You want to talk about sustainable meat? For many, those last two words just don’t go together. Now it’s true that there is no sustainable industrial model for raising meat and it is arguable that even pasture raised poultry is not very sustainable. The two major factors in poultry is that most farmers are dependant on a hatchery for each new batch of chickens and to raise them to market weight, they are also dependant on off-farm inputs of grain. We are one of those farms, the demand for chicken is such that we will continue to order day old chicks and buy grain to supplement their pasture diet untill people REALLY care about sustainability. That’s why we also raise rabbit. Rabbits can subsist primarily on veggie/fruit scraps, grass, and weeds. The mother rabbit (the doe) raises the babies for you, they wean at 6-8 weeks and you only have to raise them another six weeks until they reach “fryer” size.
I first got interested in the idea of raising rabbit for meat back when I discovered Joel Salatin and his Polyface farm. I was instantly entranced with his “Salad Bar Beef” but his son Daniel’s pastured rabbit operation really got my wheels turning. After I read his book, You Can Farm, I made the decision to get some rabbits. At the time, we were living in a subdivision, on a half-acre lot that barely had room to grow a few tomatoes. In his book, Joel implores the reader to do something, no matter how little, if he/she truly desires to raise his/her own food.
So, after visiting the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, I chose the American Chincilla. I don’t really know why, I just liked what I read about it and I wanted to raise something other than New Zealands and Californians. I’m just different and I enjoy going against the grain. I found a breeder not too far away and we loaded up the kids to pay him a visit. We spoke with him a while and then we decided that we would get some infrastructure in place and then get a “breeding trio” (a male and two females). I definitely wanted to keep my rabbits on grass so, rather than going with the traditional rabbit cages like you find at Bass Equipment, I found some dog cages on Craigslist and then I put them out on our front lawn. The bars were close enough to keep them in, but allowed them to access the grass. Now we did have a few escapes and we quickly learned that if a rabbit can fit its head through so will the rest of it. We also found out that there is NOTHING a rabbit loves more than dandelions! A note on housing rabbits on grass, if you desire grass-fed rabbit raised on pasture, be prepared to move them every day. Rabbits are very susceptible to coccidiosis , which is why almost every commercial breeder keeps them in suspended cages. You also need to not let them return to a particular patch of ground for one year. It didn’t take too long before we ran out of lawn, so I screwed some metal roofing to the underside of our back deck, lined the cages with some 1″ mesh and hung the cages up. I hated to keep them confined like that, but at least they were in bigger cages than what most people raise them in. We did keep feeding the grass, weeds, and greens from the garden. Our kids got a kick out of pulling weeds and then feeding them to our rabbits. If there is anything that one does not neglect, that would be to always have hay available to them. They need the dry rough matter to keep their gut healthy. Oh, and water too. Never let a bottle go dry.
Rabbits are really easy to raise and care for, but there was one aspect that I never dreamed would come into play. Breeding. Yep, breeding. You want to talk about frustrating. Who would’ve ever thought breeding rabbits would be an issue? I scoured the internet, I call the breeder, I checked out books from the library and no matter what I tried, we couldn’t make any babies. It would take us nearly a year and a half before we finally got some babies. So the why, as to the trouble. Rabbits can come into heat a couple of time a month, and I had read that the act of mating can induce a female to come into heat. I understood that it would be a mistake to just leave the male and females together. First of all, it would be near impossible to know when the kits would be born and second, males are known to eat babies. So, I tried putting them together in the evening, in the morning and then morning followed by evening and vice versa. I just couldn’t catch a female in heat. There was one other problem, I later found out that a male rabbit (buck) will go temporarily sterile at temperatures above 80 degrees F. So who’d a thunk it?
Next time I’ll describe transitioning the rabbits to the farm, successful breeding, and maybe we’ll even touch on processing (well that could be a whole post on its own).