Rabbits for Self-Sufficiency
by Amy H.
Rabbit meat is very high in protein and low in fat. Being low in calories per weight, it's not ideal for sustaining hard labor, but it can definitely do in a pinch. Rabbits also have one of the most efficient feed:growth ratios, keeping feeding costs way down. You could get about 70 lbs of fryer meat a year out of each doe, and one buck can service 8-10 does. In addition to meat, rabbits also provide great nitrogen-rich fertilizer, and their pelts are very soft and supple.
You will want to plan on having 2 litter pens per doe, a cage per buck, and a few other extra cages for raising replacement breeders. Litter pens are ideally a minimum of 30x30 inches. I recommend 24x24 cages for bucks and replacement breeders. Cages can be all wire, or wooden hutches (with wire). I prefer all wire cages as they are easier to keep clean (you can even clean them with a torch), and they can be maintained individually. I like to stack cages 2 to 3 tiers to save on floor space, but doing so requires dropping pans to be mounted under the cages, which have to be dumped frequently to avoid fly problems. Single-tier cages can just let the droppings fall to the floor, or into the garden or compost. Letting the droppings fall onto well-drained soil is a great way to have a nearly odor-and-fly-free operation. When figuring out where to put the cages, keep in mind that rabbits do not handle getting wet very well. A barn is a great way to keep the weather off them, as well as provide shade. Sometimes it works better (especially for ventilation) to keep them outside. In that case, you will want to make sure they
have a roof, and walls protecting them from the predominate weather directions with only the door side of the cage open.
For feeders, I recommend externally-mounted metal J feeders. Metal feeders may have a diamond-shaped mesh or riveted hardware cloth for the bottom to sift fines. Hardware cloth isn't very hardy against abuse, though. I've never had a rabbit destroy it; instead, it was a dog that decided that the rabbit feed tasted really good. The final reason I prefer metal feeders is that they are usually mounted to the cage using a couple of bent wires, and can be maintained completely from the outside of the cage.
To provide water, I recommend getting the opaque (usually white) bottles rather than clear. My favorites are 32 oz., although some people get by with 16 oz. for meat breeds, and they do make half gallon and gallon-sized bottles. They also make kits that will let you turn any pop bottle (I recommend 2-liter) into a water bottle, although you will have to replace the bottles frequently (as much as twice a year). If you live where it freezes during the winter and you're not keeping the rabbits in a heated shelter, I recommend two bottles per cage so you can swap frozen for thawed during the winter. If you choose not to double up, you will have to force thaw the bottles twice a day using a pot of hot water (or running hot water from the tap). The other option, which is an amazing time-saver if you have several rabbits, is an automatic watering system, which usually consists of a bucket kept above the cages, and a series of pipes, tubes and valves. There are products on the market for keeping the pipes and bucket from freezing.