Backyard Rabbits

2014-07-23 18.49.34Backyard chickens are rapidly growing in popularity for eggs and meat, but I’ve seen far less consideration of backyard rabbits as a valuable meat source that can be raised in a small urban lot. Yes, they are soooo cute — but honestly, what food source isn’t, at least at some point. The calf prancing in a field, the piglet staring up doe-eyed. Or the frilly kale and multicolored lettuces that could as easily serve in an ornamental garden as an edible one.

2014-04-21 09.04.38Here’s a few reasons why rabbits are an excellent addition to an urban homestead (see the Michigan State University 4-H track 4H1510RabbitTracks-NutriValue for additional details.)

  • Rabbit is higher in protein than any of the other commonly eaten meats and is a rich source of vitamins B-12 and niacin, and also selenium, a mineral used by our bodies to create antioxidants.
  • Rabbit is lower in fat, sodium, and calories per pound than other meats. Indeed, eating only a diet of rabbit could result in fat starvation.
  • Rabbit tastes good, and is a popular cuisine in France and Italy.
  • Rabbits produce 6 pounds of meat per pound of food and water compared to highly inefficient cows which produce 1 pound of meat per pound of food and water.
  • They eat all sorts of scraps humans wouldn’t. Indeed, we no longer have a single weed in our yard, only forage we pull to feed our livestock. Even trimmings from shrubs and pruning from trees go into the run to be eaten.
  • Their manure is a rich source of nitrogen for the garden and can be added directly, although we still compost it since it’s mixed with chicken manure which must be composted first.
  • Their pelts can be used for a range of purposes including slippers, hats, and blankets.
  • Rabbits breed like … well … rabbits. In her first 6 months of breeding, our doe, Sassy, has produced four litters of 9, 8, 7, and a still to be counted number, and they breed year around.
  • Gestation is 4 weeks and can be processed for meat in under 10 weeks, although we tend to wait until 12-14 weeks for ours.

Processing Rabbits for Meat

DSCF5591We processed our second litter yesterday. They were 14 weeks, 2 days old. The average live weight was 5 lb 10 oz and the average dressed weight was 3 lb 1 oz, for a total of 24 lb 8 oz of bone-in meat. We also keep the heart, liver, and kidneys which we didn’t weigh.

WDSCF5595e purchased five 40 pound bags of Nutrena Naturewise rabbit pellets from Rural King at $13.49 per bag. Litters 1 and 3, as well as the breeding doe (Sassy) and buck (Barley) — the only two rabbits we named and don’t eat — also ate some of the feed. They also periodically enjoy some of the chicken feed. The rest of their food is “free”, coming from our yard (“weeds” and intentionally grown green manures — ryegrass, hairy vetch, white clover, buckwheat — that we harvest after they’ve enriched the soil) as well as scraps from our kitchen, our neighbors’ kitchens, and the local food coop. So estimating cost per pound of meat is a little hard. But we’ll do a rough estimate by adding the costs of the 5 bags of Nutrena to arrive at $67.45 for feed, or $2.75/pound of meat processed. There are non-recurring costs such as the initial cost of feeders and living structures that I’m not good at amortizing, so I’ll just say we’re coming in at under $3/pound.

$3/pound is a good price and competes favorably even with the most efficient of industrial farm-raised foods. For the healthiest meat available, according to the USDA, that’s not bad at all. And we know they had minimal stress and a reasonably happy — if I can project human emotions — life. We continue to work to change up the run and hutch of the rabbits and chickens to keep it interesting. Then at slaughter, we thank each rabbit for its gift as we calm it cradled in our arms. My son Eric even gives each a kiss of appreciation. This is our way of approaching what I just learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass is called the Honorable Harvest. The blood from the slaughter adds rich nitrogen to our compost bin. I hope to some day find a good way to add the bone, a rich source of phosphorus, to the compost bin as well. Each harvest we learn to respectfully use more of the gift given to us by the rabbit. We use techniques garnered from Adam Danforth’s Butchering Poultry, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, and Pork: The Comprehensive Photographic Guide to Humane Slaughtering and Butchering. With three of us working, we processed the eight rabbits in two hours. Setup and cleanup took another hour.

Our Experiences Housing and Rearing Rabbits: From Hutch to Colony

2014-02-16 13.54.28Initially we raised the rabbits in two hutches hastily constructed when our son and his significant other unexpectedly moved back to Champaign from the sustainable farm they were living on in Carbondale, IL. They brought the rabbits with them which they had purchased to experiment with meat farming. We’re not real sure of the breeds, just that they’re ones good for both meat and fur production. They are definitely not the big New Zealand breeds — Sassy our breeding doe might be a Blanc de Hotot and Barley our breeding buck has at least some French Lop in him.

2014-03-09 15.59.36Our first litter was born late February during a severe cold spell. We didn’t provide any additional heat and we were quite concerned that Sassy mostly ignored the litter. We since have learned that does only nurse the kits once a day and otherwise stay away to draw potential predators away from the nest. Instead, she lines the nest for warmth and newborn comfort with her own fur and other nesting material she can gather — in our case straw. All nine survived without any intervention on our part. This was an early lesson in what has become a theme of 2014 — nature has worked out many of the tricks for survival and humans can do much if we learn to listen tom and work in harmony with, that which is being communicated.

As spring arrived we prepared for the arrival of our new chickens which finally were allowed in Champaign as of January, 2014. I did some research regarding rabbit hutches as we wondered whether the interest of Barley to leave his hutch was an indication he was cramped or lonely. Indeed, rabbits are very social animals but they’re often raised in hutches smaller than the ones we were providing. But I also found an alternative approach to raising rabbits called the colony method.

The livestock area provides an 8' x 16' run (half covered) for the chickens and rabbits, and another 5' x 16' run next to the property line where chickens are not to trod according to ordinance. In front of the run is a new strawberry patch edged on the run side with clematis and borage, and on the other with thyme. Borage and thyme are good beneficials for strawberries. To the right is one of our first hutches, which is currently open to all rabbits. Just before our doe rabbit delivers, the buck will go into daddy time-out so that he doesn't immediately breed the doe after delivery.

The livestock area provides an 8′ x 16′ run (half covered) for the chickens and rabbits, and another 5′ x 16′ run next to the property line where chickens are not to trod according to ordinance. In front of the run is a new strawberry patch edged on the run side with clematis and borage, and on the other with thyme. Borage and thyme are good beneficials for strawberries. To the right is one of our first hutches, which is currently open to all rabbits. Just before our doe rabbit delivers, the buck will go into daddy time-out so that he doesn’t immediately breed the doe after delivery.

While converting the 8×10 shed into a chicken coop and building an attached run, I used the space within 5′ of the neighbors property, which ordinance said could not house chickens, into a dormitory and run for the rabbits. I built a tunnel from the run to Sassy’s former hutch so that if need be I could give Barley a daddy time out, allowing Sassy a breather between litters. Indeed, within hours of delivering her second litter, Sassy was once again pregnant. But it was 10 weeks between her third and fourth litter. Does do not have a regular oestrus cycle, but instead produces an egg shortly after mating. She is not always receptive to the male, however. Ultimately, with the colony method, nature takes care of the rhythms of birth, and the tunnel and hutch become a place of gathering and play for both rabbits and chickens.

As the first litter came of age around 10-12 weeks, there was a lot of dry humping — buck to daughters, sons to doe, and sibling to sibling. No pregnancies resulted, and according to some sources rabbits can be inbred without problem, although I’ve seen this disputed in other sources. But we’ve not seen this behavior much in the second and third litters, even when the second litter reached 14 weeks. Has Barley mellowed with age? Or was Barley and the other rabbits, which had been reared separately, establishing a hierarchy that no longer needs establishing with the new litters? I’m not sure. But these days there’s considerable harmony in the run except for the occasional kick of dirt on a sibling that sets off a round of mad dashes around the run, tunnel, and dormitory.

We practice a deep litter approach, adding fresh straw every week or so. We remove the lower bedding out the dormitory and runs every 10-12 weeks, moving the partially composted material to our compost bins. We continue to watch for communal disease, a potential problem in colonies, but so far haven’t had any problems. If we decide to introduce a new doe to the colony to increase production, we’ll use Barley’s original smaller hutch as a quarantine and then slowly introduce her to the colony. Others have suggested no problems with this approach.

Give It a Try!

In all, we only spend a few minutes per day caring for the rabbits (not counting the time spent weeding cum foraging in our garden for rabbit and chicken food) and spend about 3 hours every 14 weeks processing the rabbits for meat. In return we are gifted with: a plethora of laughs and awes as we enjoy breakfasts and dinners on our back deck watching their antics; a rich source of manure for our garden; and ultimately affordable, ultra-healthy, sustainably produced meat and pelts. With luck this post might encourage you to give this a try as well.

Resources to Get You Started:

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About mwolske

I'm a Senior Research Scientist in Community Informatics at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Livestock, Organic Gardening, Permaculture. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Backyard Rabbits

  1. mrjonmoore says:

    Bunnies are good. Angoras offer value adding options.

  2. Kathryn says:

    I love hearing about how other people have their colonies set up and how it’s working for them. 🙂

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