LEFT: The female has a slit-like genital area. MIDDLE: The male has a rounded protuberance. RIGHT: A standard nesting box combining ventilation and shelter.
Believe it or not, even if your back yard is no bigger than a queen-sized mattress (about 30 square feet), you can produce 200 pounds of homegrown meat every year ... by raising rabbits!
Domestic "hare" is a tasty, amazingly versatile food, too. Its flavor is often compared to chicken, and—like the barnyard fowl—rabbit is good fried, baked, stewed, cooked in casseroles, and prepared in many other ways. And the mammal's firm, fine-grained flesh actually makes for more healthful eatin' than does the bird's. In fact, rabbit has more protein—and less fat and fewer calories —per pound than any of our popular meats!
Rabbits are a wise choice for the small livestock fancier for other reasons, too: The critters are quite easy to raise, feed, and—because of their clean habits—care for. They're also quiet (which is an absolute "must" consideration for folks who're rearing animals in an urban area).
Of course, if you do get into caretaking a batch of the furry beasts, you'll want to keep your livestock as healthy and productive as possible. And—to help you in such efforts—I've prepared the following ten rules for raising rabbits free of disease.
I. Recognize Your Market
The main reason for raising your own rabbits is, obviously, to produce meat. So before you get started in your venture, you should know just how much food you can expect to get. A good doe (female rabbit) will yield four or five litters—with six to nine youngsters a batch—per year. Each of the young animals should reach a weight of 4 to 4 1/2 pounds (at which point they'll dress out to between 2 and 2 1/2 pounds) by the standard butchering age of eight to ten weeks. Therefore, a single doe can contribute 60 pounds—or more—of meat for your larder in one year. That ain't a bad output from one 10 or 12-pound animal. (What's more, unlike the steer that yields all its 500 freezer-filling pounds of "harvest" in one lump sum, your rabbit meat will be produced—in meal-sized portions—throughout most of the year.)
You won't need to throw out your rabbits' innards, either. In my household, we slice the kidneys in half, deep-fry the segments, and serve them—with beer—as hors d'oeuvres. Rabbit liver can be cooked and chopped up into a tasty sandwich spread, or fried with mushrooms and bacon. Even the offal from your butchered fryers can be utilized ... as a tasty treat for dogs or pigs.
Rabbits produce more than meat, too. You can, for instance, shovel their high-quality manure straight onto a vegetable plot. "Thumper pellets" have more nitrogen and phosphorous than does horse, cow, or pig manure ... but won't burn plants, as chicken droppings will.
You could also set up a ground level bin under your elevated rabbit hutches and start a worm farm in the collected droppings (many rabbit producers have successfully combined bunny and earthworm raising operations). Furthermore, rabbit fur makes excellent hats, collars, and mittens. And—along with all that—you may even find someone who'd like to buy your leftover rabbit feet for good luck charms. (We have to bury ours, since everyone around here feels lucky enough just being able to live in Kansas.)
Always remember, though, that you are the real market for the bounty your bunnies produce! Sure, you might eventually want to try your hand at commercial breeding ... but don't undertake such an enterprise until you've had enough experience to understand fully the labor, costs, and marketing possibilities involved. (I'd also strongly advise that you avoid any firms that advertise "get rich with rabbits" schemes in which the companies offer to buy back the bunnies you raise.)
II. Build Your Animal House Well
Domestic rabbits don't need a lot of space to hop around in, but—if they're to be as healthy and productive as possible—your animals will need some room in their cages. Each doe or buck should have a hutch that's at least 3 feet long, 2 1/2 feet deep, and 1 1/2 or 2 feet high. You can construct the sides and top of a "rabbit palace" out of small-gauge chicken wire, but be sure to use only sturdy (and easy-on-the-furry-feet) 1/2" X 1" galvanized hardware wire for the cage floor. The entire box can be framed on the outside with wood or metal (be careful ... rabbits will chew on any exposed wooden members) and should be constructed so that it stands well off the ground.
Your hutch will also need a door that's large enough to place the nesting box through (an entrance of about 14 inches on a side will do) and to let you reach every part of the cage's interior. You can build the portal from a piece of welded wire, and hinge the "opener" to swing inward.
Rabbits tolerate adverse weather and harsh climates fairly well. However, you should construct a rain and snow-shedding sloped hutch roof and—if your area has harsh winter gusts —some form of windbreak. Actually, the animals suffer more in hot weather than they do in cold. Prolonged heat exposure can be fatal to your furry constituents, so be sure the rabbitry is positioned so it'll get adequate shade during sweltering midsummer days.
Along with a good hutch, you should supply your rabbits with a feeder, a waterer, and a nesting box. The food container can be nothing more than a heavy earthen crock, or a coffee can fastened to the side of the cage. On the other hand, you might prefer to buy one of the commercial automatic feeders that attach to the outside of the hutch and are therefore difficult for the bunnies to contaminate.
Waterers can be as plain as a frequently cleaned and replenished dish, or as elaborate as the commercial drip waterers. (You can construct a homemade automatic device by suspending a filled and inverted bottle over a watering pan. Just make sure the jug's lip is slightly under the pan's water level.)
Lastly, you should make a nesting box for each doe to use when she "kindles" (gives birth). This bunny nursery can be built out of wood and sized to be about 18-22 inches long by one foot wide by one foot high. Also, fasten a 3- to 9-inch wood strip along the bottom of its otherwise unobstructed front end—to keep the newborns from rolling out—and leave the top partly open to allow ventilation.
III. Know What a Normal Animal Looks and Feels Like
When you begin to look for your "seed stock" (most rabbit breeders start out with two does and one buck), you'll soon learn that the long-eared animals come in many different breeds and sizes. However, most "hare raisers" across the country agree that the mid-sized (10 to 12 pounds) New Zealand White and California varieties make about the best backyard livestock.
Of course, you'll want to be certain that your potential purchases are all healthy, so examine each bunny—closely— before you buy. The inside of the critter's ears should not have the dry scabs that are caused by ear mites ... its hocks and feet should be free of sore spots ... its nose shouldn't be wet, runny, or crusty ... and its droppings should be firm and round. If the animal looks fit in these (and other) obvious respects (doe rabbits should have eight or more nipples, for instance), you can be pretty darn sure you've found a healthy critter.
By the way, NEVER lift a rabbit by its ears! Always pick up the fluffy furbearer by gently grasping a handful of skin at the scruff of its neck and—at the same time-placing a supporting hand under its bottom.
IV. Choose the Best Animals
Many of the individual traits that go into producing plenty of meaty bunnies for your table are passed on from one generation to the next, so be sure to buy superior specimens. Only purchase bucks and does with excellent production records (or youngsters bred from such prolific propagators). In addition, you can tell a lot about what sort of offspring your breeding stock will engender by feeling the potential parents. Most of a rabbit's meat comes from its hind legs, so gently squeeze any buck or doe's rear thighs to judge how plump and meaty those areas are. Give a "squeeze test" to the back—between the critter's pelvis and ribs—as well. This loin muscle section should be long, wide, and firm.
V. Cull the Worst Animals
It's an easy matter to remove the poor producers, negligent mothers, and seriously uncooperative breeders from your rabbit herd: Simply butcher and eat the critters. Unfortunately, though, even the most productive parents will decline in "breed ability" after five or six years, so your older animals should also be regularly culled.
VI. Feed the Critters Correctly
Water is the single most important element in a rabbit's diet. A doe and her litter will consume a full gallon each day, so keep plenty of clean liquid refreshment in the hutches at all times.
When it comes to selecting a "chewable" feed, you should be aware that protein is the food ingredient most critical to assuring superior growth and production. Adult rabbits require a diet with at least 12% of the valuable foodstuff, while nursing mothers and growing youngsters need a 20% protein ration. A rabbit on a protein-deficient diet will grow more slowly, and—if it's a doe—bear fewer young and/or produce less milk.
Most rabbit raisers use commercially prepared feed, because the store bought pellets provide plenty of vital protein and are a completely balanced diet as well. To be dead honest about it, putting together a do-it-yourself rabbit feed that includes all the correct amounts of digestible nutrients, protein, minerals, vitamins, and sheer food energy—and at the same time avoids poisonous weeds, mold, or other toxins—is simply too difficult a task for the average guy or gal.
You can, of course, supplement your critters' meals with an occasional helping of root crops, green vegetables, and bits of hay. (WARNING: Greens will give young bunnies a severe case of diarrhea.) Keep in mind, though, that any time you add such a treat to your rabbits' ration, you will undoubtedly be decreasing the total percentage of protein in the animals' overall diet.
Baby bunnies should be given free access to all the feed they can eat ... to help them grow as quickly as possible. But don't overfeed your adults, because obesity is one of the most prevalent causes of infertility in both male and female rabbits. An adult buck or "dry" doe should be fed about three to six ounces of pellets a day, a pregnant female needs five to ten ounces daily, and nursing mothers may require as much as 20 ounces. (It's best to tape "ration sheets" right to your feeders ... so you know how much food each animal should get.)
One last note about rabbits' eating habits: You may one day notice that the critters are coprophagous (in other words, they eat their own fecal matter). This "recycling" process is a necessary part of the animals' digestive cycle that provides—among other essentials—niacin and riboflavin, so don't interpret the habit as a sign of ill health. On the other hand, don't worry if you never see coprophagy, either ... rabbits tend to engage in this (as well as most other feeding) at night, and are able to get the job done even in wire-bottomed cages.
VII. Be Aware of Your Animals' Cycles
All rabbit raisers should pay close attention to their critters' reproductive life patterns. Mature "hoppers" can be bred year round. Does actually don't ovulate until ten hours after they're bred, so every mating union should be a fertile one ... providing neither animal is overweight and the buck has not been exposed to too much hot weather (as with many animals, excess heat causes short term sterility in male rabbits).
You can tell whether your doe is "in the family way" by giving her a checkup two weeks after her mating. At that time place the animal on a table, restrain her with a one-handed scruff-of-the-neck grasp, and "palpate" her belly with the other hand: that is, squeeze gently and slide your hand from the lower rib cage back and up to the pelvic region, feeling carefully for any marble-sized placentas.
A doe will usually give birth within 30 to 32 days following conception, so place the nesting box in the animal's hutch no later than 27 days after her mating. You'll be able to wean the fast-growing youngsters within two months following their birth—and the doe can be rebred before this separation—but be sure to give the mother a good two weeks' rest between the end of caring for her past litter and the beginning of raising the next offspring.
VIII. Keep Meaningful Records
Now if you can imagine the difficulty you'll face in trying to keep track of when to wean and when to mate and when one doe is due to kindle and which of your bunnies came from which doe—and do all this while those busy rabbits are multiplying faster than electronic calculators—you'll readily understand the need for keeping good accurate records. (Without such information, it's flat impossible to tell which rabbits are your most—and least—productive breeders.)
You can design your own buck and doe breeding forms, or use the ready-made record-keeping charts available from Purina Chows. Plus, if your flock starts getting really large, you may even want to tattoo each rabbit's ear for identification.
IX. Coddle the Youngsters
Newborn bunnies don't need much human attention because their momma will take care of everything ... except providing the nest box (that's your job). Do be sure to give the nursery a good supply of clean straw or wood shavings: three or four inches worth in summer, and twice that amount during the winter. Then put the box in the hutch three or four days before the doe is due (any earlier than that and she may turn her delivery room into a toilet). The mother will then contribute some of her own fur to the nest to make the home even more comfy for the expected young'uns.
The day after the bunnies are born, check the box and remove any deceased babies. Then—after the little critters are three or four weeks old remove the nest box itself and let the new residents get used to the hutch. (Remember that—before the portable nursery is brought back for a new batch of youngsters—it must be thoroughly emptied, cleaned, and disinfected.)
X. Help Your Animals Prevent Their Own Disease
I sometimes get tired of pounding my fist upon the table and shouting, "Sanitation! Sanitation! Sanitation! " But doggone it, if you buy and raise good rabbits ... feed your critters correctly ... and keep your rabbitry clean, clean, clean, you'll avoid 99 44/100% of all rabbit disease problems.
However, there are a couple of persistent health bugaboos that may require particular attention. For example, ear mites—that hide out in the crevices of your hutch and love to nibble the insides of rabbit ears—are often a problem. You can control the pests by plopping a few drops of mineral or olive oil into your bunnies' "antennas" once every six weeks or so.
In addition, the rough wire hutch floor can sometimes produce sores, scabs, and even inflammation on the animals' feet ... especially their hocks. You can help remedy that problem by placing flat 6" X 10" boards over part of the pen floors (away from the animals' favorite toilet comers) so your bunnies can rest their weary toes in comfort.
That about sums it up. You now know all the basic information you'll need to breed healthy, productive rabbits. Once you've tried raising the prolific critters, I think you'll be surprised—as I constantly am—that more folks don't take advantage of the good, healthful eating that the long-eared livestock can produce for rural, suburban, and urban dwellers alike!
For more information you can consult two fine, no-nonsense books on rabbitry: Robert Bennett's Raising Rabbits the Modern Way and Harlan D. Attfield's Raising Rabbits .