I have been raising New Zealand rabbits for meat for the last three years. As far as being a viable meat source for small farms or even urban homesteaders, rabbits are a great option. I’ve become rather partial to rabbit meat, with a wonderful mild flavor. Almost any chicken recipe can be converted to rabbit with only a minor tweak.
Raising the rabbits is also pretty easy. They do not require a lot of room, they don’t make any noise, and their feed to weight conversion ratio is impressive. There are, however, a few things I have learned from my experiences that I truly wish I had read somewhere prior to starting out. These things could have saved me some headaches along the way. That’s why I’m passing them along to you.
The Key is Organization
The first thing I would like to impress upon anyone considering raising rabbits is the importance of being organized. It’s a funny thing, these all white, beady red eyed, eight pound rabbits ALL LOOK THE SAME. If you were to take five rabbits out of their cages, let them run around, and then try to put everyone back in their exact prior cages, you will fail. There just isn’t any way of telling them apart, especially if they are all the same sex. This means you absolutely MUST have the rabbits tattooed and the cages documented. Also, absolutely do not think that you can breed rabbits, not write down the dates, and remember when that mamma is going to have her babies. The days run together, what seems like a week is usually either 4 days, or 10. And not knowing isn’t good. Trust me.
Be aware of mood swings
Another partially related item I wish I had known is that pregnant does can change their behavior the further along they are. What is normally a well mannered lady when not pregnant becomes cranky and aggressive the more pregnant she becomes. This is especially useful when you fail to document when the last time she was bred (see above). This will also keep you from taking things personally as she scratches the snot out of you the next time you reach in to fill the water bowl. My theory is that they know you are the reason they are pregnant, they are big and uncomfortable just like a human, and they are taking it out on you. Or maybe they are just trying to tell you they are craving peanut butter ice cream with pickles on top. Hard tellin.
A Mamma’s got to eat…..
That being said, does are normally very good mothers who require little to no interference with the care of their babies; as long as you provide the right environment for them to do so. If you forget to put the nest box in the cage in time (again, see above) bad things will happen. There is a very low success rate for babies born on the bottom of a cage no matter how much fur the mom has pulled for them. Any doe who is lacking even the least bit of protein in her diet will also make bad things happen after she kits. Think Hannibal Lector and you will get the point. Fortunately there is a relatively easy way to alleviate that problem. Give the doe either half a hot dog or a small bowl of ground beef a week or so before she has her babies. Of course rabbits do not normally eat meat, but it just makes sense if you think about it. It takes an enormous amount of protein for mom to make anywhere from three to ten baby bunnies. So believe it or not, if a doe is lacking enough protein, she will eat the hot dog or ground beef in order to make up for what she needs.
No, I don’t cut myself. I just have rabbits.
Another very important item to learn about rabbits is the proper way to catch and hold them. Rabbits have what amounts to tiny razors on the ends of their toes, and they will NOT hesitate to use them. I picture each rabbit sitting in his cell, talking to the others through the bars, sharing stories of what their crime was and how they got caught, all the while sharpening their toenails on the edge of the cage. That would explain a lot. Regardless, a rabbit that is not properly restrained can quickly cause quite a bit of damage to your arms. They are amazingly flexible, and stronger than you think.
Stomachs of iron
Finally, anything in the cage with a rabbit that is not metal or ceramic is fair game to be chewed. Plastic bowls will eventually be whittled down to nothing. The wooden framing to your cage will turn into a toothpick if the little beasts can reach it. The reason for this is that a rabbits’ teeth are always growing, kind of like their toenails. The way a rabbit handles that is by chewing on hard objects. This wears the teeth down and helps keep them a normal size. It is an especially useful idea to keep a piece of wood in the cage. This could be anything from an untreated eight inch piece of 2×4 to a small sapling branch. My bunnies are partial to Sassafras branches. Bonus points if there are leaves on it.
Raising rabbits can be a fun and rewarding addition to homesteads and farms. Especially if you can do your homework ahead of time and set yourself up for success.