Although not a new venture, raising rabbits for meat has gained popularity with Americans and the international community alike over the last few years.
Due partly to the rise in the cost of living, the Covid-19 pandemic causing job losses, and a growing interest in moving to more of a subsistence living, rabbit farming is appealing to more people. Below I have put together a guide to get you started on your journey to raising rabbits for meat.
As with any farming venture, raising rabbits for meat is all about what you put in. The first step is to educate yourself, then set up goals. Once you have a plan, start building your rabbitry.
There are so many points to consider, things to plan, goals to set, and decisions to make. It can get quite overwhelming for the underprepared. To make sure your venture is not a flop from the start, a PLAN is required.
Where To Begin When It Comes To Raising Rabbits For Meat
Before we get into the “whats” and “hows,” it’s paramount to understand why rabbit farming is a viable farming venture. So let’s ask the question, “WHY?”
6 Reasons For Starting a Meat Rabbit Venture
Rabbit meat has been eaten for thousands of years. The difference between the hoppers back then and the ones on farms today is genetics.
Meat rabbits have been selectively bred to enhance meat to bone ratios, increase litter sizes and survival rates, and produce docile, manageable rabbits.
Through those efforts, we now have livestock that:
- Are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals
Compared to beef, pork, or chicken, rabbit meat has the highest percentage of digestible proteins. Furthermore, rabbit meat is rich in vitamins B12 and E.
Rabbit contains higher levels of phosphorus and calcium when compared to chicken and lower concentrations of sodium.
- Are low in cholesterol
Rabbit meat has less cholesterol than pork and beef while still being high in poly- and mono-saturated fats.
- Are easy to breed and reproduce exceptionally quickly
The adage “breeding like rabbits” is not wasted. Rabbits start reproducing around 21-26 weeks (five to six months) and continue for four years.
A rabbit’s gestation period is 30 to 31 days, and they can breed within five days after giving birth.
Each litter produces between one and twelve kits (babies). My best breeding doe has birthed 11 kits twice, but we see between six and eight kits on average.
- Require a less expensive setup than other farming ventures
Rabbits require less space than sheep, cattle, and pigs. As a result, the amount of space needed is less than a traditional farm. Rabbits are also less expensive per animal than some other livestock.
- Produces value-added products.
Not only is the meat great, but once processed, you have skins to make fur hides with, ears and feet to make curios with (if you are that way inclined), and feces to make compost with.
I can personally attest that the compost is excellent.
- Affordable, good quality meat
Rabbit meat is not sold for as high a price as beef or pork, which could mean your margins are lower.
However, with some savvy planning and thinking, you can make a profit and supply the market with high-quality, affordable meat. The more demand, the greater the price will eventually become.
Now that you’ve decided to get into this industry, the next important step is to HAVE A PLAN!
Make a Plan That Will Aid You During The Establishment of a Meat Rabbit Farm
Once you have decided that rabbit farming is something you want to try, I suggest doing as MUCH research as possible. Books, blogs (like this one!), and speaking to farmers are some great ways to educate yourself.
There are many training courses out there as well for aspiring farmers, which ease you into the field of rabbit farming and set you up for success.
The importance of education is vital. Once you have the knowledge, you can make informed decisions on what to do next and create your plan.
Your plan should be comprised of a few aspects that include:
This is by far the most crucial point. We will call it the “anchor.”
What do you want to achieve with your rabbit farm?
Do you want to be self-sufficient, or maybe supply your family and immediate community’s needs? Do you want to be a mega-farmer selling to corporations?
By answering these questions, you begin to see in which direction you want your farm to move.
If you are only concerned with self-sufficiency, you won’t need 500 breeding does.
If, however, you would like to break into the commercial market, you’ll need to start bigger or risk sinking.
Once you’ve answered these questions, setting short, medium and long-term goals is vital to track your progress.
But remember, always refer back to the “purpose” of why you are farming rabbits; it will help with many tough decisions.
But plans do change, and that’s also okay!
- Budget and Finances
The next determining factor in starting up a rabbit farm is your available budget and finances.
Although starting a meat rabbit farm is not as expensive as a sheep or cattle farm, there is still a cost.
Aside from the rabbits themselves (ranging from $10 to $100 depending on the rabbit’s age, size, species, and pedigree), the cages, feed, and equipment costs must be factored in.
Different sized enterprises will have varying starting costs.
- A small-scale enterprise consists of 50-100 rabbits.
- A medium-scale enterprise would have around 300-600 rabbits.
- A large-scale enterprise would be in excess of 600 breeding does.
If you are subsistence farming, you can have anything from three to 100 rabbits. It depends on your needs.
It is important to remember that there will be a “lull-phase” in growth at the beginning of any sized enterprise.
You will need to wait about three to four months before you can sell your first rabbits for meat.
- End users/Market
Where do I plan on selling or offering my rabbits as end products?
The answer to this will also determine how big you want to grow and how much capital is needed to start.
If you are happy with three rabbits in your back garden to provide for your family’s needs, then you don’t need to worry about expanding.
If you aim to supply a local and export market, all your decisions need to be geared towards that end user.
Once you have decided what you want to do, where you want to go, and how much you have to get you there, you are ready to start planning your rabbitry.
Starting Your Meat Rabbit Facility: Cages, Rabbits, and Production
To keep rabbits, one needs to have cages! (Or at least some other method of housing)
When we started our operation, we had three rabbits (a buck and two does) kept in wood and wire mesh hutches that I built. The cost was low, but the room for growth was negligible.
When designing your rabbitry, you need to keep in mind what you want to achieve and build (or buy) accordingly.
Do you want to keep rabbits in a colony or keep them in individual cages?
There are pros and cons to both.
Planning Your Rabbit Farm Cage Layout, Cage Design, and Building or Buying Your Cages
The area available, resources available, and your “grand plan” will determine how you plan the layout, the design, and the materials of your cages.
First, you need to decide if you want a colony set up or an individual cage setup.
|Management||Keeping track of rabbits is a challenge. Rabbits can go down burrows and are challenging to get out, depending on the design. Rabbits can run away from you. Rabbits can fight with each other.||Rabbits are easily identifiable and are where they should be. Food and water intake can be monitored. Rabbits cannot fight amongst one another.|
|Hygiene||Difficult to clean and remove waste unless designed well.||Much easier to clean and sanitize.|
|Disease control||Diseases can run rampant through a colony.||Diseases are caught quicker, and infected rabbits are isolated.|
|Kit mortality rate||Higher||Lower|
|Food and Water||Consumption by individuals cannot be monitored.||Consumption by individuals is easily monitored.|
|Enrichment||Social interactions, movement, and digging||Not much enrichment. You can add a platform/box to the cage.|
I wanted (and want to) try a colony set up, but the reality is, I find the cons too high, so my breeders are in individual cages, while my “grow-outs” (juveniles) are in a colony set up.
For practical purposes, I suggest a building or sheltered area with a roof and sides that can be opened and closed (alternatively a way to pump air into the building, as rabbits get hot quickly, which reduces breeding, feeding, etc.). Rabbit cages are then placed in rows that provide enough access to the cage doors and space for waste removal.
In terms of your cage design, again, this heavily depends on your plans. As I’ve mentioned, my breeding rabbits are in single compartment, wire mesh cages. These are custom-made, but store-bought cages are also available if you have the budget for them.
Wire is recommended over wood as it is easier to clean and therefore reduces the risk of disease.
The minimum dimensions of a rabbit cage should be 30in (L) X 30in (W) X 18in (H).
Work on having seven additional cages per every ten does, as room for their weanlings.
I use a tractor system for my grow-outs that I then keep on pasture.
It is also recommended to have an extra two to four cages for every 50 does. These are in the case of disease or new introductions to the rabbitry.
Once you have your cages in place, you are ready to get your first rabbits!
Selecting The Breed of Rabbit For Your Meat Rabbit Venture
Once you have your cages set up and ready, it comes time to get your first batch of rabbits. When it comes to choosing a breed of rabbit, there are a few options available:
- Angora. Medium-sized (9-12lbs)
- Californian. Medium-sized (8-11lbs)
- Champagne d’Argent. Medium-sized (9-12lbs)
- Cinnamon. Medium-sized (8-11lbs)
- English Spot. Medium-sized (9-13lbs)
- Flemish Giants. Large-sized (13lbs+)
- New Zealand. Medium-sized (9-12lbs)
Of this (and most lists), the top two popular breeds are the New Zealand and the Californian. Their meat-to-bone ratio, growth rates, and size all make them the preferred choice.
I, myself, breed with New Zealand whites and find them to be docile, productive, and a good choice overall.
Again, what you want to achieve will determine the breed you select. Some rabbits are better for their pelts, others for meat.
When purchasing your rabbits, make sure that you go to a reputable breeder that sells good quality stock.
Feeding, Husbandry, and Production of Meat Rabbits
Long before you buy your rabbits, you need to have the food, water, and waste systems in place. Below we will look at some of these daily operations and other aspects linked to meat rabbit production.
- Water, food, and waste removal
Critical to the smooth running of the operation is the delivery of food and water and the removal of waste.
Most farmers have a water system in place with plastic pipes and nipples that the rabbits drink from. There are advantages to this system as there is little to no waste. Water is always available on-demand, and cleaning is not an issue.
Rabbits need unlimited clean water.
Most feeding systems are done by hand. Feeders are made of metal so they can be cleaned and are of many different shapes. I’ve learned that a funnel design with a smaller opening reduces the amount of waste that some rabbits cause.
Store-bought pellets (1/2 -1 cup a day) are the bulk of what is fed, along with alfalfa or Timothy hay.
In terms of waste removal, make sure that it is convenient and as non-time-consuming as possible in whatever way you do it. Most farmers have a catchment tray system that either goes to buckets or straight through pipes to an outside facility.
Waste needs to be removed daily from the rabbitry to reduce flies and ultimately diseases.
- Health care and checks
Rabbits should be checked daily. This is to prevent any disease outbreaks and unnecessary deaths. Some of the checks include:
- Ears: check for mites and other ectoparasites, injuries, or blockages.
- Eyes: look at the color and “sparkle.” If a rabbit is sick, the eyes are a giveaway.
- Nose: look for any discharge.
- Teeth: Check to make sure the teeth are healthy and not too long.
- Feet: look for wounds on the feet and legs. Check to see if the claws are broken.
- Anus and genitals: Check for discharge, blood, wounds, diarrhea, or parasites.
- Body: Check for injuries on the body.
- Breeding schedules, nesting boxes, kindling, and weaning
Now we get to the production part.
It is essential to keep a record of which does were bred with which buck and when.
This allows you to predict when she will be due to kindle (give birth).
Nesting boxes can then be placed in the doe’s cage a day or two prior. This prevents them from using the nesting box as a toilet.
The nesting box design is up to you. I have made wooden boxes 16in X 9.4in X 9.4in. Many farmers use 6-gallon containers that have been cut on the side.
Most important is that there is a lip that is high enough to prevent the doe from knocking kits out of the box. If kits leave the box within the first few weeks, they are unlikely to survive.
Pregnancy lasts about 30 days, and after another 30 days, the kits are weaned and can be moved out.
Junior rabbits enter “grow-out” cages once they have been weaned. This is usually in a similar cage to the adults but will hold seven to eight rabbits.
I have my grow outs in movable cages so I can pasture feed them to supplement my food costs and provide them with additional space.
The purpose of this phase is to grow rabbits to slaughter weight (4.85lbs live weight).
New Zealand rabbits tend to reach their slaughter weight after eight to twelve weeks.
Slaughtering, Butchering, and Selling of Rabbits
Once you have gone through the process of breeding your does, birthing, weaning, and growing your junior buns, and they have finally reached slaughter weight of around 4.85lbs live weight, you are now ready to process them yourself or to take them to an abattoir.
If you are farming rabbits for personal consumption, then slaughtering and processing the rabbits yourself is not an issue.
If you want to sell the rabbits, you will either need a permit or you’ll need to take the rabbits to an accredited slaughterhouse.
Join a Meat Rabbit Association or Breeders Network, and Find a Mentor
We belong to a local rabbit farmer’s network, and the information, assistance, and guidance are invaluable.
As with most farming, reducing costs and increasing profits is a significant factor. By synergizing with other like-minded individuals, you can make more meaningful decisions and reap the benefits of bulk orders.
The other plus side is, there will always be farmers who have “gone the distance” and have learned things you need to come across, so if you can gain some wisdom and not repeat the same mistakes, why not. There will be another young farmer that comes along that you can impart to as well!
Being part of a group helps you find information much quicker than on your own, so if legislation changes, new permits are needed, health inspections are issued, etc., you will get wind of it sooner.
A mentor can also be in terms of the business aspect of the venture. Not all of us are savvy businessmen and women, so having someone who can guide us in that area is a benefit.
To make a success out of your rabbit farming venture, make sure you have a plan and a goal of what you want to achieve. This industry has the potential to grow as more people become acquainted with the benefits of rabbit meat. And even if you are only farming for personal use, there is nothing as satisfying as being able to eat what you have had a hand in producing!