First off,I make no claim as to being any kind of an expert in the field of raising livestock, but noticing little in the files on this subject, decided to give it a shot. We started raising rabbits about 18 months ago as an emergency source of protein if times got tough. There are a number of reasons why rabbits make sense to survivalist’s, among them in no particular order-
1)A healthy mature doe can produce up to 1000% of her body weight per year. Of course this figure is if everything goes right, but suffice it to say that you can produce a lot of food with just a few rabbits.
2)Rabbits are small animals that can be butchered and ate one at a time, like chickens ,so there is no need for refrigeration or other means of preserving leftovers.
3)Rabbits are quiet creatures-which means if you are in a situation that requires keeping a low profile, you won’t have to worry about them drawing attention to themselves and you!
4)Rabbits are efficient converters of feed to meat. The young are considered "fryer size" at weaning (6-8 weeks) so as soon as they are done nursing they can be butchered and consumed which of course means you are only feeding the adults.
5)Rabbits are easy to care for-a few minutes in the morning to feed and water,and checking on them ,a once a month or sooner cleaning of the cages and keeping notes on dates bred, litter sizes etc is really about it.
6)Rabbits require very little room compared even to chickens which is a bonus as even city dwellers can find a spot for raising them.
7)Rabbit manure is a great fertilizer for your garden .
8)Rabbit meat is very good for you as there is very little fat or cholesterol. Some people are actually put on a "rabbit meat" diet by their doctor.
9)Rabbits are much easier to butcher than even chickens and the fur they provide can be used for clothing or barter.
First of all, before buying your initial stock, you need to think about housing. There are many plans for building your own hutches available on the internet and in books but some things in general need to be considered.
Rabbits are prey to many other animals so they need to be protected, make sure you keep their cages up off the ground and insure they are sturdy enough to protect the rabbits from dogs, coyotes and other threats.
Rabbits need a clean dry environment that protects them from the weather to thrive well. This means keeping them in an area that has good ventilation in warmer weather but can be closed up to keep them warm and draft free in winter. Overhead cover is essential to keep them dry and happy.
Hutches can either be store bought (already assembled), bought as a kit that you put together ,or built entirely from scratch. It is advisable to build them entirely from wire which will last longer, but can be built with a wood frame if you have scrap wood lying around like we did. Adult rabbits need their own individual cages and the dimensions should be at least 2ft by 2ft for each cage floor (or larger) and 18 in. high so they can stretch out, but note, regardless of the size you make the cages ensure that you will be able to get the rabbit when you need to, if you make them too deep, they will run to the far corner out of your reach! The most common material used for flooring is what is referred to around here as "hardware cloth" which is a metal wire material consisting of a ½ in. by 1in. mesh. This works well as it is very sturdy and easy on the rabbit’s feet, and is available in different widths. To save money if you are building your own, one inch chicken wire can be used for the walls and roof but make sure you secure it firmly to the floor as it is much weaker and is easy for a rabbit to stick his nose under and pry up.
When we got started, I took an unorthodox route to save money and to use what was already at hand It was decided to put the hutches in the garage to avoid having to build an out building. This worked rather well as it took care of many issues discussed above. A five hole cage was planned. Actual construction consisted of building a 2x4 frame 10 ft long and 2 ft wide ,2 ft high and 3 ft off the floor and then installing the hardware cloth floor . Next , the chicken wire was attached for the sides, ends and cage dividers using wire ("J" clips are recommended) and then a roof was built out of 1x4 lumber for a frame and chicken wire to close it in. Hinges were added and what ended up was one large common lid that can be raised when needed. This also helps to keep out children who like to play with the bunnies and end up letting them out, either on purpose or by accident. There are many different ways of constructing hutches, anyone who is even the least bit handy should be able to come up with a suitable solution. What we ended up with was a five hole cage for very little money.
After you have planned and built your hutches, you need to acquire the other equipment needed for this endeavor. Specifically, what you need are feeders , some way of getting water to the rabbits ,feed and nest boxes.
Most people use the galvanized metal self feeders available at most feed stores and cost around $5 each. Makes sure you get the ones with the fines screen on the bottom as these only cost a few cents more but require less work as the "fines" (small bits of feed) will fall through and you won’t have to clean out the feeders as often.
As far as watering goes, many people use the hanging water bottles like we do ($5 ea), another tip here, get the ones with the hinge top as they are much easier to fill up, the other type has to be removed from the bracket, and filled from the bottom. For only a little more money you can save a lot of extra work in the long run. Rabbits need a lot of water for their size so each one will need his own bottle and they need to be disinfected on occasion also. Another option is to install an automatic watering system, which some people do but in my opinion unless you plan on raising a lot of rabbits, it is not really worth the time and expense to build this type of system. The one thing not to do though is to use any kind of water bowls, or crocks , they will soil them and turn them over every time you turn around.
Feed (pellets) can be bought at the feed stores and cost about $5.50 here for a 50 lb. bag. My experience has been that if kept in the original bag in tightly sealed containers (we use plastic garbage cans) feed will stay good at least 6 months so stock up as you can afford it. Good old alfalfa hay is also good to feed them, you will need to install some way of attaching the hay up off the floor with either a "hay rack" or by just tying it up with wire to keep it from falling on the floor and getting soiled. Also table scraps can be given to the rabbits, they love lettuce, celery, carrots etc and go crazy for a treat like apple or pear slices once in awhile. If you plan on only feeding your rabbits commercial feed, then they will get plenty of salt, if however you plan on feeding mostly hay and scraps you will need to get some salt spools to put in each cage.
Nest boxes will need to built also, these can be made from scrap plywood with hardware cloth for a floor and need to be about 11" by 18" by 8" high in the back and sides and 4" high in the front, the top is open. This will be filled with hay a few days before they give birth and placed in the doe’s cage to give her a nice warm place to have her litter, and to provide the babies a safe place to live until they are big enough to venture out on their own.
Obviously, before you can start breeding rabbits, you have to acquire some to begin with. There are several ways to go about this, first off you have to find someone in your area that raises rabbits so that you can purchase them. Look in the papers and ask at the feed stores for someone to contact. Once contact is made, go out and visit them and tell them what you want and what you intend to do with them. Explain that you intend to raise them for food and not pets. What you are looking for is "meat" rabbits, which are medium weight breeds like New Zealand Whites and Californians which are usually bred for food because while they may not grow as big as the "giant breeds" they grow more quickly to fryer size which is what we want. Also you need to determine how many and what age you want to start with, a couple schools of thought on this. You can start with all weaned bunnies which will cost less up front ($5-$10 around here) but you will have to wait until they are 6 months old to breed them, or you can start with mature rabbits which are ready to breed now but will cost more up front ($15-$20 here).You can also buy bred does (female rabbits that have been bred)for about $5 more. About the best way to start is to buy at least two does, and two bucks (males) insuring they are from different blood lines, and here is why. What you can do is breed one buck with one doe, and the other buck with the other doe, once the does from these litters mature you can now breed the original bucks with them (different bloodlines) and not have any inbreeding which is never good for the herd. Another option is to mate one buck with both does and then breed the second buck with the does from these original litters. Lots of ways of doing this with different numbers of rabbits that you start out with.
Caring For Your Rabbits
Now you have constructed the hutches, have accumulated all the equipment you need and have procured your initial stock and are ready to get started. First off make sure that you have the person you buy your bunnies from show you how to sex rabbits, that is how to tell the males from the females. This is one of those things that is a million times easier to show someone that to try to explain and is very needed to know information for later on when you are deciding which ones to keep for breeders and which ones to butcher. Also mark their ears if you buy weaned bunnies so that when you get home you know which ones you put in which cage. Number the individual cages and start a log for the rabbits. I just use an old clipboard and keep a separate page for each rabbit including which cage they are in, date born, sex , date bred, number in litter, number that lived through weaning etc. Keeping good records is important down the road and can be done however you want just as long as you keep up with it.
Daily routine is fairly simple, make sure they have plenty of clean water, plenty of food, check the cages for signs that they need repaired and check the rabbits themselves.Common problems will be covered later but they need to be checked daily especially the ears and feet.
One other thing that needs to be mentioned is how NOT to pick up a rabbit. It may seem like common sense but do not pick them up by their ears, always pick up a rabbit by the scruff of the neck with one hand and support the rabbits weight by placing the other hand under its bottom.I wear gloves as they grow mean little claws and can give a nasty scratch which will infect easily.
Rabbits are considered mature when they are 5 to 6 months old.I always wait til 6 months to be safe and that is a good practice. To check to see if a doe is ready, flip her over and look at the vulva, if it is a red or purple color, most likely she is ready. If pink then most likely she is not ready. Take the doe to be bred and put her in the bucks cage (always in his cage).It will not take long as they know automatically what to do and will take care of business quickly. If the doe resists his advances and will not submit after a few minutes, take the doe out and try again the next day, or try another buck. If everything goes well (usually) go ahead and put the doe back in her cage. Sometimes after mating the buck has been known to get rather mean and start biting the doe so do not leave them together unattended. A good practice is to mate the same two again about 12 hrs later just to make sure. Note here, if the buck falls over or makes a shrieking sound after mating, this is normal and quite a bit comical also!
Now all you have to do is wait, gestation period is about 28 to 30 days so after about 10 days to two weeks you can check the doe if you want by flipping her over and feeling around for the babies. At this stage they are about the size of marbles. About 3 days before they are due, it is time to put the nest box in the does cage. Put some clean , dry hay in it and get ready. They usually have their babies at night and a little while before birth, the doe will start arranging the hay and pulling fur off her belly to make a nest for the little ones. This fur can be saved for later if you have a doe that does not pull her fur on her own.
Everything goes well and you have 6 to 10 bunnies in the nest box. This is a normal size litter but can be more. You need to inspect the litter and pull out any dead ones to keep her from eating them, use gloves on your hands to keep your scent off of the babies. You might want to give her a bit of apple to occupy her while you are looking the litter over. At birth the bunnies look like mice but this is only temporary as when they get about 10 days old their eyes will be open and they will soon start looking like small rabbits. When they first get a full coat of fur is when they are the cutest but it is important not to get attached to them or let children name them as it needs to be understood that these animals are meant as a source of food and not as pets. Easier said than done, I know! Keep the nest box clean and remove it after a few weeks.When the litter is four to five weeks old, you can rebreed the doe if you want.
After the bunnies are weaned (6 to 8 weeks) it is time to decide on what to do with them. Some of the rabbits may be kept for future breeders and the rest butchered or fattened up a little more first, but it is important to remember that hanging on to them for longer than necessary will only mean more cost in feed. Let them nurse as long as possible as it cost you no more in feed but puts more weight on them. Also do not remove all the little ones at one time,as it is better for the doe to dry up gradually. You may put all the weaned bunnies in one cage but after a few months they all need their own,
Here is some common problems you may encounter with your rabbits .Checking on them on a regular basis and providing them with clean, suitable housing will prevent many problems but things still go wrong from time to time.
Ear mites -are a common problem, you will know them when you see them as the insides of one or both ears will start developing a scaley looking growth. The vet sells some medicine for this but the cheap solution is to get some mineral oil and squeeze a small amount into the affected ear and cover the area which will suffocate the mites and they will die. This needs to be addressed soon after it is noticed so that the rabbit does not start to scratch in its ear causing wounds and infection.
Sore hocks- or the bottom of the rabbits foot sometimes becomes raw and the easy solution to this is to give the rabbit something clean and dry to stand on, like a piece of scrap wood so that they can heal up.
Cannibalism- I have read numerous reasons for this, but if a doe tends to eat her young, ( I give them two chances) the best solution is usually to just butcher her and consider it a loss.
Unfortunately, rabbits are not the hardiest of animals and sometimes they will get a little case of the sniffles and the next thing you know they are dead. The cost of doctoring them far outweigh what they are worth so in many cases your best bet is to just consider any sick rabbit a loss and destroy it. Make sure to completely disinfect the cage, feeder, water bottle etc before reusing the cage.
A number of good resources exist for learning more about raising rabbits. One book in particular that has helped me is "Raising Rabbits The Modern Way" by Bob Bennett and I recommend adding it to your library. Another good one on raising many types of animals is "Backyard Livestock" by Steven Thomas and revised by George P. Looby, DVM . Hope this sparks some interest in rabbits as they really are a useful animal for the survivalist, let me know any tips you have so I can learn more too.
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