When I was in my 20’s I lived in Chicago, became a vegan and supported groups like PETA, fast forward a decade and I am now raising my own rabbits as meat for my family, who would have thought, but how did I get here and why?
I enjoyed the conscientiousness of being a vegan but became very anemic. I tried everything but nothing worked and a doctor suggested eating small amounts of meat. This placed a problem in my path, how do I humanely eat meat? Shortly after, I met my soon to be husband Adam, a hunter, who helped me understand that it is completely possible to eat meat and use animal leathers and furs, while still being humane and sensitive to animals. (Others may disagree with that last sentence but there is truth in respectable hunters keeping herds in check, while maintaining the land around them and like those of generations long ago, using and appreciating all of the animal vs parts.) Because the venison from the deer, that my husband tagged, were “raised” in a natural habitat, humanely killed (he is a great shot), appreciated and wholly used (meat, bones and hide), I was able to see the service that he was doing to the animal population and feel comfortable eating deer meat. I was however, uncomfortable with the “modern” ways of raising farm animals and did not feel comfortable eating other meats.
Meat animals today, in America, are full of things that are harmful to them and ourselves. There are hormones in much of it, many of the animals are raised in tiny pens or cramped cages with little to no sunlight, they are fed genetically modified foods, meat birds are bread to have such big breasts that they can’t move or break legs trying and I was not comfortable feeding that to my family, but having a family I wanted to provide more options for meat, without spending an arm and a leg for pastured, organic meats…thus the rabbits became a reality, as we do not live on a farm, we live in town and my husband was against chickens.
The Vimeo video above is a favorite of mine because I think it puts some humanity into what is going on with America’s food. The video isn’t without controversy though, because it is from Chipotle, a rising “fast food” chain and promotes an app, however, any movement towards recognition of the poor grade of food and conditions that it is grown/raised in, is a step in the right direction for me.
Rabbits are super cute, truth be told, we already had 2 as pets and I had never tried rabbit meat before, but after much research I thought it was right for my family. Initially we had some setbacks because the “modern” way to raise meat rabbits involved seclusion and tiny cages, something I was totally against and later I will explain how we got around that via a colony, but you are probably wondering, what is so special about rabbits…
Why Raise Rabbits
I am not reinventing the wheel here by raising rabbits but there are some awesome things about doing so and yet many people are surprised when they hear that I or others raise rabbits for meat.
- Rabbit meat is very low in fat, lower than any other meat, even chicken. It is also lower in bad cholesterol, has the higher protein ratio and is all white meat.
- Rabbits can be housed in a very small area compared to other meat sources, i.e. cows and pigs, and unlike chickens, are very quiet.
- Rabbits only gestate for about 30 days, are able to be butchered in as little as 8 weeks and a doe can produce about 1000% her body weight, roughly 300 pounds of meat a year, depending on breed and litter size, it could be even more.
- Rabbits cost little to purchase, food costs are minimal and overall are low maintenance.
- Rabbits not only produce meat but they also produce great manure for your garden and warm fur for blankets, gloves, throws and much more.
- Rabbits, given the same amounts of food and water as a cow can produce 6 pounds of meat vs. 1 pound of beef.
- Rabbits require less room and with so much farm land being tied up to feed cows and other animals (a cow needs two acres of food), raising rabbits helps take back land to grow more food for humans.
How to Get Started
You need to know if you are zoned for it, don’t assume you are because of where you live. Towns in rural areas have ordinances against it, while cities don’t, there almost seems no reason to it all but check…ANONYMOUSLY… and you probably wonder why, well to be honest I believe we all have a right in America, to raise our own food. Of course there have to be ordinances for certain things or some crazy neighbor will have a cow on an eighth of an acre, but being that rabbits, and chickens for that matter, are smaller than dogs and some cats, you should be within your rights and if your town states otherwise, well I am not promoting the breaking of the rules, however, what they don’t know won’t hurt them and better still, you could try to make the changes needed for yourself and others to legally be able to raise food for your family.
I would try rabbit meat. This is something I did not do and that was stupid of me. I bought 4 rabbits, built a colony, butchered my first rabbit, cooked it, spending countless time and effort all on the assumption that I would like it because others said that it “tastes like chicken”. What if I had hated it? Rabbit, depending on where you live might be in your grocery store, if not check online for sellers. So, you probably wonder if rabbit does taste like chicken, well, the texture is a little different but honestly not enough to really mention and I would say rabbit is the most clean meat I have ever tasted, that is the best way I can describe it, but yes, if you like chicken you should be fine.
Watch a rabbit being butchered and ask yourself, “can I do that?”, because if you can’t and you don’t have anyone that can, then this won’t be for you. I have a section on butchering and will have videos there but until then go to YouTube and take a look, just remember there are different ways to butcher rabbits, some much more humane than others. We have never had a rabbit even notice what was going on prior to butchering, they were alive and then they weren’t with no pain or struggle, however, there are those that like to drown rabbits or hit them over the head and I disagree with those methods.
Reevaluate the situation. Rabbits are not dogs or cats and a colony of rabbits can’t be kenneled should you go on vacation. Rabbits, especially in a colony, aren’t hard to take care of but they do require some attention and a commitment. If you travel a lot and have no one to help you care for the rabbits than this probably isn’t for you. You can not just leave a mound of food and go out of town for a weekend. I would also begin to think about how you want to house your rabbits. Do you want a colony, if so, where? How big? Inside or outside or both? Are you ok with caged rabbits and if so they still need housed. Are you ready to give up some of your back yard or garage?
Research rabbit breeds. There are many different breeds suitable to meat production and some do better in certain climates. Rabbits aren’t especially heat hearty but there are a few breeds that do better than others. Below is a list of rabbits that are usually considered for meat production. The first 2 are the most common and the rest are in alphabetical order.
- New Zealand – 12 pounds, usually white fur and probably the most used in meat production
- Californian – 10 pounds, white fur with black markings and probably a close tie to the New Zealand
- American Rabbit – 12 pounds
- American Chinchilla – 12 pounds
- Beveren Rabbits – 12 pounds
- Champagne d’Argent – 12 pounds
- Cinnamon – 11 pounds
- Crème d’Argent – 11 pounds
- Flemish Giant – no real max weight, giant breed*
- French Lop – no real max weight, giant breed*
- Giant Angora – 16 pounds, dual purpose for meat and wool*
- Giant Chinchilla – 16 pounds*
- Palomino – 11 pounds
- Satin – 11 pounds
- Silver Fox – 12 pounds
*Giant breeds take a lot more feed and don’t necessarily dress out as much meat as you would expect. I would heavily research them before even considering because the increase of food and housing might not be worth it.
Plan. Now that you know what rabbit breed you want you can closer estimate things like feed costs organic?), housing and you can also get a feel for how many meat rabbits you will need to feed your family. This is how things break down for me…
I have Californians, though they can get up to 10 pounds at full adult weight, most butchering takes place between 8-12 weeks old and at 12 weeks they usually weigh 5 pounds. After butchering they dress out at about 2.5 pounds comprising of about a half pound of bone weight, making each rabbit 2 pounds of meat. Rabbits can produce a litter a month, though they usually won’t as they tend to produce less in the colder months and sometimes not at all during the hottest summer months, litters are usually between 4-12 kits (babies). With my rabbits, I am happy with 4-5 litters a year per doe, to be safe when figuring numbers I always assume a small litter of 4 surviving kits, as there is some death rate, though you will have big litters survive as well. This would give me 16-20 meat rabbits yearly, all dressing at about 2 pounds, which would total 32-40 pounds of actual meat from 1 doe (female rabbit). This is a low number as it assumes small litters but it is a good place to start.
In our house we have venison, we eat at least 1 meat free dinner a week, we usually have a pesto or tomato and pasta meal, leftover nights and pizza nights, so we aim for 1 rabbit a week for our family. However, this is more than we need. When butchering rabbits, I cut the front and hind legs off and freeze them together and I freeze the body by itself. For our family of 6, 4 rabbits produce 6 meals. We use the body portions for shredded meat in enchiladas or crock-pot dishes or we even shred and use in place of tuna in sandwiches and the 4 body portions make at least 4 meals, maybe more if used in sandwiches. The 16 front and back legs are split up into 2 meals and are grilled, baked, bbq’d and can be done almost any way that a chicken leg or wing can. So, going by the 4 rabbits = 6 meals ratio I would need 34 rabbits for butchering a year. That number assumes that we only eat 1 rabbit meal a week, if you would want 2 or have a bigger family your number will be different and because part of our meat source is venison I like to have extra rabbit meat because we don’t know if we will get a deer, we always have, but this past deer season was so sparse and I would rather have a little extra rabbit on hand than not. So even though I only need 34 I aim for 52 a year. This means we would need 3 does to produce the amount of meat we would need for our family. 3 does each giving me 16-20 surviving kits would be 48-60 kits or 96-120 pounds of meat a year. Also note that this number will change once my 2 boys, and maybe daughter, start eating me out of house and home!
Now that you have an approximate number of rabbits needed to produce, you can begin to plan housing. We have a colony for our rabbits as I personally think keeping animals in small cages is not humane. I would not suggest less than 10 square feet per rabbit, though some of that can actually be vertical space, but that is probably what I would call minimum, and if you can go bigger you should. Planning for the above I would need a space no smaller than 40 square feet (3 does and 1 buck), this could be a 4×10 shed or enclosure in the garage, a partial indoor and outdoor set up or you could even split the colonies into 2 smaller ones as some keep their bucks separate, really the possibilities for colony set ups vary as much as the people who have them and for more on that click here, what is important is that now you have an idea for the amount of space that the housing will need.
Feed costs are usually a concern, though some of grocery money normally used toward meat can cover this cost, however, it is a good idea to get a grasp on what all costs are. Would you want to have a garden for your rabbits, feed only pellets or a mixture of both? The cost will vary depending on what you choose. Pellets are usually where most people start but I have only found 1 company that has organic pellets and it is over a $1 a pound, which might not sound like much but with rabbits, that eat about an ounce of pellets per pound of their weight, it can get pricey. The problem with non-organic pellets is that there is so much in the pellet (sometimes well over 20 ingredients) that I personally don’t want in my food, soy, GMO corn and the like. However, at $15 for a 50 pound bag, non-organic pellets are easy on the pocket book, but with the poor quality of pellets it defeats the purpose of raising better quality meat for your family.
Organic feed for your rabbits can be easier and cheaper with a garden. Rabbits can eat most veggies, grass clippings, twigs and so much more, all that can be produced organically and cheaply, with effort of course. A rabbit would need about a 1/2 cup of veggies and leafy greens per pound and adding a fodder system will aid in getting through the winter months. I will detail a lot of this on the Caring for Rabbits page. What is important to know is that with some time, effort and patience you can raise your own meat organically, for not only less than you can purchase at the store, but for less than many people who choose the non-organic method.
If you feel that raising rabbits is something for you, know I am here for you. I had a hard time finding information that was suited toward people who really haven’t a clue and that is a major reason I started my blog. Now that we have gone over the basics and you have made some decisions, visit these other pages, Building a Rabbit Colony or Caring for Rabbits, for more information. Also feel free to email me or message me on Facebook, and I will help in any way that I can.
Bet + Fam 🙂