Of all my livestock, I have had the best luck with rabbits. I have done it the longest, and have harvested enough that I think that I have a pretty good system in place. I am by no means an expert, but I do have the basics down.
As with all things I am doing on my urban homestead, I place great importance on having good resources to find answers to my questions. Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, 4th Edition is one of the books I read the most.
This is going to be a basic post, it won’t give you everything you need to know about rabbit husbandry, but it will give you a good overview.
The first thing is that when you want to raise rabbits, you should have a plan for what you’re going to do with them. If you plan on eating them you need to schedule the breeding, weaning, and growing out stages so you don’t spend more on feed than you are getting in meat. Creating this system is what has taken me the longest to accomplish.
The way we maximize our outputs while not overworking the does or creating so much rabbit meat that we are overwhelmed is by having three does. One is always pregnant, one is always nursing, and the third is resting.
We have a four cage hutch, and the male is one the far left side. When we want to breed, we take a female out of her cage, and introduce her to the male cage. We tried the other way, but the male wants to sniff around and the female is protective of her territory. If we put the female in with the male he jumps right to work.
I have left the doe in overnight, but I find that it causes fewer problems if I just watch them and then remove the doe to her cage after breeding. I then put her back with the buck about 8 hours later so he can have one more chance at breeding. After that second breeding I don’t let them breed again as rabbits ovulate by opportunity rather than on a cycle so it is possible for the female to be breed twice and have two sets of fetus at different developmental stages. This can cause medical problems.
You can check for pregnancy after 10 days to 2 weeks, you can palpate the lower abdomen of the doe with your thumb and forefinger checking for nodules about the size of a marble. It’s kind of difficult to do, as it takes practice to get a feel for what is going on, but it does not hurt the doe or the babies as long as your not overly rough.
29 days after breeding, you should put in the nest box. My cages have a built in nest box so I just give them some straw. If I give it to early, they either soil it or eat it. 31 days after breeding she should give birth which in rabbits is called kindling.
Usually kindling takes about 10 minutes or so, and it’s normally done at night. I have never had a rabbit give birth when I was around. They like their privacy. Last winter I had a hard time with the litters surviving as it was very cold and it was the doe’s first litters so they did not pull enough of their fur to keep the babies warm. Now that the mother’s have had a couple litters a piece, they now pull enough fur, and a lot more of my baby rabbits are surviving. The babies are born helpless, furless, and blind. If they don’t have a box to keep them confined with their littermates they don’t have enough body heat to keep from freezing. It does not matter where the babies are, the mother won’t move them, so if you don’t have a nest box to keep the babies confined, and one crawls away and starts to freeze, the mother will just let it happen.
I try not to disturb the mother or move the babies for at least three days after birth, but I refrain from the temptation of messing with them unless I have a valid reason. The doe will only nurse once a day, and she doesn’t like doing that if its noisy or a lot of stuff is going on. In the wild, rabbit mother’s have an instinct to run away if threatened so that predators will follow her AWAY from the nest. So you may think momma is not nursing, but she probably is.
In about a week (more like 9 days) the babies will have grown their fur. By the 14th day, they will have opened their eyes and will be hopping around.
After they start to move around, if it’s warm you should remove the nest box, but even if its cold, you should remove it by three weeks, as the babies will soil it with their wastes and it could cause infections to spread.
After about 4 weeks I begin to move the babies to my grow-out cage. I do this one a day, so that the mother will gradually reduce her milk production.
I keep the rabbits in the grow-out cage for 10 – 12 weeks. At that point they aren’t likely to fight, but if you keep them longer, you will need to separate them. I like butchering them as soon as they weigh about 10 pounds. That means I will get about 6 pounds of meat after they are dressed.
Keeping rabbits is pretty simple, keep the cages clean, their water fresh, and don’t overfeed them and you won’t have too many problems that you cannot find the solutions for. The meat is tasty and very wholesome, but I have to warn you 4 rabbits quickly turn to 40, and its easy to spend a lot more on raising rabbits than you would just spend buying meat at the grocery. However, grocery bought meat cannot compare to the freshness and satisfaction from growing your own.