For beginning homesteaders (or even those more established), raising meat rabbits it the perfect first step to take toward raising your own livestock. As natural herbivores, rabbits eat low on the food chain and pack on the pounds six times faster per pound of food than cows do. In fact, within a year, two does and one buck are capable of producing 200 pounds of meat!
And nothing goes to waste, because rabbit droppings are great for the garden and can be sown directly in. Raising rabbits is a positive step towards a more natural, sustainable lifestyle, and they are cheap and easy to take care of.
Easy to raise just about anywhere, rabbits are a healthy, low-fat meat source that require minimal special equipment. And at 6 to 8 pounds at butchering weight, they are a great size for a single meal!
When my husband and I moved to our Appalachian homestead last year, we knew we wanted to have livestock. Chickens were the obvious choice, but we knew we wanted something else. We settled on getting our own meat rabbits because we wanted easy to care for livestock that would provide food for two people.
Though we've gotten quite a bit of backlash from people that are offended by the idea that we would be willing to eat these cute critters, we are confident that we've made the right choice for our situation.
There are dozens of rabbit breeds, but only a few are suitable for meat production. The most common meat breeds are the New Zealand White, the Californian, and the Flemish Cross. We chose to raise New Zealands primarily because they were readily available in our area, but also because they have a thin skin that makes them extremely easy to butcher.
For our system, we wanted two does and a buck, meaning that we needed four cages (three for the adults and one for the weaned-babies.) All of our rabbits are outside, although it's perfectly fine to keep rabbits indoors so long as their space is well-ventilated and not too hot. Rabbits overheat quickly, and in the summertime, your bunnies may need plenty of shade and icy treats to stay cool.
Rabbits can live comfortably in a hutch, or wire cage. Just be sure that the bottom bars aren't spaced an uncomfortable distance apart.
Keep your rabbits happy (and your yard trimmed!) by building your rabbit a portable cage like this rabbit lawn mower that will allow them to graze on the grass.
Don't scrimp on food for your bunnies — you are what your bunny eats! Rabbits are herbivores and will appreciate some fresh produce along with the pellets in their diet. Root crops like radishes and carrots truly are their favorites, so be sure to keep some stocked up for special treats.
You can start breeding your rabbits when they are 6 months old. Bring the doe into the bucks cage and leave them together for at least an hour. No longer is necessary, lest the female gets provoked enough to try to castrate her mate!
Repeat this process two or three times to ensure your bunny is impregnated. Then, wait about 31 days for the bunnies to pop out! You will know the time is coming close when the doe starts to pull her from her neck to line the nesting box.
Keep a close eye on the new mom after birth because stressed rabbits are known to eat their young. The babies need to stay with mom for the first few weeks but can move to their own cage after that. Make sure to let your doe rest for at least a month after giving weaning her babies before trying to mate her again. You don't want to wear her out!
You can butcher your rabbits after they are close to 3e months old. Don't wait any longer unless you want to risk your babies producing some babies of their own!
Don't feed your bunnies for 24 hours before you butcher them to keep the process less messy. Be sure to prepare a work station with a butchering knife, refuse bucket, ice water and some Ziploc bags.
There is a variety of opinions on the best ways to kill your rabbits, but acceptable humane methods are to snap the neck, slit the throat or quickly bludgeon the head. Try to watch a few Youtube videos first so you have an idea of what to do the first time around.
After your rabbit is dead, you can suspend it from its hind legs and slit the skin on the back legs, cutting around the tail, until you can peel it off in one piece.
Next, gut the carcass by opening the body cavity in a single slit, being careful not to cut any organs in the process. Remove the entrails into your bucket and carefully wash the body with ice water. Now you can store it in the Ziploc bag and put it in the freezer until you are ready to eat it.
Whether you are a homesteader already or just trying to be a little more connected to the foods you eat, raising your own meat rabbits is a great step to take. My husband and I have truly enjoyed the process so far and think that you will, too!
Lydia Noyes is a freelance writer and Appalachian homesteader with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they are caretakers of a historic Appalachian homestead that resides on a 500-acre land trust. There they help to run a mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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