Meat Rabbits On The Homestead

“You have meat rabbits on your homestead, are they really that beneficial?” This is a question we get asked frequently when we mention we raise rabbits for meat. For many people, they see rabbits solely as a pet; as a fluffy ball of fur to pet and snuggle. This is something you are going to have to work through and beyond if you are going to raise rabbits for meat.
I will be honest that I was a bit of a skeptic when Matt approached me with the idea of raising meat rabbits. We had already been raising chickens and a pig, and we were looking for more ways to increase our own food supply. See we have this vision that WE will raise and process the bulk of the meat that we consume. It is a vision of ours to decrease our dependency on the grocery store for meat; we believe it is healthier to raise our own and will help to lower our grocery bill.
However, Matt was very interested in finding another source of meat that has a better pound for pound return and is more sustainable that the pig or meat chickens.  He did his research and settled on meat rabbits.  He went all in, researching by internet, books, local rabbitry owners and did what ever it took to make this idea a reality.  After some time and forming a friendship with a local rabbitry owner we were gifted three rabbits.  One male “buck” and two females “does.”
We had a bit of a learning curve when we started with housing the rabbits. We began by buying cages wire cages(the plastic clips were really awful, they either fell off or the rabbits chewed them off) but now have settled on a homemade design that allows for ventilation as well as enviromental protection.  Our first year we housed the rabbits under a large apple tree near the house (wise to be near the house in regards to feeding and watering during the winter months, but not so wise as it was very close to our daughters play area). We eventually moved the rabbits to a further corner under a large white pine tree.  It is important to think about the housing situation for the rabbits; if you live in a climate like ours you will be replacing water bottles once if not twice a day in extreme weather conditions. So you will need to decide how far do you want to carry water/feed and will you have easy access to the area after a heavy snowstorm. There are no snow days in homesteading, these animals depend on us to provide them with food, water and shelter in any condition.
Living in Maine we have temps well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter; while the summer can be in the 90’s for an extended period of time. Hearing these temps you might think that the freezing temperatures would be the concern but with rabbits it is the opposite.  Rabbits do better in the cold than the extreme heat; so an important aspect of rabbit farming is your enviroment.  Heat is dangerous  when it comes to rabbits,  keeping these fur covered animals out of the sun and in the shade is essential.
We have learned that feeding can be expensive when you have multiple does’  with offspring at the same time. We also during this time only used rabbit pellets and did not have them foraging in secure ares in the yard. We did try to have the kits (at the time I believe it was 15) in a large rectangle cage on the lawn with metal fencing over the top but open on the bottom. It really seemed like a great idea at the time, the kits were so excited to eat the green grass . But we were awoken early the next morning by our neighbor, our kits had escaped and were running all over the place. We realized that they had dug a hold under one side of the cage. All the kits were found safe, but it was good lesson learned and we also put fencing on the underside of the wooden cage.  We prefer a cage style life for our rabbits; as it gives us almost complete control over population.  I say almost because the last group I separated  according to their sex was one off and in the world of rabbits this could turn into hundreds quite quickly. This error was notice by the unfortunate find of a dead baby kit, this also shifted the breeding schedule we had planned for our does. But in the homesteading life, it is important to take your mistakes as lessons and move forward.
Current Rabbit Set up
Raising the offspring which are called kits is fairly simple.  Just feed and water them…ALOT.  Remember they will grow faster if they are given more food—make sure they are all getting adequate time in the food dish. When they are young, I try to feed them at least twice a day and I give them any greens I have available.  When the time comes for harvest, take a breath and remember the lifestyle you chose.  It is all part of the circle of life (seriously at this moment all I can think of is the Lion King and I am ready to break into song). Okay in all seriousness  I am not going to sugar coat it, harvesting a bunny is almost near impossible, but harvesting a meat rabbit is rewarding.  Just remember they are MEAT RABBITS not PETS (personally I have to say this about any animal we process here on the homestead, because we care for these animals but their purpose is to provide our family with meat).  Our first year we had a modest harvest of 75lbs of rabbit meat. Last year we had a bit of a set back, one of our does refused to mate and this affected the number of litters and kits. We chose to keep a three females from one of last years litter (well, we thought it was three…turned out to be two females and a male). Unfortunately, we lost one of the females during the winter, so currently we have three females and two males. Hopefully, we will be able to increase the amount of meat we harvest from the rabbits this year.
So if your looking to add a not so time consuming meat option to your homestead, think about meat rabbits.  If your looking to add pets, think about bunnies.