So you are thinking about raising meat rabbits? Let me just tell you that they are a great option if space is limited and you need to use the property you have to the max. But rabbits can be a little bit tricky sometimes.
If I was going to tell you all the things about meat rabbits you would be scrolling all the way to the floor and your thumb would fall off.
Hi! I’m Leah Lynch, a show-quality French Lop rabbit raiser who takes a more old-school and practical approach to raising rabbits. I will be sharing my top tips that are backed by two decades of raising rabbits and real-life experience. Cool?
A Bigger Breed Isn’t Always Better
When you are looking for a rabbit breed to buy it can be tempting to buy a meat rabbit breed that is massive. The trouble with breeds that are REALLY big like the Flemish Giant and French Lop is that while they were developed for meat they are bred to have large bones. The breeders who are following the standard of perfection strive for it. A rabbit like the one below won’t give you that great of a bone-to-meat ratio.
The other issue with these rabbit breeds is that they grow so much slower than a breed like the Californian or New Zealand. A Californian can be harvested in about 12 weeks. But A Flemish Giant is not worth harvesting until at least 6-8 months old.
Their frame (skeleton) grows first then they put on weight. It takes so much longer to get them to the point of harvesting. In the end, costing you more because you have to feed them longer.
Why Mixed Breeds Are Not The Best
I see people mix different breeds thinking they are going to get all the aspects of each breed they want from each breed. The problem is you don’t get to choose which pieces of the breeds you have bred together show up in the offspring. You could end up with a complete mix of different results in one litter. You would be better off choosing a purebred that fits your needs as closely as possible and sticking with that. You would also be able to get more out of your animals if you choose to sell them.
Start With A Trio
A trio is one male and two females. This is great for anyone getting started to make sure raising rabbits is right for you. If you want to grow your herd without paying for new animals you can keep a doe from each of the litters and swap out your herd bucks as you keep some of the offspring. Buying a doe is often more expensive than buying a buck.
Ventilation Is SO Important To Your Rabbits Health
This might come as a shock to you but even if I had a barn to put my rabbits in I still wouldn’t. I have seen it time and time again where people have trouble with getting successful litters, respiratory issues, and so much more.
The common denominator is every single one had their rabbits in a barn or some sort of closed-up building for shelter. Some had no choice because of predators and I totally get that. BUT they still had these issues to deal with. It is pretty difficult to have good enough ventilation in a barn which is why I feel that a hutch or lean-to-style shelter with cages hanging inside will do the best.
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DO NOT Have Your Rabbits On Solid Floor
Having your rabbits on solid floor cages is becoming more and more popular in the pet world because emotions are taking hold, not thinking about the health of the rabbit.
A rabbit’s feet are weapons of defense and if they cannot withstand normal usage then that is a genetic issue that should not be passed on to the offspring. The biggest concern is the feet getting sore hocks and I get that. If your rabbit is struggling with that then there are resting mats that can be placed in the cage and still allow for the waste to fall through.
A solid cage floor is so unhealthy and here is why. The rabbits are right at the same level as their urine and poo causing them to breathe in the ammonia from their urine, which is risking respiratory issues. Then they have the chance of getting waste stuck in their fur and covering over their bum, causing issues like fly strike. It only takes maggots 24-36 hours to hatch. What happens if you have a busy day and you can’t clean out the pen? I am going to stop there before I completely gross you out.
Substituting Feed With Veggies And Hay May Be Costing You
Commercial rabbit pellets are formulated to be a complete rabbit ration. There is no need to give them anything else, including hay. Commercial pellets have on average 16-18% protein. While it might be tempting to sub out feed for veggies or hay you are diluting the amount of protein and all-around nutrition the rabbit is eating. Which will cause them to grow slower and not fill out as well, costing you more time and food to get them to butcher weight.
Keeping Flies And Pets Away
Flies and other bugs are a huge issue especially if you have other animals on your farm attracting them. The waste should always fall as far away from the rabbit pens as possible. But there are two things you can use to help keep pests at bay.
My two favorite products to keep bugs away are diatomaceous earth and fly spray for horses. I will sprinkle the DE on the ground all around the rabbit area about twice a year.
Then use horse fly spray on the frame of the hutches. This does great to keep the bugs off the rabbits. For my lean-to hutch, I will spray the posts and the cross beams. If you have a normal hutch I would spray all of the frames of each open space, like around the floor, door, window, or any other open space where a fly could come in.
A Doe Will Only Have So Many Babies
A doe is born with a set number of eggs. Once her litter numbers start getting smaller she is likely coming close to the end of her production years. Depending on the breed she can have 10 or more kits per litter and then start dropping off with each litter. It is safe for her to have litters as small as 4 but if she drops below that you run the risk of her going late in her pregnancy and the litters being born dead. That is why it’s so important to keep rabbits separate and not to have “oops” litters because you are wasting what could have been put to good use.
How Often To Breed A Doe
The short and sweet answer is 2 to 3 litters a year if your goal is to produce meat. This is also assuming you can keep the kits warm during the colder months. Anything below 60 degrees you run the risk of kits getting cold and dyeing until they are two weeks old.
This number is going to depend on your doe and how you are able to manage the litter after they are born. She is also not going to be in any kind of show-able condition if you planned on having kids take her as a 4h project or if you got into showing yourself. Keep in mind the more you breed her the shorter her total production time will be.
The core thing is to let her bounce back physically before breeding her again. If she loses weight while raising her litter you want her to be full in flesh again before breeding her. A doe is done nursing her kits by 3-4 weeks so if you have the space and you want to get the doe back in good shape you can remove the doe from the litter once the litter is 5-6 weeks old, giving the doe more time to recuperate.
Make sure the kits are eating the pellets before removing the doe. I had a doe who was nursing her kits until they were 5 weeks, and I tried to separate her, and the kits didn’t try to eat the pellets at all over the course of 12 hours. They would have starved if I hadn’t put her back.
How To Tell If Your Doe Is Ready To Breed
If the doe is in the mood and ready to have a litter this will be less work for you to get her bred and you will likely have much more success all around.
Watch for the doe to be “in the mood” which typically means she is on the grumpy side. Some does may get downright mean and hard to handle. You can take your hand and run it across her back and by the time you get to the top of her hips she should start to stretch out and or lift her rear and then she is ready. If you need more help with rabbit breeding make sure to read this post.
What To Do If She Isn’t Ready But You Are
Sometimes your doe will have different plans than you. She may not be in the mood when the timing is best for your schedule to manage a litter.
If it has been some time since your doe has had a litter and she isn’t in the mood first try caging her next to a buck on either side (or both sides) of her cage. Having them next to her showing off for her can work.
Sometimes it is simply the heat keeping them from being interested. Try breeding her early in the morning when it is cool and she has had time to rest in the cool of the night. Also watch the weather predictions. If you see a cool day coming right after a hot streak make it a priority that day to try to get your does bred. If you didn’t get a “fall off” try again that evening or the following day. Sometimes attempting to breed will put her in the mood.
Humping Doesn’t Mean He Got The Job Done
Always take the doe to the bucks cage. When a successful breeding has taken place the buck will grunt, freeze, and fall to the side of the doe literally falling off of the doe. Unless this has happened do not count it as a successful breeding.
I always shoot for two “fall offs” and if the buck seems to have energy for three go for it. You can bring the doe back to the buck a few hours later but if you have gone past the 24-hour mark don’t try again. Wait to see if the breeding has worked.
The Number One Reason For Losing Kits
Some breeds are better at feeding their kits than others. The number one reason for losing some or all of a litter is the kits are not getting fed. Whether the doe doesn’t have enough teats to feed all the kits or she has one or two babies that push their way around taking all the milk the problem is still the same.
A kit will start to have lines on its back going from left to right. These are dehydration lines. The skin will also get very thin and the belly will start to sink in.
You can choose to hand feed these kits if you want or just let it go and hope for the best. For the french lops, I would lose far more than I do if I didn’t try to hand feed the ones that get pushed aside. It only takes them about 24 hours to fall behind the rest of the litter and if the kit doesn’t get help quickly they will not recover on their own. You can read more on how to hand feed a kit here.
Separating Rabbit Litters Will Help Them Grow Better
Young rabbits fill out better if they are not competing for food. While it is likely impossible to give each fryer its own cage, separating them even a little bit will get them into much thicker flesh condition.
Separating a litter into groups of 3 should work well. Make sure to separate the bucks and does first, then if you have more room separate the does into smaller groups if you have a lot of them. Does are more likely to get grumpy with each other first over the bucks. I have had does as young as 9 weeks old get into a squabble that left one doe with 2 bite wounds.
Even Siblings Will Fight
If you are raising rabbits purely for meat you likely aren’t all that concerned with their physical condition. But rabbits are extremely susceptible to getting abscesses from even the smallest prick. Here is a post that will show you how to treat an abscess if your rabbit is showing signs of having one.
So if siblings are squabbling and likely nipping each other you run the risk of your animals getting infections.
While it is treatable you run the risk of it going into the bloodstream causing their body to start fighting the infection and not use that energy for growing. The fighting also causes them to spend energy that will detract from growing.
Rabbits are full of unknowns and it can be a little discouraging. But keep trying and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start slow and look at each problem you run into as simply a problem to solve. Once you get the hang of it you will do great.
Did you know rabbits can help your garden grow and your garden can do the same for your rabbits? Learn where and how to best use rabbit manure in this excerpt from Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, 5th Edition by Bob Bennett.
Love listening to podcasts? Check out Sustainability Book Chat Podcast episode #16 – Raising Rabbits for Meat where Eric and Callene Rapp who have raised tens of thousands of rabbits over the years are talking about various breeds of meat rabbits, as well as housing, diet (grassfed or not), breeding, and more.