Raising meat rabbits on the homestead makes sense on so many levels. Rabbits reproduce quickly, they give birth to large litters and are ready to butcher in about 12 weeks. Rabbits are small enough that the homesteader can process them at home and eat all of the meat in one meal without the need for refrigeration (which is particularly helpful for an off-grid life). But, just like raising any other animal, the down-side is the cost of feeding meat rabbits.
In comparison to other farm animals raised for meat, I would venture to say that rabbits are the least expensive to feed. Rabbits are generally fed a specially developed pellets that satisfies all of their protein, fiber, vitamin/mineral and overall dietary needs. Just like other feeds, you can buy it from a feed store or farm store.
The awesome thing about feeding meat rabbits is that you can substitute or supplement 50% or greater of their total daily food with fresh plant cuttings. Can you completely eliminate feeding them rabbit pellets and just feed them freshly cut plants and dry hay? The short answer is no. Rabbits who are not fed any rabbit pellets and only fresh greens and dry hay grow a lot slower and rabbit mothers do not produce enough milk to successfully feed their young.
2 Systems for Fresh Feeding
On our homestead, we have 2 systems for supplementing rabbits with fresh plant cuttings. The rabbits we use for breeding are kept up off the ground in wire cages. They live in a 3-sided barn where the environment is much more controlled and is safer for breeding. This type of cage system is the most common way to breed and raise meat rabbits. In regards to feeding these rabbits, their only access to food is what we bring to them. They are provided with “all-they-can-eat” pellets and then once or twice per day we cut fresh plants for them. They love it!
When we first started supplementing them with fresh cut plants, it seemed a bit labor intensive and tedious. We literally just went outside with scissors and cut different plants for them. On our homestead, if something is that tedious...we don't usually continue it for long. We have so much to accomplish everyday, cutting the lawn and bushes with scissors becomes low priority. Recently, we purchased a handheld, rechargeable clipper that makes this chore a breeze (and it's kinda fun!). Buzz, buzz, buzz...zip, zip, zip...all done!
Cutting fresh food for the rabbits has also replaced our need to use a Weed Eater. As grass and weeds grow up around the raised bed gardens and around trees and barns, we use the clipper to trim it all back and then feed it to the rabbits. It's a win, win! We are not sad to see the Weed Eater go because for years it has hated us, tortured us, and given us countless headaches and emotional meltdowns as it continued to tear up trees, fall apart, and not work as described on the box...just as we were preparing for out-of-town guests. Our new clipper is rechargeable, easy to use, and effective. So easy even the kids can use it!
So...that was our system for breeder rabbits. Our second system allows us to raise our meat rabbits on the ground where they have constant access to both rabbit pellets and fresh greens. At 5 weeks old, the baby bunnies are ready to be weaned from their mother's milk and live on their own. We take the entire litter and put them together into a “rabbit tractor.” A rabbit tractor is a large, movable structure that safely contains the rabbits yet allows the rabbits to live on the ground in the fresh grass. The tractors give them shelter from the rain and wind, yet are open on the sides for fresh, clean air and sunlight. To prevent them from digging out of the rabbit tractor, we lined the bottom with 2”x 4” welded wire fencing.
Every day we move the rabbit tractors to a new location so that they can eat all of the fresh grass and plants they would like. Moving them every day also gives them a clean living environment and distributes their manure droppings around the property for natural (and free) fertilizer.
While I have not conducted a scientific study on the amount of rabbits pellets saved or the cost savings of providing fresh greens to rabbits rather than feeding 100%, I can tell you this much. At 5 weeks old, prior to leaving Mom, a litter of 8 small rabbits eats an entire hopper full of pellets per day. After we move them to the movable rabbit tractors, their pellet consumption decreases to less than a full hopper per day. Duh...right? But the real kicker is this. From 5 weeks through butcher age (12 weeks) their consumption of rabbit pellets does not exceed an entire hopper full of rabbit pellets per day.
To be quite honest with you, the rabbits prefer the fresh greens to the rabbit pellets. Yet, they must have some kind of instinct about the necessary nutrition, vitamins, and minerals in the rabbit pellets because they do continue eating them.
Fresh Plant Options for Feeding Meat Rabbits
I would say that pretty much everything that grows naturally in your backyard is safe for your rabbits. There are a few exceptions such as poke weed and oleander for sure. Safe, easy bets from your lawn are any type of grass, plantain, any type of clover, chickweed, and dandelion. Common trees and bushes that could be right in your backyard include branches and leaves from apple trees, berry bushes, grape vines, honeysuckle, lilac, maple, moringa, peach and pear, poplar, willow, and trumpet vine. Do you have an herb garden? Feed rabbits common herbs such as chives, thyme, oregano, basil, lemon balm, mints, rosemary and dill. Do you grow a vegetable garden? Feed rabbits beets, broccoli, radishes, spinach, chard, kale, and lettuce. You could even plant your entire back yard with alfalfa rather than grass. Ok, maybe we won't go that far!
If this topic has really piqued your interest, I recommend buying the book “Beyond The Pellet: Feeding Rabbits Naturally” by Boyd Craven Jr. and Rick Worden. It is a fantastic and comprehensive book about supplementing rabbits with fresh food. It also includes more detailed lists of plant varieties to provide to rabbits, ways to continue providing fresh food during the winter, and how to create your own hay. I continue to use this book as a guide, even though I feel I have a pretty good handle on the process.
Give it a Try
If you have never considered raising rabbits for meat, make sure you check out Kevin's blog post for convincing reasons to give it a try. Rabbit meat was the very first type of meat that we raised for our family and our very first step toward breaking the grocery store cycle. Rabbit meat is still a prominent part of the menu plans on our homestead. We eat rabbit at least once per week every week. Did you know that one pair of breeding meat rabbits (one female and one male) can produce enough rabbit meat to feed your family a rabbit dinner once a week for a year? That's pretty awesome!
If you have considered starting to raise meat for your family, read my blog Homestead Butchering: Do I Have To? Raising our own meat has been one of the most freeing experiences for Kevin and I (aside from being debt-free). How much would your weekly grocery budget decrease if you raised your own meat?
Anyway, I hope this article inspired you in some way. We absolutely love to raise rabbits and love to provide good, wholesome food for our family. We love to share our knowledge and experiences with you.
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Take care and may God continue to bless you every single day,