Like most homesteaders, I want to be as self-sufficient as humanly possible. That includes raising as much of my protein as I can, but did you know there’s a way that you can raise great quality meat right in your backyard, practically anywhere in North America? It’s true, and that miracle animal that will make it possible is the rabbit.
Humans have been eating rabbits for thousands of years. While the exact point of domestication is difficult to pinpoint, the basics of rabbit keeping haven’t changed all that much over time but the science behind it has. Breeds have progressed to make the whole affair far more efficient, all the while maintaining the fundamentals which keep the animal’s health in mind too. As we’ll explore in this article, the only thing that keeps rabbits from being the perfect animal might be the fact that they don’t lay delicious eggs.
The ideal characteristics of a great meat rabbit are fairly straightforward, with some subtleties intertwined. For example, some folks don’t want a giant, bulky rabbit that’s going to reach over 10 pounds in weight because of space restraints, which rule out breeds like the Flemish Giants, which can reach truly massive sizes. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and what your needs are will determine the right breed for you.
Some aspects you want to consider when choosing a breed might include bone-to-meat ratio, breeding quality, pelt quality, and behavior. The bone-to-meat ratio is important because you really don’t want a breed that is going to be equal parts bone to equal parts flesh, but you also don’t want rabbits that put on so much weight that they can’t move on their own, either. Finding a healthy medium will be a determining factor in which breed you go with.
Pelt quality is also something you may decide to factor into the equation as well. Many breeds have pelts that are highly sought after and can actually be sold for profit. Of course, you’ll want to learn how to tan them properly, which isn’t all that easy, (but it’s not all that difficult, either). In any event, there are plenty of breeds out there that will have a good meat ratio and beautiful pelts that can be utilized as well.
Behavior is a factor because you’re going to find that having the ability to handle your rabbits, should you need to, will be a lot easier if they’re not trying to bite your fingers off every time you go to pick them up. This is sometimes a matter of character that can be individually based, but there are some breeds that are just prone to being little jerks. You’ll want to look into the demeanor of the breed you intend to purchase and raise. This honestly might not seem all that important, but you’ll find it’s better to be safe than sorry.
How you choose to keep your rabbits is going to involve a lot of thought into how they’re housed. Some folks like to raise them on the ground in pens called a hutch where the rabbit can do all the things a rabbit does. While I lean on the side of au-natural, this can bring your domestic rabbits into contact with wild cottontails, which can lead to all kinds of different illnesses. Most people go for a hutch that keeps their rabbits off the ground in a much more controlled environment, and generally speaking their designs are all very similar.
Some breeds do well when they’re housed together, but others don’t. If you’re buying an entire litter of kits (baby rabbits), this will sometimes help with the entire litter living together. Regardless, you’ll want to monitor their progression as they age into adults. Far more often, you’ll find having an individual cage for each member to be beneficial in maintaining the peace. Rabbits generally don’t need all that much space to live happy, healthy lives. If your rabbits have roughly 8 to 10 square feet of enclosed space matched with roughly 22 to 26 square feet of space to get some exercise, you’ll have very little to worry about.
No matter what you choose, make sure the decision is made based on the well-being of the animal, and what your space is capable of housing. Overcrowded rabbits will quickly become miserable, and there are terrible stories of stressed rabbits that will refuse to eat and drink, slowly starving themselves to death. Awful, right? Don’t do that.
Rabbits are unbelievably versatile when it comes to their diet, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves and start completely free ranging our bunnies on the lawn. Quality hay mixed with standard rabbit pellet feed will keep your critters well-fed and happy, but mixing in things like dandelions, clover, and other delicious edibles will keep them coming back for more.
Rabbits like to chew, and in fact, need to constantly chew on things to dull their teeth down, so adding a couple of branches into the hutch will help with that. Poplar, if you can find some, is a great choice. Wild rabbits and hares will religiously chew the bark of fallen poplar branches, and domestic meat rabbits love it, too.
If you plan on having your rabbits in mobile tractors (some folks do this, and it works), just make sure that the rabbits’ entire diet isn’t lawn grass. Vary their diet, and just like chickens, you can feed some of your food scraps, such as the butt end of lettuce and cabbage, old kale and the like, which reduces waste. If you’re planning on having your rabbits on the lawn at all, try to remember not to fertilize your yard. It’s not necessary anyway, and the rabbits will do the job for you.
Just like any other endeavor that involves introducing a new kind of animal which you have no prior experience with, it’s important to do your diligence and research ahead of time prior to making the commitment. Rabbits are an exceptional source of top-tier meat that, as I mentioned earlier, have been feeding folks in North America much longer than the chicken has and deserve their rightful place as a culinary mainstay in modern times.
I’m hard-pressed to think of an animal that produced a comparable amount of tasty meat, quality pelts, and ready-to-use manure. Additionally, many places don’t consider rabbits livestock, but rather pets. So they can be raised for consumption in suburban areas where a backyard flock of chickens will have the local by-law officer knocking on your door in no time.