The Benefits of Raising Rabbits on the Homestead

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Top: The Mini Rex currently is the most popular rabbit for showing and for children. Middle: The New Zealand, which also comes in black and red, exemplifies the rabbit's meat-producing qualities. Bottom: Flemish Grants are one of the oldest specialty breeds.
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Learn about the benefits of raising rabbits on the homestead.
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Top: The Dutch breed is recognized as the original Easter pet. Middle: The Belgian Hare was the first purebred rabbit imported into North America, arriving in 1888. Bottom: Giant Angoras provide a silky wool, which is shorn regularly from the animals.
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If you keep your rabbits outdoors, locate their hutches in a protected site. The hutch should have a roof with a generous overhang to help protect the animals from inclement weather and adequate flooring to protect their feet.

Learn about the benefits of raising rabbits for companionship or to supply food and fur for the homestead.

If rabbits turn your head — whether your fancy runs to
whoppers like the gentle Flemish Giants, to gorgeous and
easygoing Angoras or to the soft and cuddly Mini
Rex — you’ll find plenty of these critters for sale, at
reasonable prices, all across the country. And if you
decide to go a-rabbiting, keeping as few as two or three
bunnies lets you tap some of the “green” contributions
these versatile little animals can make to your homestead.

The benefits of raising rabbits are varied and have been contributing companionship,
food, fur and other products to their American
keepers — urban and rural — since about 1900, when
they first were imported from Europe. Today, they are
raised as pets, for meat, pelts and wool, and for medical
research.

Whatever their purposes, all rabbits produce a
high-powered, relatively weed-seed-free manure that can be
used to enrich garden plots and raise earthworms, which
also do their part to improve garden soil.

If you’re looking for yet another use for rabbits that
doesn’t involve harvesting them for meat or pelts, some
breeds produce a luxurious wool that can be sheered from
their coats, spun and woven into an exotic yarn.

Rabbits as Popular Pets

From childhood, many of us have known bunnies primarily for
their sterling qualities as pets—cuddly, quiet and
inquisitive. Glen Carr, executive secretary of the American
Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), says his association
recognizes 45 distinct breeds. The most popular for pet
purposes, he says, are the Dutch, Netherland Dwarf, Mini
Rex, Jersey Wooly (an Angora) and Mini-Lop; of those, the
Mini Rex holds the top spot.

Gretchen Shoup of Radical Rex Rabbitry in Custer, Michigan,
says she thinks of her Mini Rex as “velveteen” rabbits.
“Their fur feels just like velvet fabric,” she says. “The
guard hairs keep the fur upright, which creates a very
dense, springy, soft, slinky feeling when the fur is
compressed.”

ARBA standards recognize a number of colors for the Mini
Rex, including black, blue, castor, chinchilla, chocolate,
Himalayan, lynx, opal, red, seal, tortoise, white, lilac
and a broken pattern, and breeders are trying continually
to develop new variations. Maximum show weight for this
breed’s senior does, which are female rabbits, is a
diminutive 4 1/2 pounds; for bucks, or males, it is just 4
1/4 pounds.

Shoup, a junior in art education at Siena Heights
University in Adrian, Michigan, and her younger sister,
Rachel, 17, keep about 40 rabbits. They followed their
brother into the 4-H rabbit project; he kept mixed breeds
while the girls kept standard Rex, but Gretchen switched to
Minis in 2000 and hasn’t looked back. Most Mini Rex also
have really good personalities, she says, explaining why
she focuses on selling her rabbits as 4-H projects and
pets. “They’re too little to butcher,” she says, “and
they’re easier for a little kid to carry around.” Her own
4-year-old nephew, Preston, regularly helps with the chores
at Radical Rex.

Karen Heintz, secretary of the National Mini Rex Rabbit
Club, reports more Mini Rex were shown last year in
competitions and more are owned by youths than any other
breed of rabbit. She says they are a cross between the
standard Rex and the Netherland Dwarf that resulted in a
dwarf rabbit with the gentle personality of the Rex and a
Rex coat, which she described as “carpet-like.”

Heintz began raising and showing rabbits after her own
daughter enrolled in the 4-H rabbit project in 1988.
Eventually, her daughter grew up — and Heintz became a
licensed ARBA judge. She was the first American invited to
judge a Mini Rex rabbit competition in Japan, and now, she
says, she flies somewhere in the world almost every weekend
to judge a rabbit show.

Back home on her Pipestone, Minnesota, farm, all the manure
from Heintz’ rabbitry goes on her garden. “I swear by it,”
she says.

Shoup’s family tends an 80-year-old, 20,000-square-foot
vegetable and flower garden established by her
great-grandparents on the family’s Michigan farm, and every
bit of manure the rabbits produce goes on that plot, too.

Frank Zaloudek of Horn Rapids Rabbitry in West Richland,
Washington, keeps Mini Rex, Belgian Hares and Flemish
Giants—but he’s fondest of the latter two. For
Zaloudek, a retired research scientist who took up rabbit keeping as a hobby 15 years
ago, it was love at first sight with the gentle Flemish
Giants, which often weigh in at 20 or more pounds. “I
walked into the local Red Mountain Feed Store to buy cattle
feed,” he re calls, “and they had two Flemish Giant rabbits
for sale. I thought they were so extraordinary I bought
them on the spot. I love those guys.”

Belgian Hares, which date to the early 1700s in Europe, are
a very historic breed in the United States, having launched
domestic rabbit keeping here with their arrival in 1888.
The breed’s early promoters exhibited the rabbits at small
stock shows across the country, successfully popularizing
them. For a time, large numbers were imported at fabulous
prices—as much as $1,000 each at a time when laborers
were paid 10 cents an hour — creating what now is
called the “Belgian Hare boom.”

Today, Zaloudek, who is secretary-treasurer of the Belgian
Hare Breeders Club, says only about 400 of the animals
exist in the United States — but their popularity is on
the rise again, especially along the East Coast.

These rabbits are tricky to breed, he says, but the
challenge of such a difficult task and the beauty and grace
of the animals, which will “prance in their cages in a
fashion that can only be described as an animal
ballet — not a flat-footed rabbit hop,” appeal to
fanciers. With handling, he says, they make good pets, too.

Rabbits for Meat and Manure

Backyard rabbitries also may provide meat for a family.
Rabbit breeds developed specifically for meat include Giant
Chinchilla, Californian and the New Zealand.

Zaloudek regularly culls from his Mini Rex, Belgian Hare
and Flemish Giant herds, too. He and his wife butcher the
animals themselves and take them to a local butcher, who
mixes the rabbit meat with herbs and pork (for fat) to make
a tasty rabbit sausage the couple enjoys. Zaloudek says his
practical motto is “Show the best and eat the rest.”

If there’s a rabbit around your house (or yard), it will
reliably produce about a pound of dry manure a week, or 50
pounds in a year. With minimal effort, the rabbit’s output
can be turned into garden “black gold.” George Dickerson,
extension horticulture specialist in New Mexico, describes
rabbit manure as a “high quality” soil conditioner that is
often low in weed seeds because rabbits usually are fed
prepared foods. The average nutrient content for dry manure
is rated at 2.4 percent nitrogen (N), 1.4 percent
phosphorus (P) and 0.6 percent potassium (K). Fresh, it is
higher in nitrogen than chicken, cow, horse, pig, sheep or
goat manures; dry, it remains higher than cow, horse and
goat manures.

Less likely to burn plants than some other manures, rabbit
manure is particularly well-suited to plants that require
heavy feeding. Davis’ husband, Bill, swears by it for
azaleas; others favor it for roses.

Dickerson suggests incorporating the manure directly into
the soil in the fall or combining it first with other
organic materials in a compost pile. A minimum of three
weeks of composting is recommended. Spread the composted
material on the produce garden or top-dress ornamental
plants with fresh manure.

Dickerson also recommends starting a worm farm under the
rabbit cages, using red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) from bait
stores. “Then,” he says, “you will have a source of good
manure, worm castings and a source of compost worms for
other compost sites in your landscape.” (In cold winters,
red wigglers may die out; just replace them in the spring.)

Raising earthworms in beds underneath the rabbit cages also
helps ensure odor control in the rabbitry and regular
visits from fishing friends, who’ll love using those plump,
juicy worms for bait.

Raising Angora Rabbits for Silky, Wavy Wool

Seven years ago, spinner and weaver Linda Davis of
Richlands, North Carolina, saw her chance at a barnful of
Angora wool “on the hoof” when her son Sean first entered
4-H. His club’s focus was on animal science, and he wanted
to enroll in the rabbit project, too. His mother reasoned
that he might as well buy Angoras so they’d have wool as
well as rabbits. “It was a very good choice,” she says
today. “Once we got the rabbits home, I fell in love with
them. They’re so sweet and loveable, and so much fun to
have around the house. I just enjoy their companionship.”
And Sean, now 14, has done well with his rabbits nationally
in 4-H, earning a spot in the National 4-H Congress, and
winning top prizes in national rabbit breed competitions,
too. “You have to be dedicated,” Sean says of taking on the
responsibility of caring for rabbits—whether it’s a
single animal or a barnful. “It’s a lot of work, but in the
long run, it’s worth it,” he says.

Susan Rutz of Topeka, Kansas, agrees. For many years, she
and her husband kept rabbits for their foster children to
care for while living in their home. “When new foster
children arrived, we showed them their rooms and the
bathroom, and then led them straight to the back yard and
the rabbits. Each child was assigned a rabbit to care for
and given instructions for the daily cleaning of the cage
and the animal’s feeding routine.”

One of the foster children in particular excelled with the
rabbits, she says. “He would spend hours brushing the
rabbits and caring for them, the entire time talking to
them about the personal details of his life that he was not
comfortable sharing with anyone else. He became the
neighborhood expert in the proper care of rabbits, and he
found his permanent home with us.”

Zaloudek also has seen a rabbit’s emotional healing power
firsthand. He and his wife use their Flemish Giants and
Mini Rex for pet therapy at a local nursing home. “My wife
put a rabbit on the chest of a person in a coma and thought
to be a vegetable. She took the person’s hand and placed it
on the rabbit, and he smiled. That was the most
heart-warming thing we have ever seen.”

Whether a pet-therapy animal or just a pet, beloved bunnies
often are kept indoors like a house cat, trained to use a
litter box, and spayed or neutered according to their sex.
Davis says they make wonderful house pets but need a
comfortable and secure cage or hutch to stay in when no one
is home — to protect them from themselves. Bunnies enjoy
chewing on a variety of things, and electrical cords
present a particular hazard.

“Rabbits are cute, but they need responsible care,” Davis
says. “Be prepared to give a lot of love and a lot of
care.”

Rabbit Resources

For more information on buying and raising rabbits, contact
the American Rabbit Breeders Association, Inc.; Bloomington, IL; www.arba.net

To get a close-up look at a lot of rabbits, attend the 80th
ARBA National Convention and Show, “Hop to the
Heartland
,” November 2 to 6, 2003, in Wichita,
Kansas. For more information on this event, contact the
ARBA.