Whenever someone asks me what type of livestock is best for a small, urban homestead, my answer is always rabbits. The thing is, rabbits are so versatile that they’re suited to most any situation. They’re great for beginners, they’re affordable to purchase and care for, they’re quiet, and they’re multi-purpose. All you really need is one buck, and a two does to get you started.
Rabbits have been making their contributions to American homesteads in the form of fur, food, and companionship since the early 1900s. As an added bonus, all rabbits produce wonderful manure that can be applied straight to the garden for a free, all-natural fertilizer.
Shelter for Your Rabbits
As you can imagine, rabbits are very vulnerable to predators. Aside from keeping them safe from predators, they also need to be protected from extreme temperatures. In the summer, make sure they have lots of shade and ventilation. They also like to dig and chew, so keep that in mind when designing their housing.
Most folks raise their rabbits in a hutch with wire on the bottom that allows waste to fall through. Usually, the hutch is wire on three sides with an enclosed box in the back. It’s most economical to build your own hutches, and there are lots of easy to follow plans on the internet.
Rabbit tractors are another option, and that’s what we use here for most of the year. Our rabbits are moved around the yard all spring, summer, and fall so they can nibble on the grass but still be safe from predators. Chicken wire covers the bottom of their tractors so they can’t dig out, but grass can still poke up through for them to much on.
During the winter, we move them into the hutches in our shed for warmth and so that we can collect their manure to use in the garden in the spring.
Some folks choose to keep their rabbits in colony housing. The rabbits are kept within a large fenced area with wire buried around the outside to keep them from digging out. They have access to shelter, but will often dig their own burrows to sleep in.
Breeding Your Rabbits
Rabbits can be bred about every 90 days, or so. Gestation takes approximately 30 days. The babies will need to nurse for about 6 weeks. At six or seven weeks, the babies can go into their own hutch. If you’re raising meat rabbits, stagger your breeding times, so you have a fresh litter of babies every 6 weeks or so.
Feeding Your Rabbits
Your rabbits should be allowed to eat as much hay as they want. Alfalfa, timothy, and clover hay are all ok. Just feed whichever is the highest quality in your area. They should also have access to a high-quality rabbit pellet, based on their size and weight. To supplement, vegetable scraps, weeds, and lawn clippings (untreated, of course) are great. Greens are ok, too, but feed them in small amounts until your rabbits get used to them to prevent stomach upset.
Raising Rabbits for Meat
When you think about raising rabbits, the first thing that usually comes to mind is raising them for meat. Two does, and a buck can produce as much as 180 pounds of meat in a single year. The most common meat breeds include the New Zealand, Californian, and the Giant Chinchilla, but other breeds can be raised for meat as well.
In general, meat rabbits can be butchered at about 8 weeks old through about 8 months. If you wait too long to butcher, the meat will be tough. Choosing a medium to large breed is best if you’re going to be raising your rabbits for meat. They do eat more, but smaller breeds aren’t going to be large enough to butcher at 8 weeks. You can sell the pelts from the rabbits you butcher, as well, and the larger they are, the more they’re worth.
Rabbit meat is delicious. It’s very lean and tastes a lot like chicken, but it’s firmer. A word of caution, though. We started out with meat rabbits and found it very difficult to butcher the cute little things. Now, we stick to pets and are considering investing in some Angoras for fiber. I know plenty of folks who have no problem putting their rabbits in the freezer, but it was just too hard for us.
Rabbits as Pets
There’s no doubt about it, rabbits are cute little critters. Smaller rabbits, such dwarf and mini breeds are especially popular as pets. If you’re dead set against having rabbits for meat, raising these adorable little rabbits to sell as pets can be a great option. My daughter raises 3 or 4 litters of Mini Lops every year to help cover the cost of keeping her 3 pet bunnies. They don’t eat as much as larger rabbits, so they’re more economical to keep as pets, too.
Raising Breeding Pairs or Show Rabbits
If you invest in a buck and two does that are show quality rabbits, you could raise and sell breeding pairs or show rabbits. Specialty colors and rare breeds will, of course, be more profitable.
Raising Angora Rabbits for Fiber
Raising Angora rabbits for their wool is another great option for those who aren’t interested in raising rabbits for meat. These lovable, sweet rabbits come in several varieties, and they’re a lot of fun to raise. The Giant Angora weighs in at 10-12 pounds and produces as much as 2.5 pounds of wool per year. Angora rabbits can be very valuable, so you could also breed them to sell the babies.
Weekly grooming is required for Angora rabbits, and you should start when they’re very young. Start handling them and brushing them as soon as they leave their mothers at 6-8 weeks of age. You can groom them right in your lap, and it will take around half an hour per week for each rabbit. You will get some wool at every grooming, but huge amounts of wool are released when the rabbits molt a few times a year.
There are 3 ways to remove the hair. Plucking the fur is painful for the rabbit, and it’s not necessary. You could shear them if you want. It’s faster, but it’s not the ideal method if you want to sell the fiber for spinning. The simplest method is the best in this case. Simply brush or comb the hair. It releases naturally when it’s about four or five inches long, and that’s perfect for spinning.
As you can see, there are a lot of options when it comes to raising rabbits on the homestead. And, don’t forget, no matter what your bunny’s main job is, they all produce lovely garden fertilizer. Rabbits are an excellent choice for even the brand new homesteader.