Clean, quiet rabbits are easy to raise, even for urban growers.
Creme d’Argent rabbit
PHOTO: AMERICAN LIVESTOCK BREEDS CONSERVANCY
Whether your homestead is in the city or the country, meat rabbits can help you feed your family with lean, nutritious meat. Rabbits breed and grow so quickly that one pair of healthy does (females) can produce more than 600 pounds of meat in a year. Compare that to the dressed yield of 400 pounds for an average year-old beef steer. Rabbits also use feed more efficiently than cows do: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a rabbit needs 4 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of meat. In comparison, beef cattle need 7 pounds of feed or more to create 1 pound of meat, reports Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science.
Archaeologists have found proof that the Romans raised meat rabbits 2,000 years ago, so people have known for centuries that rabbit meat is delicious. Today, we know that it’s also an excellent source of protein, has less cholesterol and fat than chicken, beef, lamb or pork, and that it has an almost ideal fatty acid ratio of 4:1 omega-6 to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (see The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet to learn more).
Rabbits are clean and quiet, so they won’t trouble your neighbors. Their manure can enrich your garden without composting — it’s not “hot,” so it can go directly into the garden, where it will provide lots of nitrogen and phosphorus and help build soil. Or let the rabbits’ manure fall into worm beds; see Ten Commandments for Raising Healthy Rabbits for more on this idea.
If you’d like to try raising rabbits for the table, this guide will help you get off to an excellent start.
Before you rush out and buy your rabbits, you need to figure out where you’re going to keep them. Each rabbit needs its own cage, so for the breeding trio of a buck and two does you’ll need three cages. (See our diagram of a homemade rabbit cage.) The cages should be protected from predators and the weather — in a garage or outbuilding, for example.
For meat rabbits, each cage should be about 3 feet square and 2 feet high to give the animals plenty of room to move around. The best material for cages is double-galvanized 14-gauge welded wire. Chicken wire is too flimsy. Use 1-inch square or 1-by-1-1⁄2-inch wire on the bottoms to prevent sore feet and to let droppings fall through. Plan to run some extra wire up the sides to prevent babies from falling out of the does’ pens. Hinge the cage doors so they swing inward, so your rabbits can’t accidentally push them open. Mount the cages 3 to 4 feet off the ground, to make working with the animals easier and to help protect them from predators such as dogs, snakes and coyotes. For two good homemade cages, see the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service’s plans.
Hang a feeder and waterer inside, and you’re ready to go rabbit shopping.
Search online or ask at farm stores for an experienced breeder who will sell you a proven breeding trio.
If you haven’t raised rabbits before, Eric Rapp of the Rare Hare Barn in Leon, Kan., suggests starting with a common meat breed. Rapp should know: He’s been raising rabbits since he was a child. Today, he and his wife, Callene, have more than 150 breeding rabbits. “For a starter meat rabbit, we would suggest something mainstream — New Zealands, perhaps, or Californias,” he says.
After you’ve gotten your feet wet, you may be interested in adding heritage breeds to your rabbitry. Check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s (ALBC) list of breed associations and clubs. We asked Rapp, who’s an ALBC board member, about some of the heritage meat varieties:
American (ALBC Listed as Critically Endangered): “Some genetic issues (within the breeding gene pool in the United States). A mandolin-shaped rabbit, fairly large, and they take a little longer to reach fryer weight.”
American Chinchilla (Critically Endangered): “My favorite, and one I recommend to people starting out. Nice compact rabbit that finishes good from rump to front shoulders. It has a 56 to 58 percent ratio of live weight to finished weight.”
Silver Fox (Critically Endangered): “A nice, meaty rabbit. They do a little better in hot weather. We get the most calls on this rare breed because there’s info out on the Internet that they’ll yield 65 percent, but that’s not true in my experience.”
Champagne: “One of the oldest breeds. Compact, nice loin. Cross-bred with American Chinchillas, they finish in 8 to 10 weeks with really nice carcasses.”
Creme d’Argent: A beautifully colored rabbit with a lovely pelt. “Most people who have them are breeding for show, so the stock has not been bred for meat production.”
Blanc de Hotot (Threatened): “Very high-strung. Not great mothers. Their meat is actually whiter (than other breeds’).” Rapp says lack of diversity in the bloodlines in the United States for this breed means it may not do well.
“Feed is going to get more expensive, and that’s the first thing people want to cut corners on,” Rapp says. “The misconception is that wild rabbits run around the yard and they just live on local plants,” so caged rabbits should be able to eat that way, too.
Yet rabbit pellets are designed to deliver complete nutrition with every bite, and you will need to feed pellets even if you pasture your rabbits. “We studied pasture-finished rabbits under a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant, looking at New Zealands and other breeds,” Rapp says. “We found that it took 26 to 28 weeks to finish on pasture, 12 weeks on pellets. That’s much higher feed costs, and lengthening the time that your investment might die. The meat will also be yellowish because they’re grass-fed.”
Look for a complete-nutrition pellet at your co-op or feed store that is between 16 and 18 percent protein, Rapp says. “Our local co-op makes our feed at 17 percent. Local co-ops’ feed may also be fresher. So check around.”
And take it easy on the treats, Rapp says. Every mouthful of treats reduces the amount of the pellets your rabbits eat, which increases the time they need to grow to harvest size. (Fresh fruit and vegetables are an appropriate treat.)
Your young rabbits should be ready to slaughter at 8 to 12 weeks and 3 to 4 pounds for fryer weight (2 to 2 1/2 pounds dressed weight). Roasters are 10 weeks to 6 months old, between 5 1/2 and 8 pounds live, and will dress out to about 3 to 4 pounds.
The most humane ways to kill a rabbit are to break its neck in a process called “cervical dislocation” (which Mississippi State Extension lists as the preferred method; see “A Kinder Way to Kill” at the end of this article to learn more), or to stun it before slaughter. After the rabbit is dead, hang it by its hind feet and remove its head so it can bleed out. (Watch a video on how to skin a rabbit.)
Because rabbit meat is so lean — with little internal fat — it fares best in recipes in which it is browned in butter or oil and then cooked slowly, and in braises and stews.
Try rabbit in mustard, adapted from The Joy of Cooking. For four servings, combine one-third cup Dijon mustard and a teaspoon of dried thyme. Brush it over a 3- to 3 1/2-pound rabbit cut into 8 serving pieces and season the pieces with salt and pepper. Brown the rabbit pieces in a large skillet with 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat.
Remove the rabbit and, in the same skillet, reduce the heat to medium-low and brown 2 tablespoons chopped shallots, stirring occasionally.
Add 1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock, 1 cup dry white wine and one-half cup heavy cream. Bring to a boil and scrape up the browned bits.
Reduce the heat and cook for 5 minutes. Return the rabbit to the pan, cover, and cook gently until tender but still moist, about 45 minutes.
Again remove the rabbit; cover to keep warm. Strain the sauce into a saucepan and stir in a tablespoon of chopped parsley. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until sauce is reduced to 2 cups, about 6 minutes.
Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper, and spoon the sauce over the rabbit pieces.
Two rabbit books we recommend: Building Rabbit Housing and Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, both by Bob Bennett. Both offer a wealth of information on health, maintenance and other animal husbandry topics.
Killing the animals we raise for food is the hardest part of the cycle. Many older guides to livestock slaughter suggest shooting a rabbit or hitting it in the back of the head with a hammer or a heavy stick. Two methods that are much more effective and humane — with less room for error — are to either quickly break the animal’s neck in the process called “cervical dislocation,” or stun the animal into unconsciousness before killing it.
While a skilled person can do cervical dislocation with bare hands, a tool called The Rabbit Wringer makes it foolproof, even for beginners. The metal tool attaches to a wall and provides a hands-free way to secure the rabbit. A quick downward pull on the hind legs and the rabbit dies immediately. You will have to be able to pull sharply enough to snap the spinal cord.
It’s available from the Rabbit Wringer website for $49.95 plus $11.95 shipping. The Rabbit Wrangler, a less expensive unpainted version, is also available ($29.95 plus $11.95 shipping).
If you prefer the stun-then-kill method, Anna Bassett, lead technical adviser for Animal Welfare Approved in Alexandria, Va., offers another option: a hand-held captive bolt gun or stun gun. The Rabbit Wringer also sells the Rabbit Zinger, which is correctly designed for rabbits. These guns use a bolt or rod that knocks the animal unconscious, then retracts into the gun.
Whichever method of slaughter you choose, get knowledgeable advice and a hands-on how-to first. Start with the breeder who sold you your animals and ask him or her to show you the proper way to kill an animal quickly.