Thursday, May 2, 2013

Raising Meat Rabbits

Meat Rabbit Production: Many people are considering raising meat rabbits in their backyard for personal consumption due to their small size and relatively easy care. Prior to purchasing any livestock, it is important to gather information. This is a short discussion of a few of the important aspects of raising rabbits for meat.

Housing: Rabbits can withstand cold weather better than hot weather. Outside cages need to be placed in the shade with a roof to provide protection from rain, wind, drafts, dampness, and direct sun during the hot summer months. The temperature within the hutch should not reach more than 85° F to prevent death. A couple of options to keep a rabbit cool include: placing a gallon jug of frozen water in the cage, hanging long wet towels on the sides of the cage and placing a fan near the cage but situated so it is not directly blowing on the rabbit. During colder weather, be sure to protect from drafts, but ensure proper ventilation. Hutches can be made of wood or wire. Wire cages are preferable for breeding does and weaned litters. Size varies but the general rule of thumb is to provide ¾ square foot per pound of body weight. Each doe with a litter should have six square feet of space. Pregnant does may need a plastic mat inserted over part of the wire floor for support. Hutches should be cleaned once a month using one cup bleach in one gallon of water. Nest boxes should be slightly larger than the doe. A general practice is approximately three inches longer than the doe and approximately two inches wider. The height should be 9-12 inches for medium to larger breeds.

Breeds: The three most popular breeds for meat production are New Zealand White, Californian, and Florida White, with the first two being the most widely used. Mature New Zealand does weigh 10-12 pounds and bucks weigh 9-11 pounds. The average litter size is 8-10 kits. They are known for their calm and docile demeanor. Mature Californian does weigh 8.5-10.5 pounds and bucks weigh 8-10 pounds. The average litter size is 6-8 kits. The Florida Whites are smaller with does weighing 4-6 pounds. This breed is popular for home meat production due to their compact, meaty bodies.

Nutrition: A commercially prepared rabbit pellet at 16-18% protein will provide all the nutrition needed and should be fed daily. Do not overfeed and remove uneaten pellets daily. Follow the feed label’s directions on feeding recommendations. Gradually increase feed intake when a doe is confirmed pregnant. A couple days prior to kindling, cut down on the amount of feed given. The first day after kindling, feed the doe only 2-4 ounces to prevent caked udders and then increase gradually. Feed the doe and litter all they will eat each day, and continue feeding the litter all they want after weaning. Ensure fresh water is available at all times. A doe and litter can consume one gallon of water a day. Water bottles can be used during warm weather and metal pans or crocks should be used during cold weather.

Reproduction: Does reach maturity approximately 30-60 days prior to bucks, with medium sized breeds reaching maturity at 6-7 months of age, and larger breeds at eight months or more. The vulva of a doe in heat will usually turn purple to reddish pink in color and appear to be somewhat swollen. Does are in heat 14 out of 16 days and are induced ovulators, ovulating approximately one hour after mating. When ready to mate, take the doe to the buck and remove after mating occurs. Mate again 8-12 hours later to increase conception rate and litter size. One mature buck can mate with 1-2 does daily. Ten to 16 days after mating, palpation can determine if she is pregnant. At day 28 of gestation place a nest box in the cage with straw or other clean bedding. Gestation length is approximately 31-35 days. Once the doe kindles, remove bloody masses and dead kits. Check the teat to kit ratio and foster if needed. Check the nest box daily and clean when needed. The nest box can be removed at 15-21 days post-kindling. The kits will be ready to wean on day 30. Market weight for kits is 4.5-5 pounds which should be reached by eight weeks.

Health: Ears should be cleaned when needed with cotton or wool swabs and olive or baby oil. A healthy rabbit’s nose will be dry. The nails should be clipped when needed to prevent overgrowth, but be sure not to cut too short. External parasites affecting rabbits include: flies, fleas, and mites. Internal parasites are usually not a major problem. Cleaning and sanitation will help prevent some of these. Remove droppings daily and at least once a month, clean and disinfect the cage and tray by using a mild bleach solution. Be sure to rinse well and expose to sunlight until dry. For information on the health of rabbits, contact your veterinarian.
Rabbit meat is delicious and healthy and when raised in the backyard, can become a great activity for the whole family to be involved in.

(by Heather Smith, MU Extension Assistant Livestock Specialist)


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