By Eric and Callene Rapp
Thinking about adding rabbits to your farm venture? Raising rabbits can be a wonderful addition to a sustainable farm business, or a means of providing healthy meat for the home table. There are many advantages to keeping a rabbitry.
If you are health conscious, rabbit offers meat that contains very little fat and almost no cholesterol. It contains the highest value of protein per calorie of meats. A 3 oz. portion contains nearly 25 grams of protein, with only 7 grams of fat. Rabbit can be cooked in a variety of ways, from roasting to braising to grilling, and is never boring.
For the environmentally conscious, a rabbit leaves a smaller environmental footprint, and leaves a great organic fertilizer. And for those who want the ultimate accountability for their food, a small backyard rabbitry can provide lessons in the real circle of life.
Rabbits are monogastric herbivores, meaning they have a single stomach rather than a multi-compartmental digestive system like a cow or sheep. They have a large cecum, which does perform some breakdown of cellulose, but digestion of high fiber plant material like grass is a challenge. The rabbit solves this problem by making use of the practice of coprophagy, wherein the rabbit consumes fecal pellets after their first passage through the system. This second digestion allows them to get as much out of their feed as possible.
Rabbits are quite adaptable to a variety of habitats, buildings, and management systems. Pens are a common method of rabbit keeping; this allows control of when breeding occurs, and who gets to breed. Pens keep rabbits off the ground, and reduce the exposure to parasites and disease, especially coccidia. And as long as certain environmental parameters are met, rabbit pens can be set up in a variety of buildings, shelters, or even a tree row.
Rabbits are most comfortable at about 60° Fahrenheit. At temperatures above 80° they begin to experience some stress. Good ventilation is key to keeping the rabbits comfortable. Fans, frozen plastic water bottles, mister systems, and fresh cool water can all help to alleviate heat stress. However, the best method to deal with heat is to choose rabbits that are adapted to your local climate. Many of the heritage breeds such as the American have large, flaring ears which serve as radiators for body heat. Some breeds, like the Lilac, have shorter ears, and a dense, thick coat, and might not be the best choice for hot weather, unless you can make some accommodations for the heat.
As long as they are protected from direct drafts, rabbits seem to have little trouble handling cold temperatures, but be sure to keep clean, unfrozen water available regularly. Ventilation is especially important in the winter.
Rabbit housing can be as simple as a row of cages under a shed or as elaborate as a barn with concrete floors, automatic waterers, and high tech ventilation systems. No matter what setup you choose, your rabbits will need protection from both the environment and predators. If you choose pens, they should be constructed of smooth wire, ½ x 1 inch for the floor. Double galvanized, 14 gauge is recommended. Never use hardware cloth or chicken wire for cage flooring. Hardware cloth is rough enough to damage the rabbits hocks, and fecal pellets will not go through easily. Chicken wire is too fine to support the animals’ weight, and has big enough openings for rabbits to get their legs stuck or for kits to fall through the openings.
Many people are choosing to experiment with different types of housing, such as colony groups, and raising their rabbits in different setups on the ground, to encourage foraging. Be warned though, that natural behavior for rabbits includes digging and burrowing prodigiously, and they will take every opportunity to do so if they can.
Rabbits are one of the most sustainable species that you can put on your farm. A single, well managed doe, can produce and wean 6-8 offspring in a single litter, and have 4 to 5 litters per year. Industrial rabbit farms push their does to have 6-8 litters per year, but that obviously burns them out quite quickly, and if you are reading this article, it’s a safe bet you aren’t interested in following the industrial model.
The doe that weans an average of 7 rabbits 4 times a year will produce 28 offspring in the same time it takes a goat or a cow to produce one. Those 28 offspring will average about 7 pounds at harvest, so that’s around 200 lbs. of rabbit, live weight. Rabbits, like most animals, dress out around 50%, so that’s a hundred pounds of meat in a year. From one doe rabbit. Adding a few more well managed, productive does will increase that number dramatically. It’s possible to produce enough rabbit that a family of four could eat rabbit twice a week all year long with one buck and a half dozen does.
Now of course, nothing is as easy as it appears on paper; not all does will produce at that level and not all offspring will reach maturity, but you can see how a rabbit can easily produce a significant amount of protein for the table.
The other advantage rabbit has over other species of livestock is that it can require much less in the way of infrastructure. My husband is often fond of reminding me that his rabbits never get out and have to be herded back to the pasture, nor do they tear up fence like my cattle do. It’s an old argument, but the point is valid.
For the gardener, rabbit manure compost is like gold. Rabbits are herbivores, and need a high fiber diet to be healthy. Their unique digestive physiology produces manure that is high in nitrogen, higher than that of other commonly used manures.
Manure is considered either “hot” or “cold,” hot meaning that the manure releases that nitrogen quickly, and cold meaning that it releases it slowly. This slow release means that rabbit manure can be applied directly to the garden, around the plants, without burning the roots. Other manures, even though they have much less nitrogen, must be composted and broken down before they can be applied directly to plants.
The only downside of applying rabbit manure directly is that the hard pellets may not disintegrate quickly, but keeping the soil turned and working it in will take care of that part.
We started gardening around the same time we started raising rabbits, and our raised beds became a place where we could go with the manure. Our rabbit production these days far outpaces the garden, so we have created a manure pile away from the barns. The pile grows as the barns are cleaned weekly, and is stirred with the tractor regularly. This pile has turned into an additional revenue stream by selling it to gardeners and greenhouses. They appreciate the quality and cleanliness of the compost.
One of the most common questions we are asked is can we feed our rabbits what we get out of the garden? This circular sustainability idea is appealing, but it can be very challenging to try to give them a complete diet that way. Garden greens are often rich and high in water, and lack the fiber necessary to keep the rabbit gut moving properly. Lots of greens can cause digestive upset, lead to scours, enteritis, and death. Adding long stemmed hay to the diet will help immensely, but it can still be a challenge to provide enough nutrition for the rabbit to be able to reproduce well. It all depends on what your goals are when you add rabbits to your farm.
Processing is the least pleasant of all the aspects of running a rabbitry, but one of the most essential. Several laws and regulations govern processing rabbit meat for retail sales, and laws can vary from state to state. There is no law governing processing rabbit meat at your own home for your own consumption. But when retail sales come into play, the picture changes.
Rabbits are not considered “livestock” by the USDA, which enables them to be housed in urban areas and kept as pets, but as a multipurpose animal used for meat, they exist in a bit of a limbo state. USDA inspection is required by law for any meat sold retail, however because they are not considered “livestock” inspection is considered “voluntary,” which translates into a rather expensive cost for the rabbit producer if he hopes to be able to sell his product legally.
Processing laws vary from state to state, and indeed even from county to county within the same state. Some states require all meat sold for retail consumption to be processed in a USDA licensed facility, and some only require processing in a licensed state-inspected facility. Check with your local processors, and consult the USDA website for more information regarding options available to your particular circumstances.
Finding a processor who has the special license for rabbits can also be a challenge. Generally, the same –wequipment that is used to process poultry can be used for rabbits, but the dearth of local processors who will handle poultry can make even this tricky. Many small rabbit producers will offer on-farm processing of live rabbits for the customer, but again, check your state and local laws. It’s no fun to find out the hard way what the laws are.
If selling retail or to restaurants, it is also a good idea to maintain product liability insurance. In the increasingly litigious society we live in, it makes sense to cover your assets in the unlikely event of a problem.
Rabbit keeping is enjoyable, can be profitable, and gives back two fold in healthy meat for the table and compost for the garden. If you are on the fence about adding rabbit, hop on in! You will be glad you did.