For homesteaders, meat rabbits provide one of the most cost-effective and sustainable options of home-raised meat for your family. They have short reproduction cycles, and a single breeding doe will birth around four-to-five litters per year, which adds up to quite a bit of meat for a family! You won’t learn everything about how to raise rabbits for meat in one day, but the steps outlined in this article will get you started.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
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Why Raise Rabbits For Meat?
Rabbits have been kept by farmers and homesteaders for thousands of years, and many people still raise them today. Everything about rabbits makes them perfect to use as a sustainable meat source. They grow at an extremely rapid pace, and will usually be ready to slaughter by 10 weeks old. Depending on your breed, rabbits at the 10-week mark should ideally weigh about 5 pounds.
Another benefit of raising rabbits for meat is the relatively low amount of daily work needed to sustain a healthy colony. Compared to raising other types of small game, such as chickens, raising rabbits will give you one of the highest yields of meat while having some of the lowest startup costs. And this makes them a good choice for families concerned about food supply issues.
(P.S. - if you're looking for another good option for high meat-yielding animals, consider raising turkeys.)
What Rabbit Breed Should I Choose?
As you may already know, a lot of rabbit breeds exist. Common meat rabbit breeds include the New Zealand, American, Californian, and Champagne D’Argent.
Each breed has specific qualities that some homesteaders and rabbit specialists prefer over others, so everyone has their own favorite. When raising rabbits for meat, you want to choose a breed that has large litters and grows to a mature size as quickly as possible.
For beginner homesteaders, start with the New Zealand breed. Adults will grow up to 12 pounds within 10 - 12 weeks, and they come in a variety of colors. They have a high feed-to-meat ratio, giving you more meat for less rabbit food. The gestation period for a New Zealand doe will take about 30 - 35 days.
Additionally, since New Zealand breeds have become so common amongst rabbit farmers, it won’t be too expensive to buy some breeding does and a buck to get your farm started. Depending on your area, a New Zealand doe will cost between $35 - $50 USD.
Building a Rabbit Hutch
Just like most animals, rabbits need some sort of shelter from the elements. Their fur helps insulate rabbits in colder temperatures, but hot conditions can be harmful to them and cause them to overheat.
Ensure your rabbit hutch includes shaded or cooler areas where the rabbits can take refuge from the sun. A hutch also serves as protection from predators and keeps rabbits contained so you don’t have to chase down escapees.
Building a rabbit hutch as a homestead project gives you a great opportunity to use up some scrap materials and extra supplies you have laying around. But beware, if you use scrap wood make sure it hasn’t been treated. Rabbits love to nibble on things, especially wood, and if you use treated wood on their hutch they will likely chew on it and ingest the chemicals.
Also, if you have some extra chicken wire, AVOID using it. Depending on the gauge of chicken wire, the rabbits' feet will get injured or stuck in the wire, or they may even squeeze through the spaces and escape the hutch.
You can find rabbit wire at most supply stores, so make sure you use the right material for the job.
When it comes to designing the hutch, there is no “standard” plan. Everyone designs their own hutch a little differently, and you will need multiple designs anyways for a few different purposes. To get some inspiration for your design, check out the Peace Corps Handbook on Rabbit Production.
What Do Rabbits Eat?
As with most wild game and homestead-raised animals, the better diet a rabbit has, the better the meat will taste. To successfully raise a healthy rabbit colony, make sure you feed them a balanced diet with a steady supply of clean water.
Most domestic rabbits are fed a pellet-type food with all of the essential nutrients in it. Most feed and supply stores carry rabbit pellets, but depending on the number of rabbits you have to feed, you will end up buying quite a few bags of pellets. In fact, feed accounts for about 75% of all production costs when raising rabbits for meat.
Additionally, rabbits love hay. Give them an ample supply of hay or alfalfa to supplement their nutrient-rich pellets. Fortunately, hay and alfalfa are very cheap to purchase or grow on your own.
You should also add some fresh vegetable scraps to your rabbit’s diet. About 10% of their total diet should be made up of greens, but don’t feed them leftovers that you wouldn’t eat. Rabbits get sick too.
To save money on the feed costs, some homesteaders prefer to create their own customized rabbit feed at the local grain elevator or feed store. However, before creating your own mix make sure you know what levels of nutrients your breed of rabbit requires since it will differ between breeds. To find out what feed ratio suits your breed, check out Michigan State University’s free resource.
How to Breed Rabbits For Meat
Rabbits’ reproductive cycles have many unique qualities compared to other livestock animals. They have a gestation period of about 30 days, give birth to large litters, and can be rebred immediately after giving birth. Each breed of rabbit has different breeding requirements, but New Zealand females will become sexually mature at 6 or 7 months old. Males usually take about a month longer to mature.
Setting up a successful breeding program will take organization, patience, and a watchful eye. Record all the dates of mating and birthing so you can keep track of your rabbit’s cycles and ensure all of your rabbits stay healthy and safe. Again, depending on the type of breed you’ve chosen, the specific steps for mating and breeding the rabbits will differ. For breed-specific information and an easy breeding schedule to follow, check out the Department of Agriculture’s rabbit farming resources.
With many people working from home for the foreseeable future, use some of your spare time to learn how to raise rabbits for meat. With just a small backyard or outdoor space, you can start raising your own sustainable source of meat. Use all of the resources available online, and find some rabbit breeders near you to buy your breeding does and bucks. Get creative with your rabbit hutch, and find a frugal way to feed your rabbits nutrient-rich food to keep your costs low.
Are you raising meat rabbits? Leave a comment below with any of your favorite rabbit tips or recipes and check out Part 2: Processing & Butchering Rabbits.