At this year’s Spring Conference, we at OGS decided to set up a handful of volunteers with pen, paper, and the directive to go home after the event and write a post on each class they attended for us to share on the OGS Blog in a series we’re calling the Conference Blog!
In this series, we bring together the diverse perspectives of our audience and hear experiences from dozens of different voices–commercial farmers, backyard growers, conscientious consumers, and everything in between!
When we think of farm animals, what images first spring to mind? Many of us are probably reminded of the classic barnyard troupe—cows, pigs, sheep, and other hefty mammals. But beyond these familiar faces there’s a world of lesser recognized examples, amongst whom we find the pint-sized rodent featured in this workshop. Domesticated rabbits—though their wild counterparts are arguably amongst the most infamous of garden antagonists—can be both a boon to soil fertility and a food source in themselves.
Beginners and seasoned rabbit keepers alike had their questions answered in Walter Harrill’s class on Sunday afternoon. His presentation provided inspiration suited to all levels of interest, ranging from caring for hobby meat rabbits to larger scale production. Speaking from many years of experience, Harrill offered keen insights into breed selection, breeding, nutrition, housing, regulations, and harvest.
In considering rabbits, one of the first topics to address is what breed you’re looking for. While 90% of the meat in the U.S. is derived from New Zealand or California Whites, there are many high yielding varieties to choose from. Good meat rabbits come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Flemish Giants are popular not only for providing quality meat, but for their near-canine size. It’s often useful to take a look at what’s available in your community and connect with folks running their own operations.
Once you’ve selected your stock—but before the critters move in—it’s time to think about housing. In general, aim to shield rabbits from wind and cold in the winter, and keep conditions cool and shaded in the summertime. Protection against heat is more important than protection from cold (male rabbits go temporarily sterile at 80°F, permanently once temperatures reach 94°F).
When it comes to caging systems, try to find the option that is both predator proof and best suited for sanitation. Harrill recommends a sturdy wire that’s been galvanized post-welding to prevent rust. Though the traditional wooden rabbit hutch has it’s benefits, all-wire caging allows for easy cleaning, which means less risk of disease. With 1”x2” wire for the top and sides, and 1/2”x1” holes on the floor, babies will be contained and droppings will fall through automatically. Wire crates are also easier to hang. Keeping your rabbits at a height safeguards against coyotes and neighborhood dogs, though electric fencing may be necessary if raccoons are an issue.
Both sanitation and means of sanitation are important factors in caring for healthy rabbits. Generally speaking, the harsher the cleaner, the shorter the life of the cage. Likewise, strong chemicals can have deleterious effects of the health of your rabbits. Harill’s suggestion is iodine, which is safe for metal and rabbits, and can be applied without removing animals from the cage.
Next comes nutrition. Rabbits have three main components to a healthy diet: water, rations, and fiber. Water must be clean and readily available, as thirsty rabbits will refuse to eat. Bottles or automatic feeders are both appropriate—the latter will save on labor, but are usually expensive to put into place. In addition to water, rabbits should be fed approximately 6% of their body weight daily. Rations are where the majority of the nourishment lies. Most commercial brands come in pellet form and furnish the necessary spectrum of nutrients to support health, however rabbits will not thrive without a source of fiber as well. This often comes in the form of hay, which keeps food moving through the gut and can also help burn calories when rabbits have become over-conditioned. Extra fiber doesn’t hurt, especially in the winter when digestion generates extra warmth.
Eventually, the time will come to harvest your meat rabbits. Currently, there are no regulations around slaughtering rabbits for personal consumption. In fact, the USDA doesn’t require inspection of rabbit meat produced for public consumption either. In North Carolina, however, state FDA inspectors are charged with monitoring grower practices. Requirements include an inspected harvest facility, attending a two day rabbit harvesting class, and creating an HACCP plan (mostly written in the class). NCDA oversight is relatively unobtrusive, and ensures sanitary conditions and humane treatment of rabbits in life and death.
As your stock is regularly harvested, maintaining a steady population of rabbits can be a full time task. In order to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency as a producer, it is helpful to have a working understanding of breeding. Luckily, the process is relatively simple. While some approaches are more intensive than others, the general concept remains: introduce a doe to a buck’s cage and allow them to mate. Female rabbits are fertile all but a few days out of the month, which makes the odds of pregnancy high.
With regard to frequency of mating, not all rabbit keepers are of like mind. The most intensive breeding system requires a doe to mate 24 hours after giving birth. This maximizes conception rates and litters per doe, but wears the mother out after 18 months and is largely considered inhumane. The least intensive allows kits to remain with the doe until harvested, which yields about 3 litters per year. Allowing the kits to mature in the presence their mother benefits general health and immunity, but is less productive. Between these extremes there is plenty of latitude, with the standard procedure being a 42 day breeding cycle. Ultimately, rabbit keepers must weigh the trade-offs between systems to assess the best choice for their unique situation.
All in all, raising rabbits has great potential as a low-input, space efficient approach to meat production. Though small in size, rabbits can be a great asset to the farmer who gives them a chance.
Jenn Cloke, originally from Atlanta, has lived in Western North Carolina for since 2006 and wears her Appalachian mantle proudly. Jenn was the Communications Coordinator for Organic Growers School from 2012 to 2014. She and her family run a small farm at the foot of Cold Mountain.