The following introduction to raising rabbits comes from HOMEGROWN member Travis, a family farmer from Sparkman, Arkansas. You can read more about Travis’s endeavors in his blog, stinnettfamilyfarms.blogspot.com. Thanks so much, Travis, and please keep the good ideas coming!
Hello, all you homesteaders out there. I have been raising rabbits for about ten years now, and while I definitely do not claim to know everything about rabbits, I hope the following will help you in your own rabbit-raising adventure.
There are many reasons for raising rabbits, way more than I can include here. The key benefit for you depends on why you are raising them: For meat? For extra income? Some of the reasons to consider rabbits:
• Rabbit meat is good for you. The meat is high in protein, low in fat, and is all white meat. Most of your recipes that call for chicken can be substituted with rabbit meat.
• Rabbit manure is some of the best fertilizer you can get for your garden. The best part: It doesn’t even require composting.
• Rabbits are very easy to care for, and the cost is much lower than other meat sources that you can produce on your homestead, such as goat, pigs, or cows.
• Knowing exactly what your rabbits eat gives you peace of mind about what is in your own food.
• Raising rabbits can potentially bring in extra income if you sell the offspring or the meat you have left over. You can even sell the manure for fertilizer to other gardeners.
I personally raise rabbits for a couple of reasons. The first is to eat. My family loves rabbit meat, and I raise a few meat rabbits for extended family members, too. For this purpose, I raise New Zealand Whites (pictured up top). The second reason I raise rabbits is to keep as pets. For this, we raise Holland Lops and soon we’ll raise Netherland Dwarves (pictured above right) for pets, as well as for showing at rabbit shows and 4H events.
There are more than 40 different breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, and your reason for raising rabbits will help determine what breed or breeds you choose.
Meat Rabbits: The most popular breeds include the New Zealand and the Californian. The New Zealand is 8 to 12 pounds and usually has large litters of around eight to ten kits. The Californian is 7 to 10 pounds and has six to eight kits per litter.
Pet/Show Rabbits: Any of the accepted breeds make good pets and can be entered in rabbit shows. The Mini Rex is probably the most popular breed due to its gentle personality and ease of handling for children. Another good breed is the Netherland Dwarf (for which I’m starting a breeding program soon), weighing in at about 2 pounds. I also raise Holland Lops, pictured at left—absolutely the cutest things you ever saw.
There are endless ideas and plans available online for rabbit housing; just search for “rabbit hutch” or “rabbit cage.” Cages can be anything from a simple all-wire design to an extravagant rabbit mansion. Really, the sky is the limit. The important thing to remember when planning your setup is to keep your bunnies clean and dry. Here at Stinnett Farms, we have a rabbit barn made out of cattle panels. Inside the barn, we use all-wire cages, pictured at right, suspended from the ceiling. We use all wire because they are much easier to clean and more sanitary. One tip: If you use any wood in constructing your cage or hutch and the bunnies can get their little teeth on it, they will chew it.
FEEDING YOUR RABBITS
Your rabbits’ diet primarily should consist of four things: a good quality pellet feed, fresh hay, fresh clean water, and the occasional fresh vegetable (more on that in a minute). The pellets, available at most feed and pet stores, should be high in fiber. Don’t buy too much at a time because it can spoil before you use it all, and that is definitely not good for your bunnies. We buy a 50-pound bag at our local feed store, which lasts about two weeks or so. As long as you keep the food dry, it should last for several weeks.
Hay should be available to the rabbits at all times. The extra fiber and roughage will help keep your bunnies’ digestion under control. We build a simple hanging hay feeder out of some of the scrap wire left over from building the cages.
Fresh clean water is crucial to your bunnies’ health. Change the water daily; when it’s hot outside, you may need to change it more than once per day. If you only have a few bunnies, you can use those hanging water bottles available at the feed store or larger general stores. We use an automatic watering system available online through Bass Equipment. Their prices are extremely reasonable and they carry feeders and other supplies, as well.
As for vegetables, please feed your rabbits in moderation. I have read different things from different breeders, but the majority says too many fresh veggies will give your rabbits diarrhea. While fresh greens are an important part of your rabbits’ diet, you really don’t want to feed them too much of the stuff. Also, never put out more than what your rabbits will eat at one time. You don’t want your bunnies eating moldy food. We generally try to feed our rabbits fresh vegetables about two to three times per week. We use lettuce, cabbage, a few carrot pieces, and other leafy greens.
BREEDING YOUR RABBITS
We’ve talked about selecting, housing, and feeding your rabbits. Now it’s time to talk about breeding them—a fairly simple process. Rabbits are usually ready to breed when they are six months old. Take your girl, or doe, and put her in the boy, or buck, cage. If the female is ready to be bred, nature usually takes its course fairly quickly. (As for knowing when the female is ready to be bred, you just have to put the male and female together until she is ready. Rabbits don't really go into heat like other animals.) The buck will mount the doe for a few seconds and then fall over, as if something is wrong. Don’t worry: This is perfectly normal. Allow them to breed a few times and then put the doe back in her own cage.
Once the female has been bred, she will deliver her babies in approximately 28 to 32 days. The average for my rabbitry is about 30 days. You’ll need to provide a nest box with fresh hay for your rabbit to give birth in. I add the nest boxes to the mother’s cage about 26 or 27 days after mating to give her time to “pull hair” and make her nest. When your rabbit begins to pull her hair, it usually means she'll give birth soon.
I hope you guys have learned a little bit about raising rabbits. If you’re consider starting your own rabbitry, a great source is a book called Raising Rabbits 101 that has nearly every piece of information you could ever want to know on the subject. I’m using this book myself, and I thoroughly recommend that you look into it as well. Good luck in your new rabbit-raising journey. I wish you success in everything you do. Happy homesteading!
MORE RABBIT TALK ON HOMEGROWN
• Reason no. 5,681 why math is useful: HOMEGROWN member Aliza computes how much it costs to feed a rabbit.
• Tara, Rachel, Aliza, and others discuss the merits of rabbit poop as fertilizer.
• While we're on the subject of poo, Melissa shares how rabbit droppings stack up to those of other animals.
• Rachel talks strategy for keeping rabbits cool and healthy in hot weather.
• HOMEGROWN members offer Lizz advice on caring for unexpected newborn kits.
• Rachel, Rachel, and Aliza discuss the pet versus meat question.
• Aliza shares another thoughtful post on the same subject.
• And a video on some rabbit basics, including how to dress one, from the Perennial Plate—with the requisite disclaimer that, yes, a bunny does get skinned therein.
For more from Travis, visit his blog at stinnettfamilyfarms.blogspot.com. And if you’re already raising rabbits, or any kind of animal, be sure to add your breeds to Travis’s new four-legged Facebook of sorts, a project he’s calling the Livestock Breed Listing; get details here. You might also be interested in 101s on first-year beekeeping and backyard chickens, and you can always find more things to plant, grow, cook, preserve, make, craft, and feed in the HOMEGROWN 101 library.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF TRAVIS STINNETT