When we first moved to our land we wanted to start with small livestock. We both worked full time in town and had a toddler, so we needed an easy animal to care for. Most people would start with chickens. But Little Monster was allergic to eggs, so it didn’t make sense to get an animal that the whole family couldn’t enjoy. So we went with the next easiest animal – rabbits. We would only have to feed and water them once a day, and there isn’t really a whole lot of maintenance to do for them.
Hubby had a co-worker that was also interested in rabbits at the time. They spent hours in the work truck between jobs discussing the pros and cons of breeds, housing arrangements, breeding plans, and good eating. Admittedly, I was not a big part of most of the early decisions or care for the rabbits, but I was supportive of all that they came up with. This was the start of our homestead!
We started with mostly New Zealand Whites and a couple Californians, both medium-weight rabbits. New Zealands are probably the most popular meat rabbit in the US, averaging 10 to 11lbs at maturity, followed closely by Californians, averaging 9lbs. These breeds tend to have higher litter sizes and disease resistance. They also dress out well, with a higher meat to bone ratio. We recently got a new doe from a local breeder. She is a Flemish/New Zealand White crossbreed.
The idea is that since Flemish are giant breeds, they are bigger boned and slower growers. New Zealands are smaller boned and grow much faster. Our new girl will be bred to a full bred New Zealand buck, hopefully resulting in a larger, quick growing, meat rabbit. We’ll start breeding her in the fall once temperatures begin to drop.
In most parts of the country, you could probably get away with keeping rabbits on the ground. In fact, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia raises forage-based rabbits. This is a great idea, but being in Florida, this just wouldn’t work. We have too many parasites. So our hutches are high off the ground. There is plenty of ventilation all around. We positioned the hutch between a couple big water oak trees and a hog plum tree. Rabbits much prefer cool weather to the heat, so we tried to keep them out of the sun. They are in wire enclosures, to help not only with air circulation, but also for easy cleaning. I can easily take a blow torch and sanitize the enclosures. Each of our breeders has a plastic resting pad as well for a soft spot to rest their feet. They have automatic waterers, so I only have to fill a couple of five-gallon buckets each day, and our feeders are positioned outside the enclosures, which makes feeding nine enclosures so much easier and faster! With the hutch high up, the droppings fall to the bottom to compost. I add the poop to the garden periodically for fertilizer.
Our rabbits are ready for harvest in eight to ten weeks, but we usually wait at least three months. Usually when I say we’re running out of room in the grow out cages, or I’m feeding too many rabbits. Hubby does the ‘harvesting’ and initial cleaning outside, then brings the remainder to me inside to clean. It takes a few days to get four rabbits done, but when all is said and done, we have eight meals worth of meat in the freezer, and nearly 200 ounces of broth made from the carcasses (that’s equivalent to six 32-ounce cartons of broth). The meat is healthier than any other popular meat. This chart shows the protein and fat content of rabbit meat.
Rabbit can be substituted for chicken in nearly any recipe. I love to cook rabbit noodle soup with my homemade broth when someone in our house is sick. Rabbit goes well in curry. Ground rabbit makes yummy taco meat. We like to grill the fore legs, or as hubby calls them, the rabbit wings. When we separate the shoulder from the fore leg, we have what looks like chicken thighs, which does well in casserole dishes. The meat is so versatile we really can do anything with it.
So, why rabbit? Why not? They are quiet, easy to manage, and fill our bellies. They are a great starter animal for any homestead.
What was the first animal on your homestead?