For the past 8 years, we have been raising rabbits as a source of meat and have had an “interesting” learning curve that we would like to share with you so that you might have an easier time of it and learn from some of our mistakes. Why raise meat rabbits? They are quiet, can be raised in compact surroundings, and provide a secret source of untainted protein as inflation worsens.
People in the city of Paris even raised them during WWII. Do you have a garage? If so, then you can raise rabbits.
Do you have a small hobby farm or big farm? You also can raise rabbits on a small area of your land.
At the end of each section, I will list informative online sources that should prove helpful. Disclaimer:
I am in no way guaranteeing any results nor am responsible for anything that you choose to do. I receive nothing for mentioning any business source for supplies.
Types and Numbers
Two of the most popular types of meat rabbits are New Zealand (which we raise) and Californian. The reason these are chosen is that they grow quickly and put on the most meat for the amount of food provided. Yes, there are huge rabbits – Flemish Giants, but bigger is not better when raising rabbits for meat.
How many should you choose? Consider beginning with one buck (male) and two does (females).
When you purchase from a breeder, always check the gender to make sure that you are obtaining what
you pay for! Our Mistake: We traveled a distance to purchase a “male” only to have it deliver a litter of kits (babies) the next day in an unprepared cage in winter. They all died.
How do you know it is a male? Check the genitals which should have a hole at the tip. Females will instead have a groove. Look at the online video to learn how to sex rabbits. Take your reading glasses along if you need such to see clearly. Males can start breeding at about six months and females at five months. It is helpful to have rabbits old enough to breed without delay, if desired. If you have the choice, a “proven” buck can be a good acquisition as he has already sired a litter of kits.
As you gain experience and space, you may enlarge the number of rabbits that you keep.
Before buying, decide how you want to raise the rabbits – in cages or in a colony. We opted for cages.
Each adult should have its own cage. These can be purchased from many sources such as Tractor Supply. Be aware that these little creatures are “productive” of copious amounts of urine and feces.
If you choose to have “double decker” cages, have a sheet of metal, wood, or plastic to shunt the excrement and urine towards the back and away from the lower cage and its grateful resident. BTW, a rabbit can direct its urine at you so be forewarned if you have one that is spiteful.
The manure is excellent on the garden and does not require composting prior to use unless it is wet with urine. We support our cages on a 2 x 4 framework but some prefer to suspend them from above with chains to facilitate easy cleaning.
We began by keeping our rabbits in cages outside. Mistake. One day our son returned home to find
that the neighbors’ two large dogs had smashed into a cage and killed our brand new buck and were in the process of dragging a large double cage onto the ground to kill our does. As if that wasn’t enough,
the dogs in their blood lust turned to attack our son who fortunately was armed with a pistol.
We then built a shed for the rabbits which has a double door, screened openings for windows with shutters, and south facing upper level windows for light. Safe now? No. Mistake. The door was not locked and kids home during the covid pandemic trespassed onto our property and stole two unweaned kits. Since they were unweened, they were surely doomed to die. We now keep the doors locked, during our absence.
Depending on your climate, you may need a space heater (resting on concrete pavers) to keep newborns warm enough in the winter and frozen one or two-liter bottles of ice in the summer for the adults to lie next to. Fans and water misted on their ears can also help reduce the risk of heat-related deaths in summer.
Food and Water
Rabbits need access to plenty of water, especially during summer. There are several different ways to provide this such as single or double bowls (rabbits chew on plastic), stainless steel bowls that clamp to the sides of the cages (rabbits may upend them with their heads), lick-drip bottles, or other gravity fed systems. We opt for pet bowls.
Rabbits have sensitive gastrointestinal tracts and can quickly develop fatal enteritis. Be forewarned not to make any sudden changes in diet which should consist of 80 to 85% hay for adults and the rest of other vegetables. Do not make the mistake of feeding them lawn clippings from a lawn mower. These are mangled and contaminated with fumes. We use a variety of foods including purchased alfalfa pellets, fresh hand cut alfalfa, fresh hand-cut tall grass, chickweed, comfrey, turnips, black-eyed pea plants, swiss chard, and bean plants. Alfalfa is high in calories and should be reserved for pregnant and nursing does and growing kits.
Adult bucks have sensitive kidneys and should not be fed high-protein comfrey. We lost a buck to renal disease once. Nevertheless, comfrey is a good perennial to grow which produces large green leaves that are rich in protein for growing rabbits. A bed of comfrey is easy to expand by using root cuttings and are supposed to grow for at least a couple of decades! We cut and dry hay for feeding in winter along with turnips and alfalfa pellets. Our goal is to eventually not require any store-bought feed at all. There are websites which list the many foods that rabbits may eat and those that they should not. Check out the ones listed below plus helpful hand tools. Consider keeping a list of acceptable rabbit foods in a handy location for frequent reference so as to avoid mistakes.
Please keep in mind that rabbits also need fruit tree cuttings or something similar to keep their teeth from getting too long. If you have an orchard, save sticks when you prune fruit trees and cut them into rabbit suitable lengths. They love them!
They’ll breed like rabbits. Yeah, sure. In truth, getting them to breed can sometimes be problematic.
Always put the female into the cage with the male and not the other way around or the buck may be seriously injured by the doe. Wear long sleeves and gloves when transferring the doe in order to avoid painful scratches. If, and I do mean if, they are both in the mood, the male will mount the doe and quickly fall off after a successful mating. The doe ovulates only after mating. You will need to observe
preferably three fall-offs. One feels a bit like a voyeur hanging around for them to get the deed done.
It improves the chance of her having kits if mating is repeated again in another 12 hours.
Now, for the problems. Sometimes the doe is reluctant and runs around and around in the cage until
stopped by your hand or she may back into a corner. Things to try with a resistant doe include waiting a week and trying again, feeding a tablespoon of black oil sunflower seeds each day, adding a spoonful of apple cider vinegar to her water dish, giving her a ride in the truck bed in her cage, or pairing her with a different buck. What if the buck isn’t performing? Make sure that he isn’t overweight. Try another day.
Does he have “shy-buck syndrome” from being rejected by the does? One year was a total failure for us.
The bucks wouldn’t perform and the does wouldn’t breed so we sent them all to “freezer camp” and obtained new stock!
No doubt, dear reader, you’ve heard the phrase “one is none, two is one…” well that can seem true with rabbit bucks. One may turn out to be a total failure or get sick and die. In that case, you’ll be very glad to have a second buck available.
Always, be aware of your bloodlines. Never breed a doe and buck from the *same* litter. They can have the same parentage, but we prefer to use bucks from totally different sources than the does.
Also remember that good mothers tend to produce good mothers. A first-time mother will often lose her first kits due to poor care, but if that happens a second or third time…….freezer camp for her!
Be aware that bucks become sterile during the heat of summer. Our son is in the process of making plans of “refrigerating” a buck or two during the hot time of the year so that we can resume breeding as early as September. When he first mentioned this to me, I envisioned one in the frig looking back at me instead of one in an air-conditioned room!
Gestation and Delivery
Keep a flow sheet for each doe and note on it the following: Her Name and Birth Date,
Buck Bred With, Breed Date, Nest Box Date, Expected Kindle Date, Kindle Date, # Born Alive, # Born Dead, Remove Nest Date, Wean Date, and Butcher Date. Kindling is when a rabbit gives birth.
At 27 days after being bred, the doe will need a nest box. We use smooth wooden nest boxes with mesh on the bottom. Fill the box with clean hay and make a hollow with your fist. Put extra hay in the cage with her which she will probably wad into her mouth and add into the nest as she rearranges it to her satisfaction when the mood strikes her. Don’t be surprised if she eats all the hay which you then will need to replenish. The cage you have her in at this point will probably be a larger cage that has been fitted with “kit guard” fine wire mesh all around the edges so that babies don’t fall out. When constructing (or buying) the nest boxes, premeasure the doorway into the cage so that you’ll know that the nest box can be placed and removed with ease. The expected kindle date is usually somewhere between 30 and 33 days.
It is possible for a doe to deliver part of her babies on one day and finish up delivering on another. One of our does recently did this. Immediately before delivery you may notice that the doe is pulling out belly fur and lining the nest box with it. This is all part of the normal process. Does often deliver at night. If you do notice that a kit or kits are on the bottom of the cage, put them in the nest box quickly with the others to warm up. A first time mother may fail to deliver her kits into the box in which case they may die unless you are around to help. If a mother is not caring for her kits, it is possible to transfer them to another doe with kits of similar age if there are not too many of them. Touch the adoptive mother’s nose with a drop of vanilla extract to confuse her sense of smell and aide acceptance of the adoptees.
At three weeks of age, kits need to be evicted from their nest box to prevent eye disease. Truth be told, they are usually hopping about outside the box before the time is up. After removing the nest box, sanitize it with a dilute bleach solution and let it dry in the sun. Have as many nest boxes on hand as you will need simultaneously during the kindling time of the year.
After five or so weeks, it is time to wean the kits. This is a very stressful time for them. To ease the separation, it is helpful to place the mother in an adjacent cage and leave the kits in the original birth cage. As they grow, they can be separated into smaller groups and put into other cages.
In our experience, the does are usually unwilling to be rebred until about a month or more after delivery. Keep in mind that if a doe gives birth to a large litter, it is not unusual for about half of them to die over the first few weeks. Sad but true.
A useful link: Rabbit Gestational Calculator
New Zealand rabbits are usually ready to butcher at or after eleven weeks. Before butchering, consider if you want/need to keep any of the does of a good mother for future breeding. It is helpful to ensure that routes of escape are eliminated before dispatching the rabbit. This also applies to when transferring a doe to a buck’s cage for mating. Our son failed to close the rabbit shed doors and a buck escaped before he could be dispatched. The rabbit ran around to the front yard chased by our son who was joined by the hungry barn cats who caught and “processed” the buck before he could reach it. The cats made a game of playing with the white pelt over the next few days with it making appearances in various locations of the yard.
Truth be told, rabbit tastes a bit like chicken. It is excellent fried in a skillet but if it is an older rabbit it is best to cook it low, slow, covered, and smothered with a sauce in a crockpot for six hours. Below are some recipe sites plus a traditional recipe for hasenpfeffer. Yum!
Keep in mind that in hard times without power a single rabbit can be consumed in one day by a family of four, thus avoiding the need for refrigeration.
A Hasenpfeffer Recipe:
Best to give it 2 to 3 days’ worth of marinating time.
1 cup water + 1 cup red wine +1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 /2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed caraway seeds
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 green onions, chopped or 1 T dried onion
1 jackrabbit or snowshoe hare or domestic rabbit, or 2 cottontails or squirrels
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Flour for dredging
2 to 3 cups chopped onion
1/4 cup sour cream
Bring all ingredients for marinade to a boil, then cool to room temp.Cut up hare into serving pieces. covered container (plastic, ceramic, glass) just large enough to hold cut-up hare and put the meat inside. Cover with cooled marinade.
Remove hare from marinade and pat dry. Save marinade. Heat the butter in a large, heavy pot with a lid. Dredge the hare in the flour ,brown well on all sides.. Remove the hare pieces as they brown and set aside.
As browning, preheat oven to 325°F and strain the marinade into a bowl.
Once you’ve browned the hare, add onion and stir to coat with the butter. If there is not much butter left, add more. Cook onions over medium-high heat until they are soft and a little brown on the edges. Sprinkle salt over them as they cook.
Return the hare to pot and add strained marinade. Bring to a simmer, cover and put into the oven. Cook until the meat wants to fall off the bones: This will take 2 to 4 hours for a wild hare, or between 90 minutes and 2 hours for a store-bought rabbit. To finish the hasenpfeffer, remove it from the oven and uncover the pot. Spoon off about a cup of the sauce and put it into a bowl. Add the sour cream to the bowl and mix to combine. Return the mixture to the pot and swirl it around to combine. Serve at once with the dumplings, noodles, or potatoes.
I hope that this article was helpful and will encourage those of you who are not yet raising any meat to consider doing so. Commercially available food is only becoming more expensive and contaminated as the years go by. Best wishes to all, K.B.