Breeding and raising rabbits has been a homestead goal of mine for quite a few years. Seems simple enough, right? After all, the term “breeding like rabbits” came about for a reason. Yet, I seemed to fail over and over again.
A couple of months ago we finally made a colony set up for our rabbits in a last ditch effort to successfully breed our rabbits before giving up completely. Suddenly, we have rabbits coming out of our ears, so I’m going to call this experiment a success.
Now, I’m not an expert on breeding and raising rabbits, but I still want to share our experience because it might help you. First, let’s talk about why I think rabbits are a great addition to the homestead.
Rabbits are versatile
Rabbits are pretty versatile. Here are 8 things you can do with your rabbits.
1. You can sell them as pets.
2. You can sell them to people who show rabbits.
3. You can raise them for meat.
4. You can sell them for meat (either already processed or live, depending on the regulations where you live).
5. You can sell the pelts.
6. You can sell them to raw feeders. There are lots of people who feed their pets raw meat but don’t want to, or can’t, raise it all themselves.
7. You can sell the odds and ends. I recently discovered that people will buy heads and feet for their dogs.
8. You can use or sell the rabbit dropping for gardening. It’s great fertilizer!
I don’t raise show rabbits. If you want to do that you need to choose the breed you are interested in and make sure you have pedigreed breeding stock. You’ll also have to show them yourself which requires knowing the standard requirements for the ideal of your breed, much like breeding dogs. I simply don’t have the time or interest in doing any of that, but you may really enjoy it.
I raise Silver Fox primarily. They are valued for their pelts, which are super soft. They also have a great dress out weight of nearly 65%. That means you’re getting more meat, which is what you want if you’re raising rabbits to supplement your diet or sell for meat. I believe the average meat breed ranges from 50% to 65% dress out weight. I was reading on the Rise and Shine Rabbitry site, and they say that a rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat on the same feed that a cow would use to produce 1 pound of meat. And if you live in the city, you can easily raise rabbits without anyone even noticing. Try doing that with a cow!
Butcher weight is typically around 8 weeks old and 5 pounds. This should net you a little over 3 pounds of meat. Some people butcher sooner and some later. Older rabbits will be a little more tough and might be best in the crock pot. Younger rabbits are more tender and can be prepared in a variety of ways. Just experiment and see what size you prefer to butcher at.
There are other great meat breeds as well. I think Californian and New Zealand White are the most well known. I have raised New Zealands and wasn’t particularly fond of them, but this is a choice you have to make for yourself. I feel that the Silver Fox have a sweeter personality, which makes them a truly multi-purpose breed. So think about what you want out of your rabbits and then do some research on the breeds before you decide on one (or more).
Rabbits in cages
When we first started with rabbits, we kept them in cages. I think this is the most common way to keep rabbits, though there are people who have pet rabbits that are litter trained and have the run of the house. My rabbits are not pets, so having a bunch of rabbits running around the house isn’t really a good fit for us. Though the dogs would probably find it highly entertaining.
Some experts say you should provide a minimum of 12 square feet per rabbit. This allows them room to stretch out, sit upright, and move around comfortably. If your rabbits are going to have babies, they need enough room for a nest box as well.
Generally, you will want a wire cage that allows dropping to fall through to the ground or into a tray for easy cleanup. The rabbits cage must be secure from any predators and also sheltered from rain and other harsh weather. Rabbits can handle cold fairly well thanks to that nice fur coat, but they should not get wet. As long as they are protected from these things, they can be caged outside, or in an outbuilding.
Rabbits in colonies
This is what we are doing now. The process is not complete, but we are very happy with the results. I have to tell you, I really hate keeping animals in cages. One of the reasons I like to raise our own meat is because I want to know that the animal had a good life and was happy and healthy. I don’t think any animal is happy in a cage. This isn’t meant to sound judgmental because I have nothing against anyone who keeps rabbits in cages as long as the rabbits are well cared for. I’m just saying I am really happy that my rabbits are happy, and I can see that they are when I see them hopping around playing together.
In one of our barns, we have enclosed one of the stalls with chicken wire. Inside we have a layer of pine shavings and an abundance of straw. This allows lots of digging and burrowing, which is what rabbits were made to do. We have nest boxes in the pen, but that doesn’t mean the rabbits will always use them. As long as the nests are deep and warm, the babies will be in good shape. The only downside is that it may be hard to find the babies to check on their health. I found this out the hard way a few weeks ago when I decided to count how many bunnies were in a nest and I smelled something dead. Ugh!
What I am finding is that most people allow the buck to live with the does all the time. That means they breed whenever they want to, including right after giving birth. You’ll find that you have an abundance of rabbits very quickly! That’s great from a production standpoint, but you also need to keep an eye on the babies. When they are about 8 weeks old, or around 5 pounds or so, you’ll need to sort them out so you don’t end up with babies breeding.
We will have to sort them into cages right now, but the plan is to enclose the other stall in the barn and use it as a bachelor pad until excess males are sold or butchered. Excess females will also be sold or butchered so they may go into cages or they may stay in the colony if they will be used soon.
Keeping the colony clean is also important. Droppings don’t just fall through the wire, so you’ll have to plan on doing some housekeeping once or twice a week. I find it easier to spot clean in the colony pen than to empty trays from under cages. You may not agree. Again, this is my experience.
I feed my rabbits a variety of things. They get good quality rabbits pellets. They also get all the hay they can eat as well as treats of fresh veggies, fruit, and weeds in the summer. When my rabbits were caged, they got a scoop of pellets each per day (my scoop probably held close to a cup). Now that they are running around and have an assortment of babies too, I just fill three feeders each day (I use feeders like these). They have plenty of hay so I know they get enough, even if they might prefer more pellets.
While rabbits have a pretty diverse palette, there are some foods you should avoid giving them.
- Grains, breads, pasta, cookies, crackers
- Iceberg lettuce
- Peanut butter and other nuts
The main diet of your rabbits should be primarily hay, and pellets should be secondary just to make sure they are getting all the nutrients they need. Any other treats should be limited.
What to do with the scraps
After you have butchered your rabbits, you’re going to have… well… stuff. Innards can be fed to the dogs, and many people will buy frozen heads, feet and organs for that purpose. Check out some of the raw feeder groups for potential buyers.
Pelts can be sold to crafters. I am still researching this, but so far I think the best way to go is to learn to tan the pelts yourself and sell them. I see them on eBay going to $4 to $7 each plus shipping. However, you may find a source that will buy your pelts directly. Some will even buy them frozen (not tanned). As I find more information, I will try to share it here. If you know any potential buyers, let me know!
At this point, I think we will continue raising and breeding rabbits. We’ll use them for our own food and sell the excess. Currently, I have 3 bucks in cages. My plan is to get rid of 2 of them and keep the remaining 1 in the colony with the does.
I already mentioned that we planned to enclose the other stall for a bachelor pad, and hopefully we’ll be able to get that done soon. But it’s really cold right now and outdoor projects are not very appealing to me. I’m sure my husband would agree.
I also would like to learn to tan the pelts. Maybe I can learn to make some things with the fur. If not I will sell them. I also have sources to sell the odds and ends locally to raw food buyers, so most of the rabbit will be used with nearly no waste.