Raising Meat Rabbits

A short guide to raising rabbits for meat. Topics covered include rabbit reproduction, feeding instructions, and breed information. A must read for the beginner.

Rabbit meat is delicious and nutritious. There are several aspects of raising rabbits for meat. Here I only discuss a few, but it is enough to get the small farmer going.

CHOOSING YOUR BREED OF RABBIT

Selecting your rabbit's breed is probably the most important decision you will make concerning your rabbits. My advice is to read as much as you can before deciding which breed you like the most. You will probably find that most producers raise only either New Zealands, Californians, or a combination of the two. Most producers have purebred stock of each of the two breeds, and crossbreed them to produce more vigorous young that grow more quickly. They can also breed the purebred adults, and sell the purebred offspring as breeders.

New Zealand

New Zealands come in different colours, such as black, red, and the most popular for meat purposes, white. These weigh from 10-13 pounds when mature. They are known for their ability to grow market-ready fryers (4-5 pounds) by 8 weeks of age. Their average litter size is 8-10 bunnies. The breed was developed in the USA and is well-proportioned and has a full, well-muscled body type, and prominently veined ears.

Californian

This is another good meat breed, also developed in the USA. It comes in only one colour-white with black ears, nose, feet and tail. At maturity, this breed weighs 9-10 pounds.The average litter size is 6-8. The body is rather plump, but fine-boned. Breeders often cross New Zealand and Californians for their vigorous hybrid offspring.

Champagne D'Argent

This is one of the oldest breeds of rabbits. It is completely black when born, but gradually turns silver as it matures. It is medium length, with well-developed hind-quarters. They weigh about 10-15 pounds at maturity.

Florida White

Although this rabbit weighs only 4-6 pounds at maturity, it is better suited to the fryer market. This breed is becoming more popular for home meat production, and crossbreeding. The fur is white with good density and texture, and they have a compact, meaty body, short neck, and small head. This breed was developed in the USA as well.

FEEDING YOUR RABBIT

Providing good feed is an integral part of rabbit raising. Rabbits can consume many different types of feedstuff, but the best way to go is to feed commercial pellets and good quality timothy/alfalfa hay. Refrain from feeding your rabbit cabbage and lettuce, as this will upset the balance of good bacteria in their stomach and cause them to get diarrhea. If you can't resist and your rabbit gets a good dose of diarrhea, give him/her wild rasberry canes. The diarrhea should clear up within 24 hours. Rabbits should get pellets that contain at least 16% fibre.

How much to feed is an important thing to know. If you give your rabbit too much, it will become fat, and may have problems breeding, and if a doe becomes too fat, it is likely that she will have troubles when kindling. If you give them too little feed, then they will, obviously, become too skinny and be more prone to other diseases. Here is a list of the amount of feed you should give your rabbit. Remember though, each rabbit is an individual, and these are guidelines only. You should learn your rabbit's needs, and adjust its feed accordingly. These are daily amounts. The first amount is for medium breeds, and the third for large breeds.

Bucks 3-6 oz. 4-9 oz.

Does 6 oz. 9 oz.

Does,Bred 1-15 days 6 oz. 9 oz

Does,Bred 16-30 days 7-8oz. 10-11 oz.

Doe,+ litter 10 oz. 12 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young, one week old)

Doe,+ litter 18 oz. 24 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young, one month old)

Doe,+ litter 28 oz. 36 oz. (Litter size-6-8 young,6-8 weeks old)

Young, weaned rabbit 3-6 oz. 6-9 oz.

The best way to tell if your rabbit is getting enough feed is to stroke its backbone regularly. If the bumps of your rabbit's backbone feel sharp and pointed, increase its feed; if you can feel the bumps, but they feel rounded, you are giving the right amount; if you feel no bumps at all, then decrease your rabbit's intake. I recommend a weekly check, just to make sure.



REPRODUCTION AND YOUNG

The first thing you need to decide when you want bunnies is when to breed the parents. Medium breeds should be about 5-6 months before they're bred, and large breeds should not be bred until at least 8 months of age. The rabbits you choose should be in excellent health. Make sure that the rabbits you are breeding are not closely related. When you put the buck and doe together, take the doe to the buck's cage or the doe will attack him to defend her territory, and the buck may be more interested in her cage than in her.

When the doe is in the buck's cage, the buck should try to breed her right away. If she is ready, she will allow him to mount, and raise her hindquarters for him. The buck will squeal and fall off sideways if a mating occurs. If the doe runs around the cage and won't stand for the buck, then you should remove her and try in a few days. After the first few times, he should be able to do it on his own. A doe is an induced ovulator. This means that she will produce eggs only after sexual stimulation. After the mating has taken place, the follicles in the ovary grow quickly. They break and release the eggs about ten hours later. During this time, the sperm are moving through the doe's reproductive system. Sometimes, the sperm doesn't live long enough for the eggs to be fertilized, so most breeders put them together again 8-12 hours later to ensure that the doe will have bunnies.

The gestation period of a rabbit is 31 days. The young should be born within a few days of this date. Sometimes a doe will go through 'pseudopregnancy'. This happens when a young doe is sexually stimulated or has an infertile mating. She may appear to be bred, even to the point of producing milk and pulling fur to line her nest. Following stimulation, the doe releases egg cells, which cause the uterus to swell, which, in turn, activates the mammary glands. Ovulation cannot take place until seventeen days after the initial stimulation which caused the pseudopregnancy. After the seventeen days are up, put the doe (if she's to be bred) in with the buck, as this will be the point at which her fertility is highest. To prevent pseudopregnancy, separate young does that are to be bred three weeks before mating. Once a doe has had her first litter, she is less likely to undergo another pseudopregnancy.

The first thing you must do after mating has taken place is to write down when the doe was bred and when she is due. You can write it down on a calendar, or on hutch cards which are placed on the doe's cage and the bucks cage. Also, it is a good idea to have a rabbit record book to keep track of the pedigrees and who's who and what's what. Your records should include:

*rabbit's name or number

*name or number of rabbit to which this rabbit was bred

*date bred

*date kindled

*number of bunnies born

*number of bunnies weaned

*weight of bunnies at weaning time (optional)

*other pertinent information

As time for your doe to kindle (give birth) gets closer, you will need a nest box for her to give birth in. There are several choices you can make. The most common one is to make a nest box from 3/8" plywood. One thing is that you have to disinfect it between litters with a solution of 1 part household bleach to 5 parts water. Let it dry in the sunlight.

Other choices are wire nest boxes, which are made from 1/2x1" wire, and you use cardboard liners that you can throw away; and metal nest boxes which you can buy in stores and put cardboard liners in them. Next you need nesting materials. I use hay and straw, but you can also use wood shavings, shredded newspaper, or cardboard. Put the nest box in three days prior to the kindling date of your doe.

As the due date of your doe approaches, you may notice that she is more nervous than usual. Keep other animals away, as well as anything that may cause noise or undue stress. When you put the nest box in, some does will jump in and build their nest right away, whereas others will wait to the last minute before building their nest. Your doe may go around the pen, looking for straw or bedding and gather it up in her mouth. When she is finished arranging the bedding, she will pull fur from her belly and dewlap. This serves two purposes. The first is to provide a warm bed for her youngsters, the second is to expose her nipples so the bunnies can nurse better. The doe may eat less a day or two before she gives birth. After she has kindled, gently pull aside the fur and take a quick count. If there are dead or deformed bunnies, remove them, and cover the bunnies back up.

Sometimes things don't go as they should, and your doe may die. You may have to foster your bunnies if you have another doe which has kindled on the same day. To do this, rub the doe's nose in vanilla extract and put the bunnies in the nest. Usually, the doe will not notice anything amiss, but if she does, she may try to kill the bunnies or just refuse to feed them. If this happens, remove the bunnies immediately, and feed them by hand. Here is a recipe for the "Ëśmilk' that you should use.

1 pint skim milk

2 egg yolks

2 tbsp Karo syrup

one tbsp bone meal

Feed this to the bunnies with an eyedropper until they are full (usually they eat 5-7 ccs). Your bunnies should be healthy, and it is up to YOU to keep them that way. As soon as the doe is done kindling, make sure that there is fur pulled, and if not, you must pull some from the doe's belly. This will not hurt her. Make sure there are no babies on the wire, and if there are, slip them into your shirt up against your skin to warm them. Then return them to the nest. Be certain to watch for bunnies out of the nest box every day, because sometimes a doe will jump out of the box with a bunny still attached.

The young usually open their eyes about ten days after birth. Sometimes bunnies are unable to open their eyes, and have a hard crusty material holding them closed. You can use eyedrops made for people, such as Murine, with a cotton swab to clean the crusty stuff away. Then, gently separate the lids. Usually subsequent treatments are unnecessary. At about three weeks of age, the bunnies will start to come out of the nest box, and eat solid food. Take out the nest box. The young can be weaned anywhere between four-eight weeks, but the longer they stay with the mother, the better. I wean mine at eight weeks.

I usually rebreed my does when the bunnies are 6-7 weeks of age, so the doe can have two-three weeks after her litter is weaned to regroup and get ready for her new litter.

If you need any advice on any health problems, please contact your veterinarian. A clean rabbitry is a healthy rabbitry, and you shouldn't encounter too many problems. Rabbit raising is a very rewarding business, if practiced correctly.

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