Once upon a time, I raised beautiful purebred show rabbits. Lovely striped Harlequins, handsome Checkered Giants, and beautiful steel gray American Chinchillas. I loved showing these rabbits and was doing fairly well selling these fancy, blue-blooded critters with long, detailed pedigreed.
Unfortunately, I had this problem. I had a demand for meat rabbits through the local farm market, and while my American Chinchillas had quality characteristics as production animals, they were much more valuable as breeding stock. I couldn’t spare youngsters as meat. Then, my mother’s Palomino buck died. While we were trying to track down another buck, I thought, why not just breed the Palomino does to my American Chinchilla buck. They’d be just little mutt rabbits for eating until we got a purebred buck. Our best doe happens to be a Palomino and our best buck happens to be an American Chinchilla anyways. So we mixed it up a bit. And guess what? We discovered hybrid vigor!
Those little Palochillas ended up being great meat rabbits, so I kept a doe and a buck. I meandered to the local small animal auction and picked up some more crossbreds and tracked down a few does online, breeding them all to my wonderful American Chinchilla buck. I’m now on my third generation of “commercial” rabbits and they are turning out great! Along the way I have introduced different breeds for various reasons, and I feel a bit like I’m creating a recipe.
For one, the quality of mama rabbits that I’ve got has increased immensely since my show rabbit days. There’s a general rule for many breeders that I also followed – she gets three chances to produce a good litter. Many young mother rabbits fail at raising their first litter, and oftentimes the second. Usually she’ll get it by the third time, but if she doesn’t, then she is culled from the herd. By carefully selecting and harshly culling, I very rarely have a doe from my bloodline that doesn’t raise her first litter successfully. I only keep gals that make excellent nests and properly care for the little ones her first time around. Along that note, I’m averaging eight babies a litter, which for my little farm is a perfect size. I do have a few does that average ten, and one doe that seems to have eleven kits every litter, but I find that having that many babies stresses them out. I began weighing young rabbits as they grow, and by keeping breeders from does that produce heavier youngsters, I have a good growth rate going.
As for the meat aspect of this whole party, that’s becoming better every generation. Initially the breeds that I used weren’t known for their spectacular meat production – I generally used less common, heritage breeds because that’s what I happened to have - an American Sable buck given to me by an aunt, that Lilac buck housed for a friend, and a pack of American Chinchilla X New Zealand does that I got as a bargain at the local stock auction for $1.50 each. By selectively breeding the best to the best, keeping the fastest growing youngsters and bringing them into the brood herd, I’ve been able to slowly but surely bring up the meat production quality. We aren’t at our ideal yet, so I had to bring in the big guns. I’ve invested in a handsome young black New Zealand buck from some impressive lines. I’m hoping he’ll produce some fryers (young rabbits for eating) with more meat on their bones. My rabbits aren’t bony by any means, no, they’re just not as, erm, ripped, as I think they could be.
By choosing purely for production traits such as growth rate, mothering ability, and litter size, instead of following a standard of perfection, I have created a bloodline of rabbits that is ideal for my partial-pastured rabbit operation (more on that in another post). I’ve essentially created my own standard of what I think I need from my rabbits. Granted, I don’t recommend mixing up breeds for beginners. It’s always best to start with high quality, purebred stock. But, once you really get a handle on your market, customizing your bloodline for your farm makes it all the more personal and ten times as fun. I love my little herd of Cattle Cait rabbits. Although, the majority of the herd is chinchilla colored, and I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I’ve simply recreated the American Chinchilla breed.