In the early 20th century, the rabbit was an incredibly important and valuable domestic animal, providing fur, food, and – for the fancier – intense competition in the showroom. The Belgian Hare boom of 1898 to 1901 brought thousands of rabbits to the United States, commanding outstanding prices. The record price paid for a rabbit at the time was $5,000 for Champion Fashoda, an imported Belgian Hare buck. That’s $132,000 in today’s dollars. It’s no wonder names such as Rockefeller and DuPont showed up in the Belgian Hare world.
For the average person’s 1919 budget, an American Blue doe could still command a price of $25, which adjusts for inflation to about $300 today. An advertisement in an issue of Hares and Rabbits that year has an advertiser seeking all or part of five million rabbit pelts. Edward H. Stahl, developer of the American Chinchilla rabbit, became the first person to make a million dollars with rabbits, in 1938. Highly useful, rabbits were not only a significant economic product, but also a standard feature on many small farms.
As every aspect of agriculture and the food system changed in the last few decades, so did rabbit production. Traditional meat and fur breeds gave way to pet breeds, as the majority of people began to think of rabbits as furry friends instead of livestock. Several useful breeds were on the verge of disappearing entirely.
In 2005, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy voted to add rabbits to their conservation mission, and 11 breeds were placed on the Conservation Priority List. Three of these, the Silver Fox, the American and the American Chinchilla, are unique to North America and were placed on the Critical list.
Fortunately, rabbits are experiencing a renaissance on the small farm. Propelled partly by a growing desire to feel more connected to where food comes from, partly by a desire for a healthy choice for meat, and partly by a desire to leave a more sustainable footprint on the environment, meat rabbits are proving to be a viable option on the farm.
For the health conscious, rabbit meat contains very little fat and cholesterol. It contains the highest value of protein per calorie of meat.
For the environmentally conscious, a rabbit leaves a smaller environmental footprint, and great organic fertilizer. A doe weaning four litters in a year can produce 1,000 percent of her body weight, compared with a cow that can make 40 percent for her 400-pound calf.
And for those who want the ultimate accountability for their food, a small backyard rabbitry can provide a hands-on lesson in the real circle of life.
Being relatively prolific, properly managed rabbits can produce a steady, consistent supply of meat.
A rabbit primer
All breeds of domestic rabbit are descended from the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus. We owe the first truly domesticated breeds to French Catholic monks, who, because of their secluded lifestyle, needed a relatively handy source of meat. As early as the 16th century, references to “silver plated” rabbits believed to be the Champagne d’Argent breed were noted.
Rabbits are monogastric herbivores, meaning they have a single stomach rather than a multi-
compartmental digestive system like a cow or sheep. This makes digestion of high cellulose plant material like grass challenging, but the rabbit solves this problem by making use of the practice of coprophagy, wherein the rabbit consumes fecal pellets after their first passage through the system. These “night pellets” are soft and rarely seen. The dried round pellets found on the floor or droppings pan represent what has passed through the second time.
When selecting stock, choose the best quality animals available. Get a copy of the breed standard and familiarize yourself with what your breed ideal should be. Look for bright, clear eyes, proper tooth alignment, and rabbits that seem alert and active, with good coats. Look for the absence of nasal discharge and matting around the front paws, which can be a sign of “snuffles,” a highly contagious respiratory disease.
Although it is easier and often cheaper to purchase just-weaned kits, it is also harder to evaluate what the mature rabbit will look like. Most traits, both positive and negative, will begin to be visible by 12 to 16 weeks. At that age, you can get a much better idea of what you are purchasing, not to mention that the rabbit has already passed the stress of weaning and will be ready to breed sooner.
Most rabbit breeders genuinely enjoy helping new breeders get started and are happy to take time to answer questions, so take notes.
If you don’t plan on feeding the same feed as the breeder, ask for a small supply of their feed to help transition your new rabbits to the feed you will be using. Feed the original food for three days, and then mix (half and half) with the new feed until the original is gone. Water quality is vastly different from place to place, so a small jug of water from the breeder is also a good idea. Anything that can minimize the stress of transition will work in your favor.
Rabbit housing can be as simple as a row of cages under a shed, or as elaborate as a barn with concrete floors, automatic waterers and high-tech ventilation systems. No matter what setup you choose, your rabbits will need protection from both the environment and predators.
Cages should be constructed of smooth wire, ½-by-1-inch for the floor. Double galvanized, 14 gauge is recommended. Never use hardware cloth or chicken wire for cage flooring. Hardware cloth is rough enough to damage the rabbits’ hocks, and fecal pellets will not go through easily. Chicken wire is too fine to support the animals’ weight, and it has big enough openings for rabbits to get their legs stuck or for kits to fall through the openings.
For larger breeds, an area 30-by-36-inch square should be the minimum. This will give the rabbits about 71⁄2 square feet to move around in, and will accommodate the doe, her nest box and her litter as they grow. You can purchase ready-made cages, or make your own.
Rabbits are most comfortable at about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures above 80 degrees, they begin to experience some stress and should be monitored closely. Fans, frozen plastic water bottles, mister systems and fresh cool water all can help to alleviate heat stress, but perhaps the best method to handle heat is to select rabbits that are adapted to your local climate. Many of the heritage breeds, such as the American, have large, flaring ears that serve as radiators for body heat. Some breeds, like the Lilac, have shorter ears and a dense, thick coat and might not be the best choice for hot weather unless you can make some accommodations for the heat.
As long as they are protected from direct drafts, rabbits seem to have little trouble handling cold temperatures, but be sure to keep clean, unfrozen water available regularly.
Predators also love a good meal of fresh rabbit. When considering your rabbitry layout, think about how to keep out stray dogs, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and anything else that might be a regional problem.
Rabbits are able to breed at 4 to 9 months old, depending on the breed; small breeds tend to mature quicker, larger breeds much slower. Most of the heritage meat breeds such as the American and American Chinchilla are ready to breed at about 6 months of age, or around 7 to 8 pounds. When the doe is ready to accept the buck, her vulva will turn a deep pink.
Always take the doe to the buck’s cage. Does can be extremely territorial, and this also prevents the buck from losing focus and searching out neat smells in the unfamiliar cage. Rabbits are induced ovulators, meaning ovulation does not occur until actual mating by the buck.
Stick around to make sure the mating is successful and that the rabbits don’t squabble. Don’t leave them together longer than necessary to do the deed, which is usually very quick, and if you are not sure mating occurred, try again later that day.
Rabbits have a 32-day gestation, on average. At about day 14, you can palpate the doe to see if she is pregnant by restraining her and running your hand underneath her abdomen. Press firmly and you should be able to feel the marble sized fetuses along the side of her belly. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t too successful at this at first; it takes lots of practice to be able to palpate with any accuracy.
You can try performing a test mating to see if she accepts the buck in two weeks, but be warned that some does can be pregnant and still mate. Plan on still putting the nest box in at about day 28; it’s an unpleasant surprise to find a nice litter scattered all over the cage.
Nest boxes should be large enough to accommodate the doe easily. You can use commercial nest boxes or make your own. Be warned that wood can be chewed on and can harbor germs. Boxes should be disinfected between litters.
At kindling, the doe should make a nest in the box out of her own fur and whatever bedding you choose. Straw is cheap and usually readily available, but can harbor mites and retain dampness. Pine shavings are a good choice, but sawdust can irritate kits’ eyes and cause respiratory problems.
If the doe fails to pull hair to line her nest, as some first-time mothers do, you can pull some yourself from the dewlap under her chin. This will not hurt her, as this hair will loosen closer to kindling, and often can trigger her to do the rest of the job.
Rabbit milk is very rich, and does will only feed their kits once or twice a day. Don’t be alarmed if the doe doesn’t seem to be attentive; if the kits are warm and plump, she’s doing her job.
Enjoying the bounty
After successfully raising a litter, the question becomes what to do with the offspring. Hopefully you have planned for this situation before making your first mating. Not every rabbit produced is breeding or show-stock quality, and those markets are finite, even though heritage breeds are widely sought. It is tempting with a rare breed to send any kits on as breeding stock; after all, if they are rare, every rabbit is worth breeding, right?
Only about 10 percent of the kits produced will be as good as, or better than, their parents, which should be the goal of any good breeding stock program, no matter how rare the breed.
If you have bred these rabbits with the idea of having meat, now it’s time to process. This can be done quickly, compassionately and humanely. You will be rewarded with quality meat for the table.
The renaissance rabbits are experiencing is a boon for the several heritage breeds only recently on the verge of extinction, and also benefits the small farmer or urbanite backyard farmer. Thanks to the efforts of the handful of dedicated breeders keeping those heritage breeds alive, they are returning to their original niche, and a new generation of rabbit breeders can experience the joys of rabbit raising.
Welcome to the Renaissance.
Callene Rapp is owner/operator of The Rare Hare Barn in Kansas with her husband, Eric, and a whole host of livestock rare breeds. You can contact them through their website www.RareHareBarn.com.