Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs by Wendy Brown (New Society Publishers, 2011) is packed with practical solutions for becoming more self-reliant and transitioning to a lower-energy lifestyle. In this excerpt from Chapter 8 on livestock, Wendy explains how she learned through experience about raising rabbits for meat, and other uses for the urban homesteader.
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We have had livestock on our suburban farm almost since we bought our house, when we were given three adult rabbits — two unneutered males and an unspayed female. We did not know it at the time, but two does are actually a better ratio for raising rabbits for meat, but as we found out, one doe can still do a mighty fine job of making babies.
We, admittedly, had no idea what we were doing, and a mere eight months after acquiring our breeding stock, we had 21 rabbits. Yeah, there’s that saying about breeding like rabbits, and our initial experience at being rabbit farmers was a really good reminder that most clichés have their origins in truth.
We learned that a female bunny is fertile almost from the moment she kindles. In fact, some resources I read seemed to indicate that a female can carry two litters at the same time, but this was not our experience. The gestation period for a rabbit is four weeks. Our female gave birth to three litters in about as many months, which tells me that she was fertile immediately after her babies were born, but not while she was pregnant.
Just in case anyone is wondering, no, it is not a good idea to allow a doe to kindle that close together. Having a separate hutch for the does and bucks is important. Now we know, and now we do.
The first thing most people ask when they find out that we raise rabbits for meat is what breeds we have. The answer would probably surprise a commercial breeder, but since we are not raising rabbits with the intention of selling the meat at a cost per pound, we are not necessarily as concerned about getting the most meat. In short, for the purposes of our home-raised rabbit meat, we do not need any particular breed. All rabbits are, after all, edible.
What we have found, for our own personal home use, is that a large-medium breed is actually the best. Small breeds do not have enough meat to bother (because even if raising them is easy, harvesting them is a lot of work). Large and giant breeds, which are the typical meat rabbits, require a lot more space and care than a medium breed, and so in our experience the happy medium is what works best. It is large enough to feed our family, but small enough that they do not take up as much space or need as large a hutch. It has also been our experience that the medium-sized does make better mothers, but that may have just been particular to the doe we had and not the breed.
There are dozens of rabbit breeds created for different reasons from simple pets to fiber providers to enormous meat animals. We have had all kinds. The first rabbits we raised for meat were run-of-the-mill pet store rabbits, a mix of several breeds, including lop-earreds with some long-hair or angora ancestry somewhere. They were all buff colored. When we lost our papa rabbit (that other buck I mentioned was already making his way around the circle of life), we decided to purchase a New Zealand Red breeding pair. Because he was so much bigger than our mixed doe, we decided not to breed the New Zealand buck with her, for fear that she would have trouble kindling large babies. So, she was “retired” and lived to be a pretty old girl. Unfortunately, the New Zealand doe was not a very good mother, and we only got one litter from her.
After several more unsuccessful attempts at breeding them, the New Zealand doe and buck ended up being just pets for the remainder of their lives, and when they both passed on, we just didn’t have any rabbits for a few years, until I decided I wanted a fiber rabbit and purchased a purebred German angora buck. My plan was to, eventually, buy a doe and keep the breeding pair for fiber and their offspring for meat. Unfortunately, a couple of marauding neighborhood dogs cut short my plans before I could find a mate for Luigi Snowball.
As a fiber rabbit, the German angora was perfect. His pure white fur was soft and long, but German angoras need a lot of care, and an understanding of how to use clippers for shearing rabbits is probably important. Luigi was sheared once, when he was about seven months old, but his hair grew fast enough that he could have been sheared four times per year. His uncarded fur filled a one-gallon storage bag.
When we decided to get back into the rabbit business, we bought a couple of bunnies from a local feed store without knowing the gender or breed. The doe, a cross between a lop breed and probably a Himalayan, has given us several litters. She is a very good mother. The buck is a cinnamon (we like to call him Cinnamon Bun, although his name is EJ). Our mixed-breed medium doe partnered with our large-breed cinnamon buck produces babies that give us about three pounds of meat at ten weeks of age.
The thing about having animals on suburban homesteads is that they must serve more than one purpose. When space is limited, there just is not room to be wasted, which is why I wanted to breed German angora rabbits. They would provide us meat, fiber for spinning into yarn and, the best reason for having rabbits, fertilizer, which can be put straight into garden beds with no need to compost first. Rabbits have the most amazing manure, and the rich, healthy soil in our yard is a testament to the high nutritional quality of rabbit poo. We do not, currently, have fiber rabbits, but a nice by-product of raising rabbits for meat is their fur, which we tan to make mittens, use as a liner for moccasins or sew together for a really nice blanket. The key is to waste as little as possible. With the animals we raise for food, that means using as much of the animal as we can.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: The Thrivalist’s Guide to Life Without Oil, New Society Publishers, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs.