Raising meat rabbits is hard
I was about to throw my arms up in the air and call it quits.
I woke up yesterday morning to a dreary, rainy day. The day was made worse when I finally braved the elements and headed outside for my morning chores. A peak into the rabbit hutch and my day was instantly ruined. It’s not easy raising meat rabbits.
Just two days prior it was the opposite. A quick peak in the hutch and my day was instantly made. Tucked in a corner was a nest with six baby bunnies. Yesterday, I found a nest full of dead bunnies. Just like that, they were gone.
I’m not having a good go at raising meat rabbits. It’s been a roller coaster.
First, we lost Thumper. Then we were delighted to discover he had successfully done the deed before his passing. Six healthy babies were born. Six babies who many months later are still hopping around the hutch.
Raising rabbits for meat is hard. Homesteading, in general, is hard. I struggle with the idea of butchering the fuzzy little hoppers every time I look at them and they look back with their big eyes and long ears. I have a hard time looking at them as food. Maybe it’s because rabbit isn’t already a part of our diet. In fact, I’ve never even eaten rabbit.
So why raise rabbits for meat if you’ve never eaten rabbit?
To cut costs on feeding ourselves and our dogs. At least, that was the idea anyway.
In theory, it sounded like a great concept. Get a couple of rabbits, feed them, breed them and voila, dinner for us and dinner for the dogs. Just one buck and one doe, depending on the breed, can produce up to 100 offspring in a year. That’s 100 times more rabbit than I ate last year and 100 dinners that can be produced in our own backyard. What can go wrong?
A whole lot.
Despite the hours I spent reading up on raising rabbits for meat, I have utterly failed at doing a good job at it. My hutch, while it gives the rabbits a lot of space, is hard to clean and impractical. It worked with three rabbits — a male on one side and the two does (sisters who had been together since birth) on the other. It did the job.
But then we had a litter of six, healthy baby bunnies. And those bunnies grew quickly. Too quickly. I wasn’t prepared to butcher them so instead, we kept them. With winter on its way, we decided to keep the babies with the two females so no one would freeze. They survived the winter with few problems. But now it’s spring time and the boys are a little too enthusiastic about it.
Having everyone together is no longer working out. While it is possible to colony raise meat rabbits, they need much more space than our hutch provides. It was never our intention to raise them in a colony, it just kind of happened when winter arrived and we had all these rabbits.
Ready to give up
After discovering the dead babies yesterday, I was ready to call it quits. I was ready to sell the rabbits I do have, tear down the hutch and raise only poultry for meat. I was ready to just walk away from it all.
Heading into this lifestyle, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew it was going to take hard work and lots of it. I knew there was going to be as many failures as there are successes. If I let every failure discourage me I wouldn’t be collecting fresh eggs from the coop every day, I wouldn’t have had fresh produce all last summer and a shelf full of preserves in the basement. Giving up is easy, sticking it out is hard.
I have two options: I can get rid of the rabbits and chalk this whole journey up as a failure, or I can learn from my mistakes and have a successful meat rabbit operation.
Starting over with meat rabbits
I shouldn’t say the entire journey has been a failure. The reason I am struggling now, is because I successfully bred meat rabbits. I just haven’t been able to repeat that success and it’s completely my fault. Luckily, mistakes are our greatest teachers and I have learned many lessons from my first foray into raising meat rabbits.
So where do I go from here?
First thing is to fix the hutch. To create a space that is both functional for cleaning and comfortable for the rabbits. We chose the design we have because we wanted our rabbits to have space, what we didn’t consider was how often a rabbit cage needs to be cleaned. The most important improvement to the hutch will be adding a wire floor so that poop can drop through, creating a cleaner space for the rabbits. For some reason, the girls like to poop in the house part of our hutch, not in the run part. By adding a mesh floor, cleaning the houses will be easier and the area will be kept cleaner for the rabbits. I also want to make the door bigger so I don’t have to crouch into the hutch to clean the run space. The next step will be to construct proper nesting boxes, one for each doe.
In fixing the hutch, we will also be fixing Thumper’s side, which has been vacant since he passed in September. The house part on that side needs easier access for cleaning as well as a wire floor. We will also need to split up that side if we are going to be keeping more than one buck.
The most difficult part of starting over, is figuring out what to do with the rabbits we have. The girls, two New Zealand whites, will be staying, along with the lone doe remaining from our first litter (one buck and doe went to a friend who is raising her own meat rabbits). It’s the three bucks I have to make a decision about. A decision I don’t want to make.
The most logical solution is to butcher two of the bucks and keep one for breeding, This will cut down on feeding costs and space. But it means butchering two rabbits. The thing I have dreaded since deciding to add rabbits to our homestead.
I dreaded processing day for the chickens. I doubted I would be able to watch without crying as our seven roosters met their end. I surprised myself. There were no tears, no squeamishness. But those were chickens.
I am not one of those people who name their chickens and treat them as pets. I don’t particularly like chickens, though they can be pretty entertaining. I have no desire to pick them up and pet them. I do talk to them on occasion. Every morning they are greeted with “good morning chickens” and the day ends with a “goodnight chickens.” The hens get a “thank you” when they leave me an egg. That’s about the extent of my relationship with our flock.
The same goes with the rabbits. They get a good morning and a good night. I don’t pick them up and pet them much. I don’t consider them to be pets either but I seem to have more of an attachment to them. There is something about the idea of butchering a bunny that puts me off. They are cute and furry, not creepy and feathered. No matter how much I try and talk myself into it, I don’t know that I will ever be prepared to butcher a rabbit. But I have to be.
Of course I can always just sell two of the bucks and prolong the inevitable. Eventually, I will have to go through with it, or very quickly our little homestead will be overrun with little hoppers. But it’s just so damn hard to think about.
What I have to remind myself is this: home-raised meat is far more humane than what is available in the grocery store. We are providing our animals with the best life possible. A life that includes fresh air and sunshine, not tiny cages and a closed in space. I keep telling myself this, but it doesn’t make it any easier. The alternatives are to pay someone to do the deed (which goes against our entire reason for raising meat rabbits — cost savings) or get rid of them and focus on birds (which are less cute and easier to think of as food).
A good friend has offered to help me with the first two (if I decide two of the bucks have to go). That will be the ultimate test on whether or not raising meat rabbits is for me. Only time (limited, eek!) will tell.
Do you raise meat rabbits? Did you struggle with your first processing? How did you overcome the fear of butchering bunnies? Share in the comments below.
Meat rabbit butchering resources
Raising Meat Rabbits: a tale of food self sufficiency from Daily KOS
Harvesting the Rabbits from The Elliot Homestead
Confessions of a Former Rabbit Killer from The Self Sufficient Home Acre
How to Butcher a Rabbit from Raising-Rabbits.com