Ultimate Guide: Raising rabbits for meat in your backyard

Raising rabbits for meat in your backyard can be a great source of meat to help feed your family. In this article we explore everything you need to know to successfully raise meat rabbits in your yard.

Raising rabbits for meat

Below we answer the most commonly asked questions about raising rabbits for meat so that you can be best prepared for keeping them at your place.

Please read: This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat, diagnose or prevent any disease. We encourage you to make your own health care decisions in partnership with a qualified health care professional.

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What is a meat rabbit?

A meat rabbit is simply a rabbit that has been raised with the intent of using it or it’s offspring as a source of meat. Generally, fast growing medium to large sized rabbit breeds are used for this purpose. New Zealand whites are the most popular breed used for this purpose, however there are others that work just as well listed below.

RELATED: Choosing a meat rabbit breed

Benefits to keeping meat rabbits

There are some benefits to keeping meat rabbits, they are popular amongst both rural and urban homesteaders for good reason.

  • Small footprint required
  • Cheap to set up
  • Cheap to feed
  • Easy to care for
  • Breed easily
  • Easy to butcher
  • Can be done in the city

Why raise meat rabbits?

Meat rabbits are small, quiet, efficient growers that can be raised in a relatively small space in the average backyard. Rabbits are hardy to the cold, and breed prolifically. They are easy to learn to dispatch and butcher and their meat is mild, and easily accepted by most pallets.

RELATED: Why you should raise meat rabbits

Is raising meat rabbits worth it?

Ultimately, it does depend on what your goal is for keeping meat rabbits, and what you choose to feed them on. If your aim is to provide your family with a sustainable meat source if there are food shortages or supply chain issues, or to know what your meat has been fed and how they have been cared for, then meat rabbits make sense.

The cheaper that you can feed your rabbits, the cheaper the meat will end up being for you. Because you are breeding your own, meat rabbits will usually work out cheaper than raising chickens from the hatchery for meat and they grow out in a similar amount of time.

Rabbits are one of the most (if not the most) efficient feed to meat converting animal, meaning that for every lb of feed you pay for you are getting more meat than something that is less efficient like a cow or a sheep.

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Are meat rabbits profitable?

There are definitely people that make good money running meat rabbit operations. There is a real economy of scale that comes in to play however. To make profit from raising meat rabbits you will need to buy your feed in bulk, minimize outgoings and maximize the quality of your product to fetch premium prices.

This is not always possible for backyard breeders, however it is possible to help supplement the cost of their feed by selling top quality young breeding stock – often worth more alive than as meat!

The more free food you can give your rabbits, the less they will cost you. Rabbits eat grass and good quality hay and if given the chance, they will eat up to 70% of their calories from good quality pasture and this will result in a pasture raised meat product that will fetch higher prices.

Keeping meat rabbits in the city

Back during the Great Depression most families grew a garden full of fresh vegetables, kept chickens for eggs and to eat the scraps and many also kept rabbits for meat as well. You can keep meat rabbits in a couple of hutches in the corner of your backyard and because they are small and quiet, they are less noticeable than chickens.

Are meat rabbits considered livestock?

No, currently even in areas that ban livestock and chickens you can still keep house pets which include rabbits. 

Are meat rabbits good pets?

Meat rabbit lines are usually predominantly bred to meet other criteria other than their willingness to snuggle. Higher in the priority list are birthing and raising good sized litters, mothering ability, milk production and speed of offspring growth, further down the list is calmness and handling. Aggression is discouraged but might be tolerated if other genetics are strong.

Meat rabbit breeds tend to be less friendly, however, this will vary between individuals. A young rabbit from any breed when handled a lot from a young age can learn to be a good pet. Female hormones may make a doe aggressive when she is on heat or when she has young babies, beware of an angry mother rabbit, their teeth are razor sharp and she is not afraid to use them.

Choosing a meat rabbit

If you have decided to keep meat rabbits, choosing which ones to get can be overwhelming. Ideally you would choose a pair of proven breeders if you are starting from scratch, because at least you know they know what they are doing.

Buy from a breeder than knows what they are doing and they are selecting their breeding stock for health, resilience, growth and quality of meat. When you go to meet your breeder, try and see the conditions that the rabbits are living in. Avoid rabbits from cramped or soiled housing. 

Look for rabbits that are lively and engaging. Rabbits should have bright, clean eyes, no sign of discharge from their nose or on their front paws. Check in their ears for discharge or signs of mites. Nails should be kept trimmed and not be overgrown or broken off.

Check the rabbits vent, it should be clean and smooth with no signs of vent disease. Usually a pale pink in both genders, however an in-season doe’s might be red or dark purple.

Check the rabbits mouth and teeth, never ever buy a breeder with crooked or mal-aligned teeth as they cannot eat properly and it is a genetic condition that will be passed on.

What meat rabbits breeds are best?

There is a lot of conflicting information about which breed is best for meat rabbits. The reality is that some lines are better than others, and you might find a fast growing Silver fox line that is better than the locally available NZ white line. 

The most common rabbit breed kept for meat is the NZ white, the NZ red and the NZ black are less common and are generally not bred to as high production levels as the NZ white. Californian, Florida white and Flemish giant were all originally bred for meat as well. If you are wanting pretty coats, fast growing lines of satins, silver fox or rex can all work as meat rabbits as well. They won’t get quite as large by 8-12 weeks for butchering, but they won’t be far off it.

What kind of rabbits are good for meat?

You want to get rabbits that grow quickly – some medium breeds like the satin and the rex will actually grow more meat in the first 12 weeks than larger rabbits like the Flemish giant will, because the FG tend to grow bone before putting on the meat. Meat mutts are a mixture of breeds that have been bred for many generations specifically for meat production.

RELATED: Choosing a meat breed

What do meat rabbits look like?

Most meat rabbit breeds are white or light in color to make it less obvious if there is any of their hair on the meat, however, you can raise any color that you like. 

What is most important when looking at a meat rabbit is to see what shape and size their body is. Meat rabbits should be nice and thick with their shoulders and hips being as wide as each other. Looking at the side of the rabbit you want a nice high arch and a rounded rump – a good meat rabbit looks more like a ball both from the top down and from the side.

RELATED: Choosing a meat rabbit

What are meat rabbits called?

Meat rabbits don’t have a fancy name, they are just called meat rabbits, or rabbits when alive, and once they are processed they are just known as rabbit meat or lapin in French.

What do meat rabbits sell for?

The price of breeding stock meat rabbits very largely on availability and quality. A proven doe from very good lines in a place where such things are rare could go for as much as $150, whereas an average young doe from an area where meat rabbits are prevalent could be as little as $15.

Meat rabbits going to a processor usually sell for around $5-10 each depending on your area and how many you are selling at once. A processed rabbit, ready for the table can fetch $15-30 each depending on who you are selling to and what the current market is doing.

Where to buy meat rabbits

Breeding rabbits are often best found on online listings like Trademe (in NZ) or Craigslist (USA). Meat rabbit groups on social media platforms are another good starting place.

How many meat rabbits per person?

Rabbits breed prolifically, so generally one buck and 2 does will keep an averaged sized family in rabbit meat year-round.

Housing meat rabbits

There are a lot of different opinions on how to raise rabbits, and as long as they are clean and healthy, you can choose what method will suit you best.

What do meat rabbits need?

Meat rabbits need shelter to protect them from cold wind and rain, and protection and ventilation to keep them cool in the heat of the Summer. They will need a source of fresh, cool water, pellets and hay or an alternative option for food. They need their home to be kept clean and a breeding doe will need a nesting box to have her litter in.

There are two main options for housing your rabbits – in cages or in a colony. There are pros and cons to both options. We prefer to colony raise our meat rabbits for many reasons that you can read about here: Pros and cons of cage raising rabbits.

Can meat rabbits live together?

Yes, rabbits raised with 2 or more together is known as a colony. Domestic rabbits (unlike cottontails) are social creatures and naturally live in groups that have a hierarchical structure similar to that of chickens. 

Generally, there is a dominant doe and each buck has a harem of 1-10 does that he calls his own. The most important thing to if you are keeping multiple rabbits together is to provide ample space for them to set up their own territory and to hide if the dominant doe is being grumpy. Ideally you will have 20sq feet/2m2 per breeding doe and 10sq ft/1m2 per buck.

RELATED: How to set up a colony

How many meat rabbits per cage?

It really depends how big the rabbits are and how big the cage is. A standard sized cage is only built for one adult or a small litter of weaned kits. Cages are usually 24×24 inches (or 600x600mm) for a buck and 32×24 (or 900x600mm) for a doe, the extra size allows for her kits up until weaning. More space is better, we prefer our buck cage to be 32×24 and our doe cage is 48×24 (1.2mx.6m) if the rabbits aren’t in the colony.

Can meat rabbits live with chickens?

Chickens and rabbits can live well together. There are two main ways to house chickens and rabbits together. 

  1. Keep the rabbits and chickens in a colony together, providing nesting solutions for the rabbits so the chickens cannot eat the baby bunnies.
  2. Keep the rabbits in cages up off the ground and let the chickens live in deep litter bedding under the rabbits. This way they scratch the manure in to the bedding which stops smells, and the chickens eat any spilt rabbit food.

Keeping meat rabbits in winter

Rabbits are hardy, fluffy little things that actually do surprisingly well during very cold winters as long as they have shelter from the wind, snow and rain. Many rabbitries winterize their hutches or cages by adding walls for the winter to block these.

 

Feeding meat rabbits

How you choose to feed your meat rabbits is up to you, but there are two main schools of thought – pellet based or without pellets. 

Pelleted feed is a simply way to ensure that your rabbits are getting all the nutrition that they need with the right amount of protein for good growth. You will want a complete rabbit pellet with at least 18% protein for pregnant or lactating does and your growouts. You can choose to use a pellet with a coccistat as well to prevent coccidiosis in your rabbits.

If you choose to avoid pellets, then you can look at feeding a mix of grains, vegetation and hay.

What can meat rabbits eat?

For optimal growth, you will want to stick to a formulated feed of 18% protein or more. The issue with this is that it can be more expensive and you are relying on external source for your rabbit food.

You can supplement their diet with fresh vegetable, grass, many types of weeds and hay (either grass or alfalfa/lucerne).

RELATED: Safe foods for rabbits to eat

Feeding meat rabbits without pellets

If you are wondering how to feed rabbits without pellets, there is good news. It is possible to feed rabbits without using pellets. Reaching the optimal 18% protein is difficult but not impossible. 7 day old barley fodder has a protein content of around 20%, oats are high in protein and help does lactate more. Black oil sunflower seeds have lots of nutritional benefits and extra fats for winter. Dried peas can be soaked and fed and the rabbits enjoy them. Alfalfa or lucerne hay is high in protein and can be used as a complete feed in a pinch.

Related: Raising rabbits without pellets

Breeding meat rabbits

Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits. Usually the buck and doe know what to do. Take the doe to the bucks cage and usually within 10 minutes he will have done what he needs to do and you will have babies due in 28-34 days.

When to breed meat rabbits

Rabbits are what is known as induced ovulators – the does will ovulate after they are bred. Does are “in season” about 20/28 days of the month, so odds are pretty high that you caught her on a fertile day. You can usually tell as her vent will be red or purple rather than pale pink.

A medium to large sized doe is ready to breed at 6-9 months, though some will breed as young as 8 weeks. This is not an issue, as they cannot and will not breed until they are ready to do so. Bucks can breed from 8 weeks, though many will not reach full maturity until close to a year.

RELATED: How to breed rabbits

When to wean meat rabbits

Mother rabbits will naturally re-breed almost immediately after having a litter of kits, meaning that when the current litter is 4 weeks old, she will have another litter. If you keep your rabbits in a colony, then this is likely what will happen. Kits raised this way naturally wean at about 5 weeks of age and anywhere between 5 and 6 weeks you can pull them out and put them in a grow-out pen for the next few weeks where they can focus on growing and eating.

Can meat rabbits inbreed?

There is quite a science to successfully inbreeding also called “line breeding” rabbits. Rabbits have a lot of surplus DNA so they can inbreed quite heavily in the wild without detrimental effects. Line breeding allows for crossing a parent or grandparent over a rabbit, but discourages from crossing siblings unless you have very specific traits that you are attempting to cross for. Generally, the further apart the relation the less likely that it will weaken your lines.

RELATED: Breeding rabbits trouble shooting

Butchering meat rabbits

One of the benefits to raising small animals like rabbits, quail, chicken or ducks for the table is that they are easy to butcher.

When are meat rabbits ready to butcher?

Rabbits can be eaten at any size, however their growth curve means that you are getting optimal growth for feed consumption up to 12 weeks of age at which point it drops off quickly meaning that you are getting a lot less growth for the volume of feed consumed. Rabbits are traditionally dispatched when they reach 5lb/2.5kg or 12 weeks (known as fryers), whatever comes first.

Some lines of rabbits will reach butcher weight at 8 weeks, others take closer to 14 weeks. If you want to keep the rabbits for their pelts, it is recommended that you wait until at least 26 weeks for their pelts to mature and strengthen. Older rabbits are best in the stew pot rather than baked or fried.

How are meat rabbits slaughtered?

There are many options when it comes to slaughtering rabbits. What method you decide to use comes down to personal preference, local laws and regulations, and what you resources. Common methods include stunning and bleeding, captive bolt gun, a bb gun or small rifle and cervical dislocation – by hand, hopper popper/rabbit wringer or the broomstick method.

  1. Stunning and bleeding
    Using a hammer or stun device the rabbit is rendered unconscious, then hung up by the back legs and the main veins and arteries in the throat are cut allowing the rabbit to bleed out. This is considered the best option by regulators.
  2. Captive bolt gun
    This is usually a spring loaded device that is placed in a spot on the top of the head and when it fires a pin (or bolt) goes in to the brains and kills the animal quickly. The animal is then hung and bled out.
  3. Shot
    If you have a strong BB gun that can be used at point blank, or a small rifle, you can shoot a rabbit in the head. Many prefer not to waste ammunition in this way however. The animal is then hung and bled out.
  4. Cervical dislocation
    When done correctly, this method is swift and painless. You can use a premade device or use a piece of reinforcing steel (rebar) and use the ‘broomstick method’. The animal is then hung and bled out.

RELATED: How to butcher a rabbit

Rabbit meat

Is rabbit meat is red or white?

Rabbit is a white meat, very similar in shade to chicken. The thighs are slightly darker meat in a similar way to chicken as well.

Is rabbit meat is good or bad?

Rabbit meat is very lean, high in protein and tastes a lot like chicken – ie has very little flavor of its own. It takes well to additional flavors in the cooking, like stews or curries and because it is skinless as well as lean, it does best with additional liquid in the cooking.

Is rabbit meat healthier than chicken?

Rabbit meat is slightly more lean that chicken, and home raised (or wild) rabbit can be fed more nutritious foods, a home raised pasture fed rabbit will be better for you than a conventionally raised, grain fed chicken as it alters the omega 6 to omega 3 ratios.

If you are thinking about raising rabbits for meat

If you are thinking about raising rabbits for meat, I recommend that you do your research first, and decide how you want to do it that will work best for your situation. We have loved raising our meat rabbits in a colony, but we are no longer raising meat rabbits as I simply got too busy to be able to maintain processing them all with a young baby.

We will likely return to it in the years to come when the little kids are a bit older. For now we have put a few cages on the walls in the colony shed so we can do a mixture of colony and cage raising with our mini lops that the girls raise as their little business. If colony raising rabbits interests you, I implore you to look in to getting this book.

 

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