By Teresa Pilegaard, Lone Rose Homestead
We fell into rabbits and didn’t expect to end up as farmers. Honestly, if we hadn’t added sheep soon after purchasing rabbits I would have given up on farming and chalked it up to a bad idea. The sheep distracted us from the difficulty of rabbits and gave us another project to look forward to as we straightened out the mess!
Rabbits can be an “easy” project if you aren’t worried about the financial aspects of raising your own food and if you only want a couple breeding does. If you simply care about knowing where your food comes from then rabbits may work well for you. But if you want to know where your food comes from and save money on that food, it may take years to achieve with rabbits unless you prepare and buy well. We soon realized that our original stock was not what we hoped and that the growth rates were poor. We were unable to cull litters until 12 weeks (versus the 8 weeks that should be doable for commercial type rabbits). I am not one to waste money and quickly started to figure out what we did wrong and what we could do better to make rabbits a financially viable project.
Here are a few of the problems:
- This is the main problem. GOOD rabbits are hard to find and you will have to travel for them. You want a rabbit with fast growth and wide rears (that’s where the meat is). There are plenty of slow-growing, narrow rabbits available, but that will not lead to much success. Commercial-type rabbits should hit 5 pounds at 8 weeks (slightly longer if the litter is larger). I have spent a lot of time seeking out breeders that hit this mark and they are difficult to find. This year I am having rabbits brought in to our farm in Virginia from Iowa and Georgia because they were the breeders I could find that kept good records and bred for growth and type. It is unlikely you will find truly good meat rabbits in your neck of the woods.
- Rabbits require more individual time and attention. Unless you are raising in colony (something I have not attempted and am hesitant to try) or have a tiny rabbitry, you will spend more time feeding, watering, and cleaning up after rabbits than other animals. The majority of our man-hours here are spent on the rabbits. To give you an idea of the size versus time output we currently have 8 does (6 of breeding age) and 3 bucks. We also have quail, ducks, and sheep.
- Disease. If disease hits it is likely that you will need to cull rabbits. That can be a big blow to your program. Rabbits can be fragile if not well-bred. Genetics are incredibly important and you want to breed for good disease resistance. Rabbits with poor resistance have to go. I am beginning to include resistance to coccidosis as a trait to look for when selecting lines to continue.
If you want to get into rabbits what can you do to increase the chances of success? Decide what breed you want and learn the breed standard. Buy the ARBA standard of perfection book (find it here: https://www.arba.net/store/store.php) to always have on hand. Go to shows, meet breeders, listen closely to the comments judges give on the animal’s type. Realize that good type should equal better meat production. Before you buy, spend months getting in touch with different breeders and asking (at least) the following questions:
- At what age do you typically butcher and what is your average live weight
- at butchering? What is your average live weight at 8 weeks?
- Do you breed to a standard?
- Are they fully pedigreed (with name/tattoo number and weight for each rabbit)?
- What is your average litter size and success/wean rate?
- Do you medicate your rabbits? Do you cull for disease?
- Are entire litters available for sale as breeding stock? (If so…run! Even the best breeders cull their litters hard and won’t have litters full of perfect rabbits.)
I recently hosted a workshop at my rabbitry regarding all things silver fox and meat rabbits. We had a group of 7 discussing and learning. It was WONDERFUL! My favorite comment was, “When is the neighborhood barbeque?” Everyone was so excited to take their knowledge home, cull their poor stock, and build their rabbitries with good foundations. Of the 7 there only 2 of us had ever shown rabbits. I hope we will all see improvements in our rabbitries and meat production this year!
Bottom line: Please, please don’t sell poor quality rabbits. It is not fair to new breeders and not good for the breed. That is what the stew pot is for!
Teresa Pilegaard is a wife and mother of two in the Piedmont region of Virginia. She grew up reading James Herriott books and dreaming of working with horses or becoming a veterinarian, but never of being a farmer. She works part-time at Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton, VA as the Marketing Assistant and Farm Tour Director. Inspired by the farmers there, she started Lone Rose Homestead where she raises pastured animals: silver fox rabbits, quail, and sheep. She started the group Virginia Silver Fox Rabbit Breeders and hopes to flood Virginia with education on commercial type and good quality breeding stock!