Sustainability Book Chat
If you have ever thought about raising rabbits for meat, either for your own dinner table or as a business, today’s episode will get you at least a step or two closer to that goal.
Eric and Callene Rapp have raised tens of thousands of rabbits over the years and are sharing their hard-earned knowledge in this episode and in their book, Raising Rabbits for Meat.
We are talking about various breeds of meat rabbits, as well as housing, diet (grassfed or not), and breeding. And we also talk about the #1 cause of infertility in female rabbits!
Other book by Callene Rapp and Eric Rapp :
If you ever thought about adding cattle to your homestead, check out Episode 11 – Things to Know Before Raising Cattle where we talked about this book.
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Learn more about Callene Rapp:
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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.
Raising Rabbits for Meat – Transcript
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is going to be really interesting today, because we are talking about something that’s not super common in the United States, and that is raising rabbits for meat. And we are joined today by a couple who’s been doing it for quite some time now, Eric And Callene Rapp, who wrote the book Raising Rabbits for Meat. Welcome to the show today, Eric and Callene!
Callene Rapp 0:54
Deborah Niemann 0:55
So, could you tell us a little bit about how you got started? Like I said, it’s not something that’s super common in this country—for people to eat rabbits—because most people look at them and think, “Oh, they’re so cute and fuzzy.” So how exactly did you get into this?
Callene Rapp 1:10
Well, Eric, his grandpa had raised rabbits back in the day, and I guess had a pretty well-known rabbitry. And Eric grew up kind of helping him, and working with him, and doing things like that. Then, of course, he kind of got out of it—as, you know, life happens and stuff. But then, you know, probably 18 years or so—after about the 11,000,000th food recall—we decided we wanted to have a little bit more control over where our food came from. So he mentioned that he had raised rabbits before, and we could probably do it again. And it just kind of snowballed from there.
Deborah Niemann 1:50
Okay. And then, I noticed that the name of your rabbitry is The Rare Hare Barn. So that, you didn’t decide to just go buy the most common rabbits, or the cheapest rabbits, or whatever; you actually are raising rabbits that are so rare, they’re in danger of extinction. So, can you tell us a little bit about the breeds and why you chose them?
Callene Rapp 2:11
Yeah. We were pretty actively involved with The Livestock Conservancy, even back then, and they were in the process of deciding whether they were going to put rabbits on the Conservation Priority List. And so, just in kind of doing research down that rabbit hole—pun intended—we just started realizing that there were some breeds of rabbits that were, you know, very endangered, and they were the classic, old, traditional, meat rabbits. A lot of, like, breeds that his granddad had raised. And in fact, one of the breeds we wound up going with—the American Chinchilla—his granddad had raised, also, back in the day. And so, it kind of all just started from a conservation standpoint and went from there.
Deborah Niemann 3:00
Okay. So, you mentioned the American Chinchilla—which, for people who don’t know, that’s not the same thing as a chinchilla. It’s a completely different animal.
Callene Rapp 3:09
Deborah Niemann 3:10
What are some of the other breeds that you raise?
Callene Rapp 3:13
We have the American Blue and White. In the past, we have also raised Silver Foxes, Blanc de Hotot, and Creme d’Argent. So yeah, those were the… When we had the full meat rabbit business and were selling to restaurants, those were the five main breeds that we worked with.
Deborah Niemann 3:35
Okay. So, if somebody wanted to raise rabbits for meat, I think, like, the—was it Netherland Dwarf or something—would not be on the table? Pun intended.
Callene Rapp 3:45
I mean, you know, you could, but it would take several of them to make a decent-sized meal. The meat rabbits were just selected to have a good meat-to-bone ratio and, you know, good feed conversion. And, you know, like, all rabbits are made of meat, but the smaller breeds are just not going to be worth the processing.
Deborah Niemann 4:12
Callene Rapp 4:12
You go through all that; you’re not going to have, really, a big enough carcass to make it worth your while.
Deborah Niemann 4:18
Okay. So what exactly should somebody look for in terms of size or breed when they’re looking for meat rabbits?
Eric Rapp 4:27
Well, the American Chinchilla at mature weight’s probably going to be about 9 pounds. Silver Foxes and Americans are a little bigger-framed animals, so it goes up from there. And you can expect to get about a mid-50s range carcass yield out of it, so you just kind of got to pick where you want to be.
Deborah Niemann 4:51
Okay. And when you say… Those are live weights? That’s not a dressed weight?
Callene Rapp 4:56
Deborah Niemann 4:57
Callene Rapp 4:57
Yep, usually, consistently… We have processing and slaughter data, you know, from every rabbit that got processed, and just consistently, you’d get about 50-55% dress percentage from those types of rabbit.
Deborah Niemann 5:13
Okay. And what kind of housing or infrastructure would somebody need if they want to raise rabbits?
Eric Rapp 5:20
That’s going to depend on what part of the country you’re in. And a lot of it is going to depend on your budget. And a lot of times, it’s best to look at more your environment and then figure your budget, because you don’t want to cut any corners and then find out, “Well, I should have built in a semi-enclosed structure, and insulated the roof, and spent the money on some stuff like that.” So, if you’ve got shade trees, and you know, the climate’s a little bit different than like here—where we can have all four seasons in a week—it just depends on what you’ve got the budget, what you want to do, and how big. You know, I don’t recommend people get really big ideas in the beginning. To start out small and kind of get your feet wet, let your rabbits meet your living environment form, and something doesn’t suffer in the onset of “Oops, I should have done this.”
Deborah Niemann 6:16
Mm-hmm. I noticed that you mentioned an insulated roof. And I think I know where you’re… Why you do that. Because years ago, I raised a few rabbits, and I remember selling them to somebody once who was saying, you know, “Should we keep them inside in the winter?” And I was like, “Oh, my goodness, no. They’re rabbits! They will be nice and warm outside. Like, you really need to worry about them in the summertime.” And with most of our livestock, on the really hot summer days, nobody is in the barn. Like, they are all outside, under shade trees. And so, when you talk about insulation in the roof, like I’ve been in barns that had insulated roofs in the summer, and they are… Oh my gosh. I feel like they’re at least 10 degrees cooler than our barn, which does not have an insulated roof.
Callene Rapp 7:04
It’s amazing. It seems like, you know, a lot of trouble to do that. But it pays off, you know, in the long run.
Eric Rapp 7:12
Well, and I tell people: When you go to lay out… Really, it doesn’t necessarily mean rabbits, but any livestock. Where you’re going to put their shelter, just take a thermometer, and lay it out there where you’re going to build the building or whatever structure, and just walk by it different times of the day, and see what the temperature is in that spot. And, you can find out a lot about a barn by going in and just laying your hand against the walls, against the ceiling, and which direction faces south; the tin’s almost going to be too hot to touch even on, you know, a fairly cold day if that sun is bearing down on it. And then your north side, you can get by with insulating the north wall. You know, if your budget doesn’t facilitate insulating the whole barn, you can kind of strategically insulate the north side, and then, you know, work your way in to the east side, you know, as you know. If you’ve got a shade tree, it’s going to make a lot of difference just in that. And then, if there’s a breeze… If you tuckered in where there’s no natural breeze, when there’s no natural breeze, you have to create a breeze. And rabbits can’t take heat and humidity; they can take cold a lot easier than they can humid, hot, just panting, can’t get comfortable. Because, when you put them inside, and there’s no natural ventilation, whether you have windows all the way around, or windows on part side, a fan—sometimes just to move air—will help. So, it’s good to kind of do some scouting before you just randomly throw a shelter up. The more you can do in your structural aspect of their living quarters, it’ll save you a lot of work.
Deborah Niemann 8:57
Right. I know when my children were showing rabbits in 4H, the fair was at the end of June, when it’s super hot. And everybody had, like, frozen water bottles in there for the rabbits to lay on. Which is super doable if you have, you know, just three or four rabbits, but you have a lot more than that. So, what do you do to keep a large number of rabbits cool in the summertime?
Eric Rapp 9:25
Ice blocks was something we never did here, and we would do upwards of 500 plus litters a year. That’s year round. One hundred and ten degree Kansas summers. There again, it’s how you build the structure; and it’s not air conditioning, but you are conditioning their environment. And, what we found was having ventilation all the way around, so you can open those windows up, and when the winds blowing, it goes through and moves that air out of there. And then, when there’s no air movement, a high-velocity fan and a single mister—similar to what you would put on your deck. That’s what we would use. You could drop the air temperature 10 to 15 degrees just by doing that. So… And that can be put on timers, and you can put the mister systems on timers on your hydrant. Now, I don’t like completely relying on timers on waters, because stuff’s been known to stick, and they don’t care whether you’re on rural water or a well, they’ll waste water.
Eric Rapp 10:30
And we’ve shipped breeding stock all over the country and Canada. And if I would have to do that iceblock trick, I would literally have to have a semi running with a refrigerated truck going and a kid with a golf cart. But, it’s like with any animal. If you watch how they spend their day, and what is comfortable to them, it’s probably sometimes not what you think is comfortable to you. But, if you’re going to get production out of an animal, the animal needs to be more comfortable than you are when you go in the barn. So, it’s just a matter of, you know, doing as much research in what you’re going to house those animals in more than doing the research on hunting down a breed that you want. And I always tell people: You’re better off to find a common animal to get your feet wet if you’ve never raised them, because if you go out and spend a lot of time hunting down a rare breed… And, we waited two years to ever get our first rare rabbits. You know, you hate to make mistakes with livestock. But, if you do, it’s easier on your wallet to make that mistake with a $20 animal than it is a rare $60 rabbit you bought. So, it’s just good to spend that Google time researching what the ideal conditions for them to live in as much as finding them.
Deborah Niemann 11:56
Yeah, that’s a really good point. So beyond the housing and stuff—which, you go into a lot of great detail in your book about that. What other type of equipment do people need to invest in before they get their rabbits?
Eric Rapp 12:12
Well, so much of the equipment that is out there now is not really geared for meat rabbits. All your pens you’re going to find in the local farm stores are going to be small, cheaply put-together pens. Most the time, they won’t last long enough to get them home, put them together, and put something in it. I built all of our pens, and I like to use a 24-by-24-by-usually-30 for does and then their babies, and then the bucks can get by on a little smaller pens. You can—again, depending on where you’re at and what facility you built—you can get gravity-flow water systems with nipples, where it runs out of a tank, and you don’t have to visit to fill, you know, water in them. You can get feeders of different size, and the first mistake that a lot of people make is they overfeed their rabbits and then wonder why they don’t reproduce. And you can invest anything. You know, there’s different grades of wire; there’s rubber-coated, vinyl-coated wire, which is the last thing you want to buy for a rabbit, because rabbits chew on everything, and that wire… They think that that vinyl-coated wire is going to be better on their feet. But, if you’ve got good animals that are structurally correct, you shouldn’t have any sore feet on a rabbit.
Eric Rapp 13:34
And, the best thing is to have a plan as to… It’s like right now, we’re having feed availability problems, which when… We here, not that long ago, we were paying… It was like $438 a ton for rabbit feed. It’s gone up to $500 a ton. And it’s not available right now, because the plant is going through $8 million worth of upgrades, which is fine. But their production schedule is all out of whack and they don’t know when they’re gonna make it again; we haven’t been able to get it for over a month. And now, they’re wanting to change that feed ration that’s a mini pellet designed for rabbits back to the bigger-sized pellet, which is a huge mistake because the rabbits will waste that. The mini pellet was designed so when that rabbit takes a bite, that bite goes in its mouth. What doesn’t go in its mouth—if it’s not standing over the feeder—goes on the floor. Once it goes on the floor, it’s contaminated, and you really don’t want to put it back through the rabbit. And so now, we’re substituting almost $680-a-ton feed to cover until this feed goes back into production. And what people want to do is substitute other things in, and, “Well, I’ll go out and rake up some leaves, and I’ll bring them this, and I’ll bring them that.” Which, you can’t do that with rabbits, because their stomachs are small; you just can’t keep changing digestive stuff on them. So the thing is to kind of keep that in your mind of, you know, “Do I have a plan?” Especially as volatile as livestock is right now with the price of feed, you know, it’s good to look a little bit down the track and kind of see, “Well,” you know, “what if?” You know, “Can I sustain this?”
Deborah Niemann 15:28
So, people should basically feed their rabbit a pelleted rabbit food and ideally, it’s that it’s a small pellet. Is that correct?
Eric Rapp 15:37
Yeah. If you want good production results out of a meat rabbit, you need to find a good feed, stay with it, because that food is balanced every time they take a bite. But, if you substitute in certain things… We—essentially, when we started this—was not going to use a commercial feed. So I’d found, in a 1930s American Chinchilla breed standards book, rations that they were using back then, back before pelleted feed really became what it is now. It had whole grains, like wheat; it had hay ground into it, and some minerals. We even bought a grinder mixer and a bulk tank. And so, we did a couple batches. And of course, it was pretty labor-intensive. Well, then we started using it. And what we found was that the rabbits were raking through the feeders and getting out what they wanted, and everything else was going on the floor. So, we weren’t saving any feed. And then we started seeing rabbits that were the same age, some of them were ready-to-process weights and some of them weren’t, because some of them were eating more of the hay in there and some of them were eating more of the grains. And so, that didn’t work out, because as we got bigger, we needed that real estate as far as moving pens out and the next batch coming in; you couldn’t have holdbacks. So, economics of that got thrown out the window, because it just wasn’t feasible. And then we started into a pelleted diet. And then we got… We ended up going through a ton of feed a week. So, if we—
Deborah Niemann 17:24
Literally a ton?
Eric Rapp 17:25
Callene Rapp 17:25
Eric Rapp 17:26
Four ounces at a time—me feeding it, because there wasn’t any automatic feeders or anything like that. And that’s managing individual feeders. So, it’s just best to kind of put your numbers together, and what do you want to attain out of it. You know, you can do pretty well feeding your family, and selling the extra to friends and family, and basically making your protein free, and with not a lot of, you know, expense. So, you know, a lot of people think you just, you know, get a couple breeding rabbits, and throw them together, and you know, “In 30 days, I’ll have some,” and that. And that doesn’t really quite work that way.
Deborah Niemann 18:05
Yeah, exactly. I mean: rabbits. That is the gold standard for breeding, right? You know, you talk about “breeding like rabbits.” So, I’m so glad that you mentioned the overfeeding and stuff, because when we had rabbits, that was one of the problems that I had, was I had Crème d’Argents, and they would not get pregnant. I had two does and a buck, and they would not get pregnant. And it wasn’t until I was talking to you guys at a conference a few years ago and said that, and you said, “Oh, you’re probably overfeeding them.” And I was! Because, you get those feeders that hang on the side of the cage, and it looks like a self-feeder. You know, it looks like, “Oh, you just keep it full,” right? “And the rabbit will control their intake and only eat as much as they need.” And, that was not the reality. So apparently, I had a couple of very overweight does that just never got pregnant.
Callene Rapp 19:05
Yep. It happens a lot. It really does.
Eric Rapp 19:07
Well, and you know, I tell people in breeding stock, you know, you don’t take and fatten up a cross-country runner, and then take him out and say, “Okay, let’s start running.” You know, you want to keep him in good condition. So. And the problem with rabbits: Most people just breed spring and fall, because they don’t want to have pregnant does in the heat and babies in the heat. So, what you’re essentially doing is, when you decide you want rabbits, you just go to the barn and say, “Okay, we’re going to have rabbits,” whether the rabbits are… You know, they’ve been sitting for 3 or 4 months, and you’ve been dumping feed to them and filling the feeder up, and they go, “Nah, we’re not— No, we’re not doing that.” And the bucks have been sitting over there doing nothing, and you know, you throw a doe in with him, and he’s like, “I— No. Bring me another can of feed,” you know. And that’s where people get frustrated with raising rabbits. And if you haven’t raised rabbits before, they assume that most bucks just automatically know what to do. And if you overfeed them, no animal—and a rabbit barn really needs full feed, as animals that you cull, that you never want to see again, and you want to eat them as quick as you can, and like now, you want them off that feed bill.
Eric Rapp 20:27
We even did a research project—God, that’s been a long time ago—where we finished some on grass, and that was going to be completely finished on grass and nothing else. And we found out that it takes a lot of grass, and it takes… We had to substitute some oats, because the grass just wasn’t doing it. The animals all started the same weight. We found that some of them did fairly well, and some of them just didn’t do good at all. And most people that do grass-fed rabbits don’t do breeding stock on grass; they keep that stuff on pellets, and then they do a combination of grass and some pellets. But then, you really almost have to design that line of rabbits. And it takes a while to get them to be used to being on grass; you just can’t take, and throw them out on grass, and hope that something doesn’t go wrong. That they don’t scour.
Deborah Niemann 21:24
Wow, this has been so interesting. You have got so much knowledge—which is not surprising. And when you said you’ve had 18,000 baby rabbits over the years… Like, that’s a lot of rabbits. So, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot. And your book is just amazing. Like, I think if anybody wants to raise rabbits, this is definitely something that they should grab. I think even if you’re not going to raise them for meat, there’s still a ton of really good information in here for people to just simply not make a lot of mistakes with their rabbits, you know, like overfeeding them. So, other than overfeeding, is there any other mistake that you see that’s really common with people who are new?
Eric Rapp 22:08
Well, probably the worst thing is babying them. And I… That’s kind of a odd word to use with rabbits, because that’s what everybody wants to do is cuddle them and baby them. And if you study rabbits, there’s… The does will naturally wean their babies at about 5 weeks; their milk production goes almost down to nothing. And, a lot of people think it’s a good idea, just to—you know, I’ve heard of people leaving them on 8, 9 weeks. And you know, some rabbit breeds, you can process them at that age. But, you’re basically not doing anything any good. Because once you start seeing those babies eating feed and drinking water, get that nest box out of there, because that just becomes a nasty place for animals to be in. Plus, it takes the pen space. But, if they’re doing good within that 5 to 6 week window, that doe will gladly want you to get them away. I mean, they’re just terrorizing her. So, a lot of people think they’re doing them good by, you know, leaving them on there for extended lengths of time, but 5 to 6 weeks. And that’s the best time to get them re-bred, because that is in the natural cycle of everything. I’ve even—because at one time we essentially had… Everything was sold before it was even born. And I even pushed the Chinchillas. I would—before I’d even get the babies weaned off in 5 or 6 weeks—I would go ahead and get that doe re-bred. And they would settle. If you had them in good shape, they would settle. But, what you have to watch: That doe is coming off of her milk production, and if you don’t get those babies off in time, you’re asking her to start thinking about making milk for the next litter, and basically her brain says, “I can’t do this.” So, you got to know what you’re doing. So, you can get four litters a year out of good breeding stock with no problem if you have the right facilities.
Deborah Niemann 24:10
Yeah. Well, thank you so much! This has been so helpful. And, if somebody wants to connect with you online, where can they find you?
Callene Rapp 24:19
They can either… Our website has a little option to “contact us.” And we also answer Facebook messages. So, either place.
Deborah Niemann 24:29
Either place, at “The Rare Hare Barn.”
Callene Rapp 24:31
Right. And then, just our regular email address is RareHareBarn@gmail.com. So, I don’t always get emails returned within a day. So give me a couple days, but we will get back with you.
Deborah Niemann 24:43
Okay, great. Well, thank you so much! This has been a really interesting conversation. And, I wish I could have had this conversation with you guys, like, 15 or 20 years ago.
Callene Rapp 24:51
It’s not too late! You can try rabbits again.
Deborah Niemann 24:55
I just might do that. Thanks so much.
Callene Rapp 24:57
Deborah Niemann 25:00
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”
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