Over time, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about where our food comes from, and more specifically, how it is being raised. I stopped buying most of our meat from the grocery store, and instead switched to a local butcher who deals exclusively in local grassfed beef and free-range poultry. We don’t eat meat every night, but the cost of so-called “specialty” meats is still prohibitive, so I began researching different ways to offset some of that cost by raising our own food animals.
Beef didn’t seem like a good place to start for us; we don’t have a pasture so the initial cost of setting one up plus the learning curve of raising such a big animal would have outweighed any potential savings at the butcher counter. Pigs? Same thing ... they need more care than we would have been able to manage at the time, as we were both still working full time. We already had our laying hens, so adding broilers for a few months didn’t seem like much of an experiment.
Enter the rabbit. I’ve had pet rabbits at many different points in my life, so I knew I’d have some work to do in differentiating between “pet” and “food.” Rabbits, however, are prolific and indiscriminate breeders – so from an efficiency standpoint, they are economical animals to raise as meat. Housing is simple: Cages are typical, but we have ours in an 8-by-8 chain-link dog kennel that’s been reinforced so they’re able to roam around on the ground but still be protected from weather and predators. Their feed is relatively cheap, at $12 to $15 for a 50-pound sack of pellets. Last, but not least, they’re really low maintenance. Compared with beef or pork, they practically care for themselves, and processing them can easily be done at home.
We already had two pet rabbits when we decided to move forward. Barley and Hops, a pair of Satin brothers, had come to join us so that I would have a continuous supply of rabbit manure for my garden. I found a California Giant doe for sale, and the rest is history.
A bit about the breeds – Satins are medium to large dual-purpose rabbits, meaning they’re bred for both their meat and their pelts. The Californian is a large dual purpose breed. In my research, I’d read that if you’re going to cross rabbits like this, it’s best to have the female be larger than the male, for ease of giving birth. (This process is ironically referred to as “kindling,” which I have to assume is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that they’re about to take off like wildfire.)
So, about a month after our first breeding, we were rewarded with a batch of brand new baby bunnies, called kits. This is where I started to worry about whether or not our foray into raising our own food was going to work. There’s just no two ways about it: Baby animals in general are cute, whereas baby rabbits are Ridiculously Cute.
Fast forward, however, to about 15 weeks when it’s time to harvest them, and it’s a whole different story. We were running out of room, the brothers were fighting due to the fact that our doe was receptive again, and that many rabbits start going through a lot of food. There’s a tipping point, it seems, when they get close to processing age/weight where they start to break even, cost-wise. If we were running a larger operation, I’d pay more attention to the cost ratios – and many people do – but I’m comfortable that we’re still coming out ahead.
All in all, we’ve had three litters so far. There’s a fourth on its way, probably before the end of the week. Only one was planned – the first. The second litter was a result of one of the brothers climbing over a divider in the kennel to mate with the doe. The third litter was due to a case of mistaken identity; we’d kept two does from the second litter, but turned out that one was a He, not a She. This new litter serves as a lesson in exactly how young (10 weeks???) and indiscriminately rabbits do multiply. Remember, old sayings like that one tend to exist for a reason! This is also a good place to point out that if we did keep our rabbits in the more traditional cages, then we would have had fewer “surprises.” It’s all part of the learning process, I suppose.
The biggest challenge for me, though, has been processing days. It’s not easy, taking that final step from living creature to a recipe ingredient. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I have no business eating meat at all if I can’t bring it to the plate myself. I know that point of view is not for everyone, and that’s quite all right. I want to know where my food comes from, and if it was treated well. I take consolation in the fact that these animals have lived a good life: plentiful food, sunshine, exercise and the ability to be the animals that they are. When their life ends, we make sure it’s quick, humane and that they’re treated with respect. I also take pride in the fact that this is a sustainable process, and I am grateful for the comfort and security that raising my own food brings.
There are a lot of good books and resources out there on how to get started with raising rabbits for meat. If you’re interested in doing the same, I highly recommend doing your homework first, because once they start breeding, it’s hard to keep up unless you stay vigilant. If you have any questions about my particular set up, head on over to Acorn and Thistle or the community page on Facebook. I’m happy to answer questions and/or share more of my experiences.