Reader feedback to previously published article about raising rabbits for food.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JULIJA SAPIC
MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers express their thoughts on a previous article about raising rabbits for food, and share their own experiences and successes with raising rabbits.
In regard to the articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 32 on raising rabbits as a source of cheap meat, or for profit: There are a few hitches which Mr. Bell and Mr. Bode fail to mention. The fact is that the economics work out fine. . . given one or more of the following conditions.
That you have:
(1) A source of rabbit food less expensive than pellets.
(2) A guarantee that you'll be able to freeze or sell each litter at exactly eight weeks of age.
(3) A market for the hides, manure, or feet.
Most small-time rabbit raisers can rule out conditions 1 and 3 and are stuck with 2, which is the clincher. The eight week date is critical, you see, because that's when the bunnies food conversion efficiency peaks. After eight weeks of age, each animal gains less weight per pound of feed consumed. . . and unless you can freeze or sell the entire litter at this ideal point in time, the meat you raise becomes progressively more expensive.
Let's take Mr. Bode's 73-day system as an example. If you have two does, one will be kindling every 36 days. That should give you seven or eight bunnies to harvest at five-week intervals. If you have neither freezer space nor a ready market, you may decide to butcher one every four days . . . so that one litter will be eaten by the time the next is ready 36 days later. OK, the first young animal you butcher will cost about 60 cents per dressed pound to produce . . . or about $1.20 for its two-pound dressed weight. You'll spend about 20 cents per week, however, on pellets for each remaining beastie . . . and the last to be slaughtered — 32 days later — will have eaten at least 90 cents worth of feed (at 50 pounds for $4.50) during that period alone. In other words, the last of the fryers — which should dress out at about two and two-thirds pounds — will have cost you a total of $2.10, which means you're paying close to 80 cents a pound for its meat. You might want to compare that figure with the cost of chicken or hamburger. (Rabbit pellets, incidentally, contain synthetic vitamins, minerals, and antibiotics and are not only expensive but far from organic.
I myself, and two rabbit-raising families of my acquaintance, found in practice that we often didn't want to eat our home-grown meat twice a week on a regular basis . . . and we ended up keeping some bunnies long past eight weeks. When we added up the total cost of pellets and divided it by total dressed weight of all the litters, we learned that the creatures were costing us at least 80 cents a pound to raise. (Other factors — keeping a buck, failure of does to conceive at the first breeding, small litters, and mortality — also tend to raise expenses.)
Large-scale rabbit raisers — or small operations with free feed, a ready market, or plenty of freezer space — can indeed produce inexpensive meat (60 cents per pound). Other beginners, however, should be advised of the potential hidden cost factors before they sink time and money in a new rabbit.rearing operation.
The two articles on rabbit raising in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 32 left me with a "How's that again?" feeling, because several of the remarks — especially those by Mr. E.P. Bell — run counter to my own experience.
First, Mr. Bell says that rabbits do best in semi-darkness. While no rabbit should be left in the sun all the time (especially in hot weather, when such a practice would be cruel, I find that my does enjoy lying in a patch of sunlight even on fairly warm days . . . and it certainly doesn't seem to hurt them. Some raisers prefer outdoor cages in summer because the animals can get the benefit of the sun.
Mr. Bell also states that litters can't be born outdoors when the temperature is below freezing. Well, here in Missouri, our does haven't heard about that . . . and produce young year round, freezing weather or no. As long as plenty of nesting material is provided and the mother covers her babies with fur, the bunnies won't freeze (unless they fall or are dragged out of the nest box onto the wire). The nesting material I've found most suitable for winter use is wood shavings, which mix well with the fur and can be burrowed into for warmth.
About feeding: "Commercial automatic feeders allow the bunnies to eat and spill too much," says Mr. Bell. I haven't noticed much spillage from the box-like metal (or home-built wooden) feeders that attach to the outside of the cage . . . and if you want four- to four-and–a-half pound fryers at eight weeks of age, those bunnies had darn well better eat a lot. From the time a litter is born until the time it's weaned, the doe and her young should be on full feed. Even before the little ones come out of the nest box to eat solid food, short feeding can slow their growth.
Three ounces of feed per rabbit per day seems low to me. The more usual ration is five to six ounces daily, or a tuna can full of pellets per buck or non-lactating doe. This amount can be adjusted to fit the needs of individual rabbits. Caution: Don't let your mature males and pregnant does eat all they want! Ration them. A fat female can have all sorts of problems kindling and can lose an entire litter.
Mr. Bell states that you can't tell a young doe from a buck" by appearance. If that were true, a lot of producers would be in trouble. Actually, it isn't all that difficult to determine the sex of a six- to eight–weak–old rabbit. It's best to have a knowledgeable person show you the difference, but I'll try to describe what to look for.
You'll find it a good idea to take along an assistant, unless you like being kicked. Have your helper pick up the young rabbit by the scruff of the neck with one hand and the other hand under its rump. The assistant should then turn the bunny on its back (or sit down and hold the animal across his or her knees). Push the rabbit's tail out of the way and part the fur in that area to find the sex organ. Then press very gently on both sides of the genitals until the mucus membrane is visible.
In a doe, the membrane protrudes and forms a slit which turns back slightly toward the belly. In a buck, the opening is round and usually protrudes farther. (Older males have prominent testicles, and no mistake is likely.)
The age at which a female is ready to reproduce varies with breed size. Smaller animals mature at six months or younger, while the "giants" may not develop fully until the age of eight or nine months. If your doe is of a medium size, though, don't assume that she can't get bred before six months of age. Unless you want to find frozen bunnies spread all over the cage floor, don't house your future does with your future bucks after they're three months old. Early mating doesn't always take place, of course, but there's no sense in letting a five-month-old female have a litter too young just because it's too much trouble to throw together another hutch.
In any case, don't keep mature bucks and does together. You'll need to know when the bunnies are due so you can give the mother a nest box, and it's much harder to keep track of this when a male is around all the time. Also, some does don't care for bucks and will fight them, which isn't a pleasant situation for anybody.
My rabbits have never had any problems with sore hocks or feet. . . but occasionally one of them will get ear mites. Red scaling appears inside the ear, and the animal will shake its head often and scratch its ears with its hind feet. This condition can be serious if let go, because the mites may eventually penetrate the eardrum and destroy the victim's equilibrium so that it staggers and can't find the food or water crocks. The infestation can be treated quite easily: Mix five parts of mineral oil with one part Campho-Phenique and drip the remedy into the ear with a blunt medicine dropper. (Hang onto the patient until the job is done! The oil makes the mites jump, and the mites make the rabbit jump.) Three applications one week apart will kill the parasites, but in wooden hutches there's always a chance of recurrence and the ears should be checked periodically.
As for tularemia or "rabbit fever" . . . I've been told by a vet that domestic rabbits (which are actually hares) don't get this disease as their wild counterparts do. The spots on the liver mentioned by Mr. Bell are more likely due to something else entirely: coccidiosis. This ailment is transmitted from a doe to her litter by droppings, which the young may ingest if the manure doesn't fall through the cage floor easily. Good sanitation and dry quarters are important for control of the condition.
If the rabbits' livers are marked with stripes, the problem 'is tapeworms . . . for which there's no cure as far as I know. The parasites can be transmitted by hay or nesting material which dogs or cats have rolled in, walked on, urinated on, or whatever . . . so keep supplies for your bunny herd out of reach of your pets.
About butchering: I wouldn't dream of giving the hearts and kidneys of dressed fryers to my dog or cat. These delicacies I consider the cook's reward, and they disappear from the frying pan, long before the rest of the parts show up on the table. (If you like the taste of rabbit, by the way, try it barbecued with your favorite sauce. Cooked just right — not too dry — the meat is delicious.)
Mr. Bode's short article was, I thought, much better . . . but just reading his record.keeping system nearly drove me bananas. We have a large calendar on which we note the number of eggs the chickens give us each day, the number of pounds of milk yielded by the cows, and the dates when the rabbit litters are due. As soon as a doe has been bred and replaced in her own cage, I mark the appropriate square on the calendar. (It's easy enough to calculate . . . most young are born 31 days after breeding, and this also happens to be the number in a month. If I breed a female on the 10th of May, I just turn the page and jot the doe's name on the space for the 10th of June. Beware of February, though! Also, if you use this system, be sure to write yourself a reminder on the calendar to give the mother rabbit a nest box five to seven days ahead of time. This gives you a bit of Ieeway in case the gal rushes matters and kindles on the 28th day.)
One last word of caution: If your neighborhood is troubled with stock–killing dogs or dog packs, don't use chicken wire for the outdoor hutches. Dogs can tear right through the thin mesh when they're in the mood.
JOHN and PAULA ANN CRIPPEN:
I don't' really want to disagree with E.P. Bell's article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 32 . . . but what works for some rabbit raisers doesn't work for others, and I'd like to present some of my own experiences.
We live in north-central Louisiana and have found that in a mild climate like ours an enclosed building isn't necessary, AI winter temperatures often drop to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we've never lost a bunny to exposure. Our hutch area is surrounded by trees and bushes, provide protection in winter and shade in the summer. If you have a suitable building in which to keep your rabbits, you might find that commercial wire cages are at least no more expensive than homemade hutches . . . and certainly easier to keep sanitary. Unfortunately, they're not suited for outdoor use. We built our quarters from 2 by 2 pine lumber with poultry netting on the sides 1/2 inch mesh hardware cloth on the bottoms.
Mr. Belrs rabbits must not be the demon chewers that mine are. If I used wooden partitions between cages as he suggests, the beasties gnaw through in a matter of days. The less wood exposed to those teeth, the smaller the problem. The chomping up of partitions is also lessened if you keep the in separate hutches — not just in separate sections of the same hut — so that they won't be trying to gnaw their way through to the does urinating on them through the dividing wire).
If your rabbits have trouble with sore feet, put a board in the hutch so that the occupant can get up off the wire . . . but don't let the piece of wood cover the entire cage floor (we use scrap floor tiles or bi plywood about 12 feet by 12 feet), and don't put it in the corner a rabbit uses for a toilet!
Curious as it may sound, we give our rabbits toys made of tuna cans with both ends cut out. We believe that this keeps them from getting bored and messing with their food and water containers. It also down on cage chewing, and provides the animals with a bit of exercise. Besides, we like to watch them play!
I agree with Mr. Bell that pedigrees don't matter . . . but bloodlines do! If you go only by outward characteristics when you select breed stock, you may be headed for grief. The animal you choose could the only good one in its litter and loaded with undesirable recessive characteristics. Why spend money on a "nice-looking" doe which is bound by heredity to produce only four or five bunnies per litter?
We let the buck serve only once at each mating. This has gone consistently good results and saves the strength of a male that is being used frequently. Another wise practice is to breed does so that several, kindle around the same time . . . so that you can transfer young from large litters to small ones. Eight per litter is considered ideal maximum efficient yield. Our females have always accepted transfers readily, but this probably depends to some extent on individual temperament.
One reason we don't have problems with does losing litters to cold weather is that we cull any female that doesn't pull out enough hair to make a good nest. We've been raising rabbits for about three and a half years and have lost an occasional bunny but never an entire litter.
Does with young should be fed free choice for maximum growth of the bunnies. This, in combination with hereditary factors, may be why Mr. Bell's animals weigh only four to five pounds at three months. We fully expect ours to have reached four pounds by eight weeks.
We've found that our rabbits do just as well without a mineralized salt supplement. The need for salt rings depends on the type and quality of feed used.
I've tried several methods of killing rabbits. The one that suits me best is to hold the hind legs in one hand, grasp the head with the other, place my thumb on the neck at the base of the skull, and give a quick, sharp jerk that snaps the neck. Though this works well for four-pound fryers, I'm sure Mr. Bell's technique is better for larger animals. Shooting, however, seems to present some unnecessary dangers.
After killing, puncture the skin between the heel tendons and the leg bone on both hind legs and hang the carcass, belly outward, on two nails driven in a wall at a convenient height. Cut the throat and allow the rabbit to bleed (I place a five-gallon can below the head to catch the blood). If this is done promptly, the dressed-out meat has a more pleasing appearance.
Skin the rabbit by splitting the hide from one heel across the lower abdomen to the other heel. Pull the pelt downward to the neck and cut off the head with the skin. This leaves a one-piece hide which can be cured as follows: Split the skin open and cover it with a mixture of three parts table salt to one part alum. Fold the hide in half with the meat side in, roll it up and leave it for three or four days. Then unroll the bundle, knock off the excess powder, and work the skin — while it's still damp — to soften it. If the pelts get too dry before they're worked enough, sprinkle them with water, reroll, and leave them overnight.
When I butcher, I always separate the rabbits at the joints... without breaking any bones which might leave splinters in the meat. I've never had any trouble disjointing even the hind legs as long as my knife was sharp.
Finally, Purina makes available a great deal of material about rabbits (either free or at nominal cost). Among that company's offerings are hutch and litter box plans and a very good record card system which can be attached conveniently to the front of each cage. Ask your Purina dealer . . . and inquire at the same time whether there's an organization of rabbit raisers in your area. Such a club offers a great opportunity to meet others who share your interests and to talk over any problems with more experienced hands. Many groups also have marketing co-ops.
We're still raising our rabbits in the backyard, but have purchased 50 acres locally and plan to move there soon. We'd love to meet any MOTHER people in this area (Winnfield. Louisiana). or anyone who's traveling through. Come on by and rap for a while.
In MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 32. E.P. Bell mentioned that his rabbit barn has a dirt floor to absorb the urine. That's one solution . . . but better still is a good layer of sawdust (a big waste product here in the Ozarks.
We live a quarter of a mile from a small sawmill and get all the sawdust we want free for the hauling. Spread one or two feet deep under the cages, it absorbs the urine, makes the place smell a little nicer, and — after a couple of months — becomes funky enough to use as fertilizer. (It seems the nitrogen in the liquid waste complements the lack of the same element in the powdered wood.) We turn the layer with a spading fork every couple of weeks to prevent packing and to assist the composting process.
Before we discovered sawdust, we used to take manure out of the rabbitry by the wheelbarrow load. Now we haul it out in the pickup. Obviously, this system is a good way to triple or even quadruple the amount of humus available for addition to the soil. We use a similar bedding procedure in the roost area of our chicken house (although we do take care to leave enough dry dirt uncovered for the hens' dust baths).
If you're tempted to spread hay for the same purpose, don't. We tried that once. with a supply left over from mulching, and the layer got wet and slimy, matted down. stank (probably from anaerobic composting). and was Impossible to fork over. Boy, did I turn the air blue shoveling it out of the rabbitryl
Rabbits suffer terribly from heat . . . and if you can locate your hutches in a breezy area or under a big shade tree, please do so. When the summer temperature soars, we hose down the roofs of our sheds several times a day to keep the bunnies a little more comfortable.
About foot trouble: We've had only one case of sore hocks . . . but when we first got our animals one had very long claws. caught a toe in the cage wire, and nearly tore off the nail. It's a good idea to clip a rabbit's claws regularly . . . but not past the white area, or you'll hurt the animal. We make this a two-person job: One of us holds the patient by the backbone, belly down, while the other cuts. We agree with Mr. Bell that the creatures can really scratch.
Ear canker can spread through a herd like wildfire. If you see scabs developing in a rabbit's ears, treat the condition immediately. We use a product called Aurimite. which contains pyrethrins to kill ear mites and antibiotics to combat infections. This remedy: — recommended by my cousin, who runs a veterinary supply house — isn't organic but does take care of the trouble faster than any other cure we've tried.
Here's a possible answer to the fly problem: We mixed about half a cup of diatomaceous earth to each 50-pound bag of feed during fly season and had little or no trouble with the pests. This treatment also helps to cut down on the odor of droppings. It really works! (Be sure to use a natural form of diatomaceous earth, not one which has been heat–treated for use in pool filters or mixed with pyrethrins to serve as an insecticide. A product especially intended for addition to animal feed is available from Perma–Guard, a division of Bower Industries, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona. — (MOTHER.)
With good sanitation, a "hare raiser" should be able to avoid a lot of bunny ailments (or at least keep them to a minimum). I'd recommend the use of a good manual such as Domestic Rabbit Production by George Templeton, or the USDA's Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 358, Selecting and Raising Rabbits.
A word of advice, or maybe warning: Take the rabbit ads with a grain — or a pound — of salt. I don't think you'll make $10,000 a year on such an operation unless you want to pour one heck of an investment into the business. If you can put low-cost meat on your table, maybe sell enough to break even on your feed, and use all that wonderful manure on your garden, then you're doing fine.
Oh, yes. . . for those who wish to raise rabbits for market, there's a processing company in the Ozarks area which picks up animals at specified points. Call or write Pel-Freez, Rogers, Arkansas.