Rabbits are cute and fuzzy critters that make cute pets around Easter time. Unfortunately for them, they are also mighty tasty, a good source of protein, and make a great stew at pretty much every time of year.
As livestock goes, they are fairly economical to get into, are easy to maintain, and are small enough that even suburbanites can raise enough rabbits to significantly supplement their protein needs in both good times and bad.
Rabbits can be raised indoors or out. If you have the means, an air-conditioned space is wonderful for summertime, a corner of the garage, an old shed, or a dedicated rabbit barn can all serve this purpose. If this is not an option for you, a shady spot exposed to cooling breezes can work just fine. The issue with overheating in summer is that if bucks are too hot for too long they can temporarily lose their ability to perform their buckly duty with the desired effect. Some farmer’s market friends of mine have addressed this issue in a very creative way. They raise their rabbits outdoors, on a shady side of the barn. They save old water bottles and keep a good supply of them in their freezer. Every morning in the hotter months they place a frozen bottle of water in each cage, and replace them as needed through the day, rotating thawed bottles back into the freezer. As I said, the heat-induced sterility in bucks is temporary, so a worst case scenario is a loss of some breeding time.
In the winter, the primary problem in outdoor rabbits is keeping their water supply liquid. We have addressed this issue in the past by bringing water bottles in once or twice a day during cold snaps, thawing them and refilling with warm water. In winter you will also want to protect your outdoor rabbits from the wind. What is a healthy cooling breeze in summer is a blast freezer in an arctic storm front, and you don’t want your bunnies to become IQF (Individually Quick Frozen) entrées ahead of schedule!
Once you have selected your site, with both summer and winter in mind, it is time to think cages. I like hanging or elevated cages, with a wire floor that bunny poop can drop through. There are a lot of cages on the market, but you can save a lot by building them yourself. We have built cages with wooden frames and hardware cloth, and with just hardware cloth bound together with cage rings. I recommend the no frame method; cage rings and a crimper can be found at just about any farm supply store, along with your 1” hardware cloth. Recommended cage size is somewhere in the range of 24”x24” to 30”x30”. If you get your hardware cloth in 2 foot widths, 24”x30” is a good compromise. Each cage will house a single rabbit, and you will need a few larger grow out cages for young rabbits. Cinderblocks work great for elevating cages, and make the whole system portable in case you need to make seasonal adjustments in location.
One of the often overlooked aspects of rabbit raising is the fertilizer produced. Rabbit poop is an awesome growing medium. Unlike many manures, rabbit does not need to be composted before using. You can grow veggies in rabbit manure straight out of the rabbit. This is a huge benefit to the organic gardener. Wire-bottom cages make harvesting this bonanza a breeze.
The only other equipment you will need is feeders and waterers, and nesting boxes for your does. We like to get the watering spouts with a ball valve that will fit on a two liter bottle and feeders that open on the outside of the cage for easy filling. I also like the commercially produced tin nesting boxes, but you can save a little by building your own wooden ones. I like the tin for ease of cleaning. They don’t mind hot water and bleach between litters.
In terms of species selection your best bets for litter size and butcher weight will probably be the California or New Zealand Whites. These are both fast growers that will reach a dressed weight in the 4 pound range at 8 to 12 weeks, depending on the feed provided. When making your species selection, pay attention to what others in your area are raising successfully. You can’t argue with what works!
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Rabbits are pretty easy to feed. There are a wide range of commercial feeds available to suit your philosophy. You can find everything from cheap commercial grades to organic and GMO-free varieties. Prices, and thus cost to raise, will vary, but if you have strong opinions organic and GMO-free feeds are well worth the additional costs. Pellet feeds can be supplemented with hay, and even lawn clippings. I often gather up taller grasses that have fallen to my weed eater and feed them to the rabbits. In a pinch, this ease of feeding could prove indispensable, as even the grass produced in an average size lawn can keep quite a few rabbits going if properly managed.
Four breeding does and a buck make a nice “herd” for the average family. Some quick math will show that rabbits breed like…rabbits, and a small well-managed rabbit operation will supply a great deal of meat. Let’s examine a few low-end estimates and run the numbers — we will assume 8 litters per year per doe, and 5 kits per litter. With these numbers, you get 40 meat rabbits per doe, or 160 per year for your four does. This is a nice rabbit dinner once or twice a week for a family of four. Larger families or those that like rabbit a lot can add does to meet their wants and needs. Bear in mind that you could get as many as 10 litters per year out of each doe, and as many as 10 kits per litter; our 160 per year is not at all unrealistic.
A few last notes on breeding. It is best to put the buck into the doe’s cage for breeding. This avoids any territorial aggression on his part. Gestation is 28 days, so make sure that the nesting box is put into the doe’s cage in plenty of time for her to pull fur and build a nest. Kits should be removed from their mother and weaned at between four and six weeks, and they will be ready for the butcher at about 10 weeks.
Rabbits are a great addition to your self-sufficiency preps whether you live on rural homestead or a quarter acre town lot. They are simple, productive and cheap to get into, and they can provide a valuable source of protein for your family in the best of times or the worst of times.
The best way to be sure that you are getting an ample amount of healthy fats in your diet is to eat a varied and whole, minimally processed diet and stay clear of processed and fast foods.