing I suggested NOT going to someone who breeds show rabbits. I dealt with someone like that once. The person knowingly sold me sick rabbits. Wiped out my whole herd. Hard lesson learned. Sickness doesn't show up often, but when it does, watch out! Good advice, mini truck.
 

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I never had the heart to restart after that. Watching my hutches burn I swore off rabbits. Got to thinking about all the time invested, and the pitfalls I had conquered just to have it destroyed by my own stupidity. (I knew better than to let anyone handle my stock)

I even had a 'neighborhood kid' (mother shoves them out the door in the morning, go's back to bed, and hollers for them just before dad is due home from work) slip in and poke sticks into the hutches kept my rabbits nervous all the time. He finally slipped up behind me when I was slaughtering, and never came on my property again.
 

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What's the difference between laying chickens and meat chickens? When they stop laying you eat them. Rabbit bites me, I bite back, after some time in the romertopf at 350 degrees. Biting rabbits get eaten first. If you fish also or garden much lots of people make worm beds under the hutches, rabbit dropping fall thru and you don't have to feed the worms... win/win. BTW messing with someone's livestock is a shooting offense in some places... nobody handles the animals but family or the vet.(sorry you learned that the hard way// I did too) Long long story.
 

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I'll echo bilmac and Dinx. Great informative post, very helpful. I also printed it out for my files.
So much better to read this than all the other argumentive political nonesense on so many posts.
 

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Beautiful Post, Full of Information and Wisdom...

I have no direct experience with rabbits, other than I know I like the way the French cook them. As "livestock" though, you make an excellent case for keeping rabbits. Definitely one to print out and keep in my burgeoning notebook. Thanks!
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
Glad you guys liked it. I find a lot of people are put off by their experience of eating wild rabbit. I've found that wild rabbit and domestic rabbits taste very different. My children, (9, 7, 6 and 2) now prefer it to chicken. Converts! 😀
 

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This was so informative! I did a search looking for nesting material options (the person I got my rabbits from suggested hay, but we can't seem to locate any for some reason) because my doe seems to be pregnant. I thought she was back in February but when she used the nesting box as a toilet we figured out that wasn't the case. Guess I got discouraged since we just put them together again. Now I can see the first time was just wishful thinking on my part, seeing things that weren't there. It's time to cut the grass again, I guess we'll put the clippings in there for her. These are the first livestock I've ever raised, and my parents haven't raised rabbits before (though their parents had cows, pigs, chickens, etc - my mom has six brothers and sisters, my grandfather was a DAV and my grandmother only worked when he was deployed, so they had to feed the kids somehow! Lol) so I've been researching a lot. I'm nervously excited about this!
 
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