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Raising Rabbits to put Meat on the Home Table

By Mick Schultz

Main Breeds
The main breeds of meat rabbits have all descended from the wild European rabbit. These include - New Zealand White (4-5 kg), Californian (3.5-4.5 kg), Chinchilla Gigantica (4-5 kg), British & Flemish Giant (5-5.5 kg). When purchasing stock, look for clean, healthy surroundings and animals with shiny coats, bright eyes, clean ears and noses. Their behaviour should be neither timid nor aggressive as their attitudes could be passed on to their offspring.

Hutches vary in design but the code of practice for the welfare of animals states that the minimum floor space for a rabbit of breeding age should be at least 0.56m2 and a height of 45 cm (so they can sit with their ears erect). This measurement is for intensive farming similar to battery hens. My preference is to be able to let rabbits out into an enclosed area for daily exercise. Fences do not have to be high (1200 mm) but must be buried 60 cm in the ground. It may also be necessary to cover it with a fine mesh if predators are a problem. Hutches should provide maximum protection from all kinds of weather (winter winds, summer heat protection and rain). They can be enclosed in a shed or moved around and placed in the shade of trees. The ideal arrangement should allow some sunlight in for the rabbits if they choose it. The hutches must also provide protection from predators such as dogs, cats, rats and snakes etc.

Ventilation must adequately remove ammonia and moisture from the atmosphere. Moisture creates a humid environment which increase the amount of ammonia (from rabbit urine) in the atmosphere and provides a breeding ground for bacteria. If the smell of ammonia is obvious to humans, then it is detrimental to the rabbits.

The ideal temperature is between 10 degrees and 25 degrees C. At low temperatures, the food consumed is used to maintain body heat. A high temperature means that less food is consumed and so productivity and growth rates are reduced.

A doe should be at least 5-6 months and a buck 6-7 months old before mating. Does are inclined to be territorial so it is important to always take her to the male. Fertilisation takes place 8 to 10 hours after mating. The pregnancy lasts for 32 days (sometimes a day either side). A nest box and a supply of hay should be placed in the cage 2 to 3 days before her due date. As the birth becomes closer the doe will pluck hair from her chest, shoulders and sides to line the nest.

Frequently does give birth to a larger number of young than they can nurse (up to 18). Fortunately rabbits accept fosters easily (up to 2 weeks difference in age). As does grow older they have a tendency to give birth to litters containing fewer young. Providing she is in good physical condition, with good milk yield, she can be an excellent foster mother.

The kits (baby rabbits) grow very fast and start to open their eyes on about the 10th day. When theyíre about 3 weeks old they start to venture out of the nest and nibble on solid food. After 5-6 weeks the doe will start to wean them.

Water supply
It is essential to have a clean supply of fresh water available at all times. Consumption will vary according to the type of feed and climatic conditions and increases when the doe is lactating. The best system is an automatic one fitted with a nipple. These are available from pet shops or rural stores.

A lactating doe will eat up to 3 times her normal ration. Rabbits have small stomachs, which are emptied into very long intestines only as new food enters. This is why rabbits consume only small quantities at a time and must be fed regularly to avoid digestive upsets.

Most commercial rabbit feed is in the form of pellets which have antibiotics and hormones added to increase growth rates and food conversion ratios. Likewise other commercial animal feeds such as turkey, chicken and pork also contain antibiotics and hormones. Evidence is indicating health problems further along the food chain (i.e. in humans) associated with this practice.

I prefer to choose a more natural diet from plants grown at home. Although this is more time consuming and weight is not put on as fast as a pellet diet, I know I am getting a cleaner, healthier end product. This has other benefits as well by keeping the animals healthy and less susceptible to disease and sickness.

It is essential for the rabbits to have enough protein, vitamins, minerals and roughage included in their diet. The more variety the more likely to achieve their needs.

In areas where the soil is deficient in certain mineral elements, the plants grown on that soil may have the same mineral deficiency, so where livestock producers feed a mineralised salt to other farm animals, the same kind of salt may be included in the rabbit ration.

Some of the plants we feed to our rabbits (other than the normal vegetables from the garden and orchard) are: leaves and small branches from pigeon pea, leauceana, mulberry, fruit trees, paulownia, pineapple sage, arrowroot, nasturtium, sweet potato, lab-lab, tomatoe leaves and chokoes. Other plants include weeds such as milk thistle, glossy nightshade, farmer's friends and dock (before flowering). They also love kikuyu and a variety of garden flowers. Some medicinal herbs they also like are tansy, wormwood, dandelion and garlic chives. Other feeds that are bought and used sparingly (to reduce costs and unknown chemical uptake) if I'm late home and have to feed in the dark are lucerne and mixed grains (not dried corn). Provided rabbits are not starved they will let you know their likes and dislikes, so don't be afraid to experiment. If your property is certified organic you will need to check feeding requirements with your certification organisation.

Sometimes if young rabbits are found with their feet chewed off or partially consumed carcasses are found in the hutch or missing altogether, the doe is suspected of cannibalism. This is rarely the case and is more likely to have been a rat, cat, snake or other animal. Even if blood is found on her nose she should not be condemned as it is natural for her to lick any wounds to assist in healing. If there is no doubt that the doe is actually eating her young, in most cases it will be due to an abnormal appetite caused by the feed ration being inadequate in quality or quantity or due to the doe being nervous because she has been disturbed following kindling. A valuable doe that destroys her first litter should be given a second chance, but if she continues the practice she should be disposed of for meat.

This is a valuable by-product and is best applied directly to the soil to avoid loss of fertility. If fed a well balanced diet the droppings have a high nitrogen content and it is safe to use on plants immediately as it will not burn them. An alternative to this is to have a worm farm under the cages to convert droppings to casts and then applied to plants. This makes the nutrients readily available to plants when applied and if a large population of worms is maintained then odours do not develop and flies do not propagate. Rabbits practice coprophagy (the consuming of some of their droppings). Two kinds of pellets are passed - one is the familiar large, firm 'day' pellet and the other a 'night' pellet that is small, soft and coated with mucus. The rabbit turns this latter pellet over in its mouth several times, then swallows them whole. This eating of the night pellets is not an indication of a deficiency in the feed ration, but is a provision by nature to enable the rabbit to obtain the maximum quantity of nutrients form its feed.

After twelve weeks comes the hardest part of preparing your rabbits for the table, and could be the turning point for some people to become vegetarians. This is a time to honour and give thanks and appreciation to the rabbit for sustaining our needs. The first step is to render the rabbit unconscious quickly to prevent suffering and struggling. The two methods generally employed are either stunning or dislocating its neck. The first way is probably best for the novice and consists of grasping the rabbit across the loin with one hand and suspending it head down. It is then stunned by a heavy blow at the base of the skull, between the ears, with a strong stick or small iron bar.

The other method consists of holding the rabbit by its hind legs in one hand, placing the thumb of the other hand on the neck just back from the ears, with the four fingers extended under the chin; then stretching the animal by pushing down on the neck with the hand. Press down with the thumb and with a quick movement raise the animal's head and dislocate the neck. Immediately suspend the animal on a hook inserted between the tendon and the bone of the right hind leg just above the hock. Then cut the head off in order to prevent a blood clot forming on the neck, and, to insure bleeding so the meat will have good colour. Remove the tail and cut off the free hind leg at the hock joint. Cut off the front feet, then slit the skin just below the hock of the suspended leg and insert the knife under the skin on the inside of the leg and open it up to the root of the tail. Continue to the hock of the other leg. Carefully separate the edges of the skin from the carcass and pull down over the animal, using the knife to separate the fat from the skin so the fat will be left on the carcass.

After skinning the rabbit, make a slit in the abdominal wall of the carcass along the middle line of the belly, cutting from the breast bone to the tail. Remove the bladder and entrails carefully. Pinch or cut the gall bladder away from the liver being careful not to break it and spill the bile. The liver, heart and kidneys can be cooked and eaten or fed to your cat or dog. Rinse the carcass in cold water to remove hair and blood and refrigerate for 10-12 hours before cutting up.

All work in connection with rabbit carcasses should be done in a hygienic and sanitary manner.

Recipe for Creole Rabbit
Rabbit (about 1.5kg ready-to-cook) cut in serving pieces
1 cup milk
Flour, salt, pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
Creole sauce (see recipe below)

Dip rabbit in milk and roll it in mixture of flour, salt, and pepper.
Heat oil and brown rabbit lightly on all sides. Pour sauce over rabbit; cover pan.
Bake at 160oC (slow oven) 1? hours, or until meat is tender. Uncover and bake 30 minutes longer to brown top. Serves six.

Creole Sauce
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
3? cups tomato juice or 1 large can of tomatoe soup
Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper to taste

Cook onions, garlic, parsley and optional vegetables in the oil until onion is golden brown. Add other ingredients except salt and pepper and cook gently for 15 minutes. Season to taste.

Readers' Comments

From: "TrawePark" trawepark@netspeed.com.au
Date: 06/12/2002 15:58:10

> We are 'first time' breeders who purchased our breeding stock in May and
> June this year.  With our first joining we were quite successful in having
> large litters born, however we lost three quarters of the kittens.  We were
> told that it could have been caused by the cold, or more likely because the
> does were maidens.  Since then we have been quite successful and about half
> of our kittens have survived.  We have been trying to find out if anyone has
> had success with removing the live kittens from mothers who have rejected
> them and  raising them by hand - if it can be done is there a special milk
> formula then fed to the kittens and also where we can purchase the necessary
> teats and feed bottles. Our local vets were unable to help us as were the
> CSIRO rabbit breeding programme.  We have tried moving kittens from one doe
> to another who has a smaller litter but have'nt had any success.  We have
> also had instances where the does have eaten their kittens.
> We have fed our rabbits the pellets and a piece of dried bread (we were told
> that this would help with the milk) and have also fed handfuls of Lucerne
> every day.
> Any advice you or anyone else can pass on would be greatly appreciated.  We
> will also pass on our success stories with you as it may be of help to
> someone else.
> Many thanks
> Ian and Colleen Gilbert

From: "road hog 1" am014h2323@blueyonder.co.uk
Date: 26 Jun 2003

To Ian and Colleen Gilbert, 
            if u r hand rearing kits try kitten or puppy milk, which u can get 
from any good pet store i found this to be really helpfull. Just dilute it down 
as they get older. Also i have found a recipe for milk that can be used:-   
         1 pint skimmed milk
         2 egg yolks
         2 table spoons Karo syrup
         1 table spoon bone meal
feed this to the kits with an eyedropper until they are full (usually they eat 
5-7ccs). i hope this is of help to you, write and let me know how it goes.  
TC Matthewman

From: "Jody Ballenger" jody_ballenger@hotmail.com
Date: 25 Mar 2006

I just had a comment on the person wanting to know if anyone could help...  
I have a litter that is now 12 days old, and they were not getting fed.  
I took them to a local vet and they gave the mother rabbit a shot of oxytocin, 
and a 5 french feeding tube and marked it how far to insert I alternated, 1cc of 
puppy milk 1 egg yolk and a half a cc of acidophilus ( mix all together and total 
fed 1 cc), and then pedialyte every two hours four about 14 hours by the next day 
the mothers milk was in and she took over.  We were able to save 4 out of the 6 
which would have died from dehydration.  Hope this is of help

If you have some relevant experience, please send us your comments to be added to this page.
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