Monday, December 16, 2013

Rabbit: A Great Meat Animal for Small Homesteads

Whether your homestead is in the city or the country, meat rabbits can help you feed your family with lean, nutritious meat. Rabbits breed and grow so quickly that one pair of healthy does (females) can produce more than 600 pounds of meat in a year. Compare that to the dressed yield of 400 pounds for an average year-old beef steer. Rabbits also use feed more efficiently than cows do: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a rabbit needs 4 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of meat. In comparison, beef cattle need 7 pounds of feed or more to create 1 pound of meat, reports Michigan State University’s Department of Animal Science.
Archaeologists have found proof that the Romans raised meat rabbits 2,000 years ago, so people have known for centuries that rabbit meat is delicious. Today, we know that it’s also an excellent source of protein, has less cholesterol and fat than chicken, beef, lamb or pork, and that it has an almost ideal fatty acid ratio of 4:1 omega-6 to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (see The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet to learn more).
Rabbits are clean and quiet, so they won’t trouble your neighbors. Their manure can enrich your garden without composting — it’s not “hot,” so it can go directly into the garden, where it will provide lots of nitrogen and phosphorus and help build soil. Or let the rabbits’ manure fall into worm beds;.
Before you rush out and buy your rabbits, you need to figure out where you’re going to keep them. Each rabbit needs its own cage, so for the breeding trio of a buck and two does you’ll need three cages. (See our diagram of a homemade rabbit cage.) The cages should be protected from predators and the weather — in a garage or outbuilding, for example.
For meat rabbits, each cage should be about 3 feet square and 2 feet high to give the animals plenty of room to move around. The best material for cages is double-galvanized 14-gauge welded wire. Chicken wire is too flimsy. Use 1-inch square or 1-by-1-1⁄2-inch wire on the bottoms to prevent sore feet and to let droppings fall through. Plan to run some extra wire up the sides to prevent babies from falling out of the does’ pens. Hinge the cage doors so they swing inward, so your rabbits can’t accidentally push them open. Mount the cages 3 to 4 feet off the ground, to make working with the animals easier and to help protect them from predators such as dogs, snakes and coyotes.