Meat rabbits are an easy, low-maintenance and, pound-for-pound, extremely productive livestock to add to a farm operation.
Rabbits don’t need much space, are quick to multiply and produce low-fat, high-quality white meat similar to chicken. Rabbits also create a valuable secondary product of rabbit manure that can be sold or utilized in a fertilizer program for farm crops.
But, like any project on the farm, a successful rabbit meat enterprise is the result of research, careful planning, a proper set-up and an understanding of the husbandry needs for raising rabbits and potential market outlets for rabbit meat.
Start with Quality Stock
The number one determining factor for success in a commercial rabbit meat breeding program is the quality of the rabbit stock.
A healthy “trio” or rabbits — two does and one buck — appropriate for meat production can produce up to 600 pounds of meat a year. Sought-after ‘fryer” quality rabbit meats — rabbits that dress out at least 1.5 pounds and typically not more than 3.5 pounds — can be ready as quickly as eight weeks after birth. Good quality, healthy does can produce litters of anywhere from 10 to 20 kits every three months.
But, start with the wrong breed or unhealthy stock and your meat rabbit enterprise will be an exercise in frustration with young kits taking many more weeks to reach appropriate slaughter weight.
Many rabbit breeds and lots of backyard rabbit raisers sell extra breeding stock “meat rabbits” on local sales groups. However, there is a world of difference between commercial meat rabbits and a motley mix that likely includes pet rabbit breeds (like Holland Lops). Commercial quality meat rabbit breeds were explicitly selected for rapid growth, hardiness and carcass quality. Californian and New Zealand White rabbits are the most common rabbit breeds used in meat production programs.
Good health is vital too. So before purchasing, learn how to inspect a new rabbit and spot any potential health issues.
A “proven” trio (that has already produced a litter) is ideal to start with for a new enterprise, but keep in mind that does only produce litters regularly for a few years. Otherwise, purchase kits that are 12 weeks or older. You may find kits sold younger than that, but kits weaned and moved too young from their original home are much higher likelihood of suffering from stress-related enteritis (diarrhea) and dying.
Proper Housing is Key to Success with Rabbit Production
There are two main schools of thought for rabbit housing — keeping rabbits separated in cages raised off the ground Or housing rabbits in more natural “colony” style set-ups.
Commercial meat production is almost always in cages, as the feed and health of the rabbits can be precisely controlled and disease and pest issues avoided. Bucks and does will have individual cages, only put together for brief breeding intervals. Does with litters are kept in a separate, larger cage. A large grow-out pen is useful for kits weaned from their mothers (typically around six weeks) in the final grow-out weeks before they reach butcher weight.
Colony-style set-ups allow rabbits to live in a large area together, often on the ground. Does and bucks are typically kept together and allowed to breed at will.
While colony-style set-ups are simple, with less individual cage cleaning and feeding required, the quality of the rabbits is typically hard to maintain. Colony-style raising encourages the spread of diseases and worm infestations from contact with the soil and between rabbits. Young does will often be bred when they are too young, or mature does will be bred too frequently (rabbits can be impregnated again immediately after birthing a litter). Bucks (and even does) may fight in a colony set-up, injuring each other.
An alternative for many in meat rabbit production is using a ‘rabbit tractor’ for grow-outs. The young rabbits are housed together (before they are old enough to breed) and frequently moved through a pasture in a portable cage yet offered high-quality feed to encourage rapid growth to butcher weight.
Feeding Your Meat Rabbits
Feeding rabbits is another hotly debated issue in meat rabbit production.
Most commercial meat rabbitries rely on complete pellets, typically alfalfa-based, with high protein rates (usually around 18% protein or more). A good quality pellet includes all the minerals and nutrients rabbits need, and while hay can be offered, it is not required.
Some rabbit owners prefer to feed their rabbits a mix of natural ingredients and saving on pellet costs. For example, they may feed oats, BOSS (black oil sunflower seeds), hay and fresh vegetables and greens. However, it is much harder to control growth rates when following a free-feeding system for rabbits. Also, rabbits have very sensitive digestive tracts and changes in what they eat can quickly lead to blockages and diarrhea that will rapidly kill them.
Learning Basic Rabbit Medicine
Meat rabbits are high production, quick turn-around livestock for a farm. But, individually, rabbits don’t hold much value (a good quality meat rabbit slated for breeding stock might be worth $30 to $60). So, commercial rabbit owners learn to do much of their veterinary care. It doesn’t make financial sense to take sick meat rabbits to a vet.
If you are new to rabbit raising, read and research about the most common health-related rabbit issues. Intestinal blockages, mites, worms, abscesses and genital diseases are relatively easily treated. There are a few contagious viruses that you want to avoid if at all possible. Join online forums or find a rabbit-raising mentor for advice on health issues.
Marketing Your Rabbits
There is a strong demand for rabbit meat through local specialty food markets or selling to chefs. However, rabbit meat must be processed within a USDA-approved facility to sell into those markets legally. Unfortunately, those processing facilities are few and far between.
If you’re lucky, your region may have mobile USDA-approved slaughter units (used for chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits). But larger rabbit operations typically invest in their USDA-approved facility. It is a substantial up-front cost but can capture the lucrative chef and specialty food market.
Another option is selling directly to consumers, much like many small-scale, local chicken and turkey farmers do, offering complimentary slaughter and dressing-out services. Check with your state rules and regulations first, however.
There is a significant demand for rabbit meat for dog and cat owners feeding “raw meat” diets. As a result, many meat rabbit owners have found lucrative markets selling their rabbits as pet feed. Again, check for local rules, but most areas are not (at least yet) regulating their pet-food market outlet for rabbit meat. To find buyers, join local raw meat groups.
Of course, some small farmers raise meat rabbits to fill their family freezers or to keep their farm livestock dogs fed and healthy.
There is plenty more to learn about raising rabbits — including how to breed and how to slaughter — but, hopefully, this overview can get you started on a successful (and enjoyable) rabbit venture.
For more information, we highly recommend the following resources: