Raising meat rabbits is making a comeback. Here’s how to sustainably start raising meat rabbits and breeding them on your own homestead.
If you want to breed rabbits for a sustainable meat supply, there are a few things to take into consideration before beginning a rabbitry. Rabbit meat is popular among homesteaders because rabbits are easy to raise, and they breed easily and birth in less time than other traditional homestead livestock like sheep, goats, pigs, and cows. Rabbits also produce lean, healthy meat that’s low in fat, and is a culinary delicacy in many countries around the globe. Meat production is just one reason why rabbits on the homestead are a great idea.
Best of all, for non-traditional and suburban homesteaders, most city ordinances allow you to keep rabbits, so in areas where chickens and other livestock are not allowed, meat rabbits make a great alternative. Unlike roosters, rabbits don’t crow, don’t smell, and don’t free range (unless you build a special tractor), so your neighbors are unlikely to object to you raising rabbits in your backyard.
Choosing Meat Rabbit Breeding Stock
Before you begin breeding, you will need to first choose parent stock. On our homestead, we breed New Zealand and Rex crosses, mostly because of their large size and docile natures. We do have a wild rabbit that has been tamed (we acquired all of our rabbits from someone who did not want them anymore) but she is difficult to pick up, and still has a wild streak. She is also quite small. However, she is advantageous to our breeding program because, well, she likes to breed.
For first-time meat rabbit breeders, I recommend going with a breed that is more domesticated, because they will be easier to handle and you will have a better experience.
When looking for parent stock, look for rabbits that are robust and large, and have healthy-looking coats. Although rabbits can live 10 years or more, choose a breeding stock that’s on the younger side, and look for a reputable breeder in your area for your purchases. If they will not let you see photos of the rabbits before purchasing, avoid that breeder. Some breeders will not allow outside parties to view the area rabbits are housed; this is another red flag.
Popular Large Breed Rabbits
Some meat rabbit breeds to consider are New Zealands (9-12lbs), Rex rabbits (8-9lbs), Californians (8-10lbs), Chinchillas (9-11lbs: also a heritage breed), and Flemish Giants (15-22lbs). These are large-breed rabbits, and since these breeds don’t eat much more than smaller breeds, but use their feed more efficiently, they’re a better option in my book. Angoras are a dual-purpose rabbit you may also want to consider.
Heritage Breed Meat Rabbit Options
Heritage rabbit breeds found on the Livestock Conservancy are breeds that are either critical, threatened, watched, recovering, or being studied. These breeds were once commonly found in many American homes as a sustainable meat source prior to the opening of supermarkets. Some heritage breeds to consider include Americans (10-12lbs), Harlequins (7-9lbs), and Silver Fox (10-12lbs).
The Livestock Conservancy has a really handy chart to help you pick the right heritage breed(s) of rabbits for your homestead.
We specifically choose to breed crosses because I believe cross-breeding yields very healthy animals, and it’s our goal to have a self-sustaining herd of meat rabbits. If you need more help selecting breeding stock, be sure to check out this post.
How to Arrange a Breeding Schedule
Rabbits are able to breed at around 7 months of age, and we also prefer to wait until that age to harvest them because they are nearly fully grown.
We breed one female each month; that way we aren’t overwhelmed with rabbits, but since they have a 30-day gestational cycle, we still have plenty of meat available. Rabbits can have large litters, anywhere from 1 to 14 offspring, so with such a short gestational cycle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
For now, our plan is to keep our original parent stock and to use the offspring for meat, unless one or more seems like a keeper, or if we lose a parent rabbit to old age, disease, predators, or the like. With 5 females and 4 males, we will be able to breed for quite a while!
We keep our males and females in separate cages; most people who keep rabbits will keep one rabbit in one cage, however, I prefer to do it differently. I like to keep at least 2 rabbits in a cage, and of course, we keep them in cages that are large enough to comfortably house them. Rabbits are herd animals and don’t live solitary lives. Since our goal is to give them happy lives before harvesting them, I want them to be able to interact with other rabbits.
How to Breed Your Rabbits
When you hear about things breeding or multiplying en masse, rabbits are often the expression used. I don’t want to discourage you, but breeding isn’t quite as easy as you may believe heading into this.
When actually breeding meat rabbits, the doe should be put in the buck’s cage, not the other way around. Females can be really territorial and may attack the male instead of breeding.
The two rabbits will probably run around in circles for a bit. If the female is open to being bred, she will lift up her tail, the male will mount her, and then he will fall off onto his side. It’s equal parts pitiful and hilarious if I’m being honest.
Once the buck has bred the doe twice, she is removed and put back in her cage. It’s a good idea to bring the doe back to the buck in about ten hours, as the act of breeding stimulates rabbits to ovulate, so you will increase your chances of a decent-sized litter if there is a second breeding.
When the bred female is close to giving birth to her kits, any buddy in her cage is removed until the offspring are bigger. The doe will feed her litter once or twice each day for about 2 to 5 minutes at each feeding. They continue nursing until they are weaned at 6 to 8 weeks of age.
Reasons why your rabbits may not breed
If you’ve paired up your rabbits and they don’t seem to be “doing the deed” there may be a couple of reasons why.
They’re too fat or thin
Research has shown the most common cause of breeding problems occurs because does and bucks are under or overweight for their breeds’ recommended weight. Underweight rabbits may be physically incapable of breeding successfully. Overweight rabbits may not show any interest in mating and can have a hard time becoming pregnant if mating does occur. Feeding rabbits appropriately is key.
Establish a “target” weight prior to breeding according to the specific breed standards of your rabbit for the greatest success. Adjust the feed intake of your rabbit to maintain an ideal weight.
Pelleted commercial feeds provide complete nutritional needs at the time of manufacture, but Vitamins A and E are vulnerable to poor or prolonged storage. Both are needed for the willingness and ability to breed. Instead of increasing the pellets, I suggest feeding about a tablespoon of black oil sunflower seeds for Vitamin E and a good handful of dark leafy greens (dandelions, plantain, raspberry, and kale) for Vitamin A. Vegetables should be given in moderation to provide additional nutrients. Also, make sure your rabbit has a constant supply of hay available to it for necessary fiber and protein.
It’s too hot or cold
Environmental temperatures can affect reproductive performance in bucks. Temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat-induced sterility. Keep bucks in a cool area when used for breeding purposes. The bucks may remain sterile for up to 3 months.
I find that both bucks and does are more reluctant to breed in the high heat of summer (July, August, and September) in northern climates and late spring thru early fall in southern climates. You may get better results breeding first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening, in the really hot weather.
There isn’t enough light
It has been found that giving the rabbits 12 to 14 hours of light will help a lot. This will trigger the pineal gland a may cause the rabbit to think it’s spring and time to reproduce. For best results, keep the amount of light constant for 14 hours each day to maintain constant breeding throughout the year. A simple plug timer will do the trick.
Breeding meat rabbits is a great way to have a continual supply of fresh, lean meat and there is nothing more rewarding than producing your own meat.
For more information on breeding meat rabbits, Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits is practically the bible on the topic. I also really got a lot of value from Raising Rabbits for Meat by Eric and Callene Rapp. If you’d prefer pasture raising instead of the cage method, Raising Pastured Rabbits for Meat focuses on small-scale and sustainable pasture practices.