Whether you run a large vegetable operation or you’re a small-time shepherd, raising meat rabbits could be a good fit for your farm. They require very little in the way of food and space, and can add a nice bit of diversity to your market offerings—not to mention some nice manure to your pasture or garden. Although there are several things to consider before starting this new endeavor, rabbits are relatively easy, cheap and fun to keep. So even if you’ve never thought about raising rabbits before, we hope this article will change that.
1. Are You Organized?
Rabbits move quickly—both literally and figuratively—so it’s important to have all the supplies you need and a management plan in place before you bring them home. The management style and rabbit breed you choose will determine the type of hutches or cages you’ll use to house your rabbits. Prepare yourself and your farm as much as possible before your rabbits arrive so your rabbit-raising experience can start off smoothly.
Because rabbits breed … well … like rabbits, and because expecting rabbits need their own pens, it’s important to keep good records as to which animals were bred and when. This can be done with a clipboard kept around the pens or hutches, or digitally on your computer or mobile device. On your chart or spreadsheet, keep track of the matings, how many kits a doe has and how she does as a parent, which will help you decide whether to keep breeding her.
Depending on the rabbit, gestation can be anywhere from 29 to 35 days, producing an average of six to eight kits. Meat rabbits can be ready for harvesting as soon as 12 weeks from birth. You’ll especially want to harvest the bucks before they begin to emit their musty odor.
There’s a lot to keep track of: If organization is not your thing, rabbits might not be your animal.
2. Will You Be Pasturing or Penning?
No matter which you choose, rabbits need room to run. Some farmers raise rabbits on pasture, allowing them to forage and fertilize as they go, while others build rabbit yards to allow them to play. Either way, this exercise will make them healthier and tastier. Consider this element before you start building.
If raising rabbits on pasture, you’ll need to build several mobile hutches, whereas if you’re building a yard, the hutches can all be stationary. The yard itself, however, should be rabbit-proofed so they don’t escape under a fence. An easy way to do this is by burying a small amount of chicken wire several inches into the ground against the fence––anything that would keep rabbits out will also keep them in. Pasturing rabbits is worth the trouble it takes to get everything set up. Pasturing makes for very healthy rabbits, improves the quality of the land, requires less feed, and reduces your chances of disease or parasites by moving them to fresh ground every day. According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, pasture can supply up to 40 percent of rabbits’ dietary needs.
3. Do You Know What Breeds You Want?
There are many different reasons to keep rabbits—for meat, for fur, as pets or for manure—so make sure meat rabbits is what you really want, as this will dictate what breeds to keep. If meat is what you’re after, look for a breed that averages between 9 and 11 pounds, such as Champagne d’Argent, New Zealand, California or Creme d’Argent. These particular breeds also work well in the pasturing system. If you’re more interested in fur, there are several angora breeds to choose from, and if you’re looking for pets, Lops, Dutch and Miniatures are a good breeds to begin with.
4. Is the Right Kind of Feed Available?
In The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals (Storey, 2011), the author writes, “A wild rabbit picks and chooses what it eats to get a balanced diet. Your caged rabbits depend on you to get a balanced diet.” This is an important point, because whether or not you choose to pasture, the rabbits will still have certain dietary needs, including protein, salt and hay. Look around at local feed stores and farms for non-GMO alfalfa (sometimes referred to as non-Round-Up Ready). You can also purchase commercial organic pellets for feeding, though savvy gardeners can grow crops specifically for rabbit production and save themselves at least some expense. Feeding can be complicated, though, so read up on the protein, fiber and fat needs of your specific breed before the animals arrive.
5. Do You Have a Nearby Processor?
Rabbit processors can be difficult for many farmers to find. The first place you should check is with local poultry processors, as rabbit meat is commonly regulated under poultry. You can also home-process rabbits in many states, up to a certain quantity. Look into your local laws, and search your area for small or mobile processors who will take on rabbit meat. If you can’t find anyone nearby and aren’t up to the task yourself, rabbits might not be the best animal for you. Traveling too far to process them can add a lot to the cost of production, and subsequently the price tag for your customers.
Read more about farm animals on HobbyFarms.com:
- Are Cattle Right For My Farm?
- Are Pigs Right For My Farm?
- Are Dairy Goats Right For My Farm?
- Is A Breeding Bull Right For Your Farm?