Photo by Christine Ashburn
The primary characteristics of a good meat rabbit breed are threefold. First, they must grow quickly and efficiently. Second, they need good mothering skills so they can routinely raise litters of eight or more kits. Last, they have to grow to the right size, with a good meat-to-bone ratio. In the United States meat rabbits are typically raised to be 3 to 4 pounds (1.4–1.8 kg) dressed, with small bones. In order to be considered large enough for meat production, mature rabbits should weigh between 9 and 12 pounds (4.1–5.4 kg). New Zealand White and Californian rabbits are the most commonly used breeds; however, 14 others are also considered viable for meat production. Let’s take a look at nine of the most commonly used.
The American rabbit was first recognized by the ARBA in 1918 when it was still known as the German Blue Vienna. Today it is considered a dual-purpose breed, which means that it can be effectively used for both meat and fur production. The fur of an American can be blue or white, with the blue variety being the deepest blue color of any of the breeds in the United States. Despite its rampant popularity throughout the first half of the 20th century, the American rabbit is now one of the rarest breeds in the country. However, at their best, these rabbits are large, docile, and fast growing, with good mothering instincts, which makes this heritage breed ripe for a revival.
The American Chinchilla first gained recognition in the early 20th century for its striking resemblance to the South American chinchilla, an adorable little rodent from which this rabbit got its name. They are considered large-breed animals, with adults weighing 9 to 12 pounds (4.1–5.4 kg), and are known for having good meat-to-bone ratio. Although today their status is critical, the once wildly popular American Chinchilla holds the record for most ARBA breed registrations in a single year. Likewise, it has contributed to the development of more breeds worldwide than any other rabbit.
The Giant Chinchilla originated in the United States when cuniculturalist Edward Stahl crossed Chinchilla rabbits with Flemish Giants. It has since been purebred for over 45 years. The Giant Chinchilla is an extra-large rabbit, weighing up to 16 pounds (7.3 kg), with a docile nature. They are a popular rabbit for backyard meat producers because they grow very quickly and can reach 7 pounds (3.2 kg) in as little as eight weeks. However, due to their heavy stature, Giant Chinchillas can be prone to developing sore hocks when raised on wire, making them less desirable for commercial production. The Giant Chinchilla is sometimes called the Million Dollar Rabbit, because Edward Stahl actually became a millionaire from selling their breeding stock.
The Californian, or Californian White, rabbit was developed in California in the early 1920s by a breeder named George West. He began by crossing purebred New Zealand Whites with Chinchilla and Himalayan rabbits, the latter being the source of their distinctive markings. Today these are by far one of the most popular breeds for commercial production, and they are used for meat and pelts as well as household pets. They are a hearty breed known for being fast growers and great mothers.
The Champagne d’Argent rabbit is one of the oldest pure breeds. While the exact origin is unknown, it is believed to have originated in the Champagne region of France at the beginning of the 17th century. These big bunnies have lustrous coats, which makes sense as argent is French for “silver.” While not terribly popular in the United States, these rabbits are common worldwide and are very well suited for meat production.
Photo by Christine Ashburn
Flemish Giants are extra-large rabbits that can grow to be a whopping 20 pounds (9.1 kg) at maturity. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the longest rabbit ever recorded is a Flemish Giant named Darius who clocked in at 4 feet 3 inches (129.5 cm). These gentle creatures are very popular pets, but despite their size they are not common among meat producers. This is because they are slow to reach maturity, and while young Giants do actually grow quickly, they mostly put on bone during their first 70 days rather than meat. By the time the meat-to-bone ratio improves, they are typically too old to be considered fryers (the market term for young and tender rabbits) and are therefore harder to market in the United States.
New Zealand White
New Zealand Whites are the second most common breed used in commercial production, behind the Californian. Despite their misleading name, they also originated in California in the early 20th century. They have a genetic deviation known as albinism, or a lack of melanin (which gives the skin, fur, and eyes their color). This is why New Zealands have their trademark red eyes, pink noses, and snow-white pelts. This breed is generally healthy, hearty, and quick growing, with good fur and meat quality. Full grown, they are 9 to 12 pounds (4.1–5.4 kg).
Satin rabbits are known for their silky, lustrous coats that come in a wide range of colors. They originated in Indiana in the 1930s and are derived from Havana rabbits, which had a genetic mutation that caused a hollow hair shaft. This hollow hair shaft is what gives their coats the unique shine that inspired their name. They are productive medium-to-large rabbits that have a history of good breeding that contributes to their good health today. Satins are considered medium-large rabbits and weigh 8 to 10 pounds (3.6–4.5 kg).
The Silver Fox is the third oldest breed of rabbit developed in the United States. Despite a recent uptick in their popularity, this breed is still considered threatened by the Livestock Conservancy. Their silvery-blue fur is unique in that, when stroked from tail to head, it will stand straight up until it is stroked back in the other direction. This characteristic does not exist in any other breed of rabbit but is also found in the pelt of the canine silver fox of the Arctic (where the breed name originated). Silver Fox rabbits are uniquely American and do not exist outside of the country.
On our farm, our does are primarily Californians but we also have a few New Zealands and some Satins. For bucks we have one who is half Californian, half New Zealand, and another purebred Champagne d’Argent. This means that all of our juvenile rabbits are “crossbreeds,” rather than purebreds. This method of crossbreeding has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Nichki Carangelo is a third-generation Italian American, second-generation small business owner, and first-generation farmer from Waterbury, Connecticut. She began her agricultural career one year after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, and three years later, she became a founding member of Letterbox Farm Collective, a cooperatively owned, diversified farm in Hudson, New York. Today she manages livestock and direct markets for the farm, while squeezing in research and organizing work on the side where she can. She is the author of Raising Pastured Rabbits for Meat (Chelsea Green Publishing, December 2019).
This excerpt is from Nichki Carangelo’s new book Raising Pastured Rabbits for Meat (Chelsea Green Publishing, December 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.