Make free range rabbits work for you

by M.D. Creekmore on January 24, 2012 · 21 comments

This is a guest post and entry in our non-fiction writing contest  by Matthew  R

When I was in high school I raised rabbits in a pen to complete a FFA project. The project was a fun learning experience despite the high mortality rates suffered, a common problem for amateur rabbit breeders. I can’t say I made money on the project, but I sure enjoyed a good number of rabbits for dinner!

I recently revisited the idea while thinking about emergency food supplies. Specifically, I wanted to know if raising rabbits could be productive and feasible when raised on an open-range homestead rather than inside of a secure pen. I was especially interested in knowing if the rabbit population could take care of itself without my intervention and in what numbers.

Why rabbits? Well, rabbit is all-white meat and has fewer calories, cholesterol, and fat per pound than chicken, turkey, beef, or pork. Domestic rabbit meat boasts the highest protein percent and is considered to be the most nutritious meat known to man. Based on the same amount of feed and water, a rabbit will produce six times the meat produced by a cow which makes it the most productive of all livestock. A doe rabbit that weighs 10 pounds can produce 320 pounds of meat in a year, yet requires only a fraction of the grazing land needed by a cow. (Source: http://www.ardengrabbit.com/facts.html)

Rabbits can thrive in a variety of environments, including meadows, forests, deserts, grasslands, and wetlands. They can also be found in hot and humid lowlands as well as snow-covered mountains so they are suitable for most any region of the United States. They exist in a variety of colors so one breed might be more suitable than another in a given environment.

Their size is also important if we intend to use them as a food source, but many breeds of rabbits will be ready for dinner after growing to 3-5 pounds in only 8-12 weeks. Choosing the right breed for your needs shouldn’t be too difficult as there are 19 different kinds of rabbits to be found in the United States. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rabbit_breeds)

Just for comparison, a chicken producing fertilized eggs intended for hatching will lay 165-180 eggs over a period of 65 weeks. The incubation and hatching process takes about three weeks while slaughter of the chick for meat commences about eight weeks later. Generally speaking, rabbits and chickens require about the same amount of growth time to reach the dinner plate (Source: http://www.mainstreet.com/slideshow/lifestyle/food-drink/egg-plate-where-your-chicken-comes).

Although chickens can produce more offspring per year they also require more care to raise. Even so, non-breeding hens can offer the added benefit of providing a family with eggs to eat as well as feathers for pillows, mattresses, etc. Obviously, rabbits don’t produce eggs or produce as many annual offspring, but they require far less care, are easier to prepare for dinner, and provide warm hides and soft leather for clothing and blankets. There are some very delicate tradeoffs between the benefits offered by the two animals, but one could easily justify raising both animals at the same time.

Getting back to rabbits, they prefer to burrow into the ground (or snow) for protection and they live in small social units much like some humans live in together yet separately in apartment complexes. They will spend about 70% of their time above ground looking for food (vegetation, water) and that makes them vulnerable to predators. Their annual survival rate is only about 30% (according to one study conducted in New England) with very few surviving longer than 4 years. Wild rabbits are too fast to be caught with bare hands, but they are also small enough that they can be trapped or hunted with small weapons.

Rabbits breed quickly so they can be a good choice as a food supply. One female rabbit typically births a litter of 6-8 babies about four times each year (average of 28). The chart below provides an at-a-glance view of how quickly a rabbit population can mature over a period of four years.

Keep in mind these numbers represent the doe (female rabbit) population only, which is approximately half of the total population. A 1400-count rabbit population would require between 12 and 36 acres of land, depending on the quality of the vegetation found on that land. Of course, without implementing a culling program the rabbit population would quickly become a pest-control problem.

A rabbit population could be initiated today and allowed to expand for 2-3 years with little intervention or care on our part. At that point in time, maintaining a “working number” of rabbits with weekly culling practices can help keep the population under control. In the event a SHTF scenario should occur then we would want to temporarily stop the culling practices for several months in order that the population can increase to a level it can feed us on a daily basis. A good “working number” of rabbits could achieve that population level within a year.

Not everyone has acreage on which to build a rabbit population, especially those who live in urban areas, so this idea won’t work for everyone. For those who do have access to land, rabbits can be an easy way to supplement the food supply with very little physical effort required. Be mindful that one of the negatives of having a rabbit population is the damage they can do to a garden. A gardener should take steps to protect his produce from the little creatures lest he lose one of his food supplies to another food source.

Another consideration to think about is the attraction a large rabbit population would be for predators such as coyotes, wolves, foxes, raccoons, snakes, bobcats, and cougars to name a few. On the one hand your property could become that much more dangerous with these kinds of animals around, yet the rabbit population can also be appreciated as bait which lures larger game into your rifle scope. Yes, uninvited strangers may also be attracted to your rabbit population if they are hungry enough so be cautious about that too.

Lastly, one should not depend on rabbits as a primary food source since a drought or disease could wipe them all out within a matter of days. Yet, as a rapidly renewable food source which requires very little effort to maintain, having a sizable and healthy population of rabbits on our land can easily be considered one part of our survival plan.

Being a simple overview this topic is ripe for suggestions and tips, even warnings about things I have not yet discovered or addressed. Let me know your comments.

This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win:

21 comments

JP in MT January 24, 2012 at 10:24 am

I’d like the idea of having rabbits around. Up here there are a few, but they involve quit a lot of hiking to get them. Not worth it from a calorie expenditure point, but great practice.

Notsomuch January 24, 2012 at 10:49 am

Food for thought.

Domenico January 24, 2012 at 10:54 am

Good post. I’ve been interested in harvesting rabbit for over a year now. Our little townhouse (with nearly non-existent yeard) doesn’t really provide the space we need to raise rabbits, but would like to do so if/when we move to a larger space.

I found your post interesting because it speaks about introducing rabbits to your property to roam freely. My first thought was the threat to crops. So I have a question… might there be an intermediate solution. Not cages, but also not free and open. Perhaps a large enclosure. In my mind I’m thinking like an aviary-type structure… or perhaps like a large aluminum pool enclosure. It might require more effort to ensure sufficient food was available for the rabbits since they’ll likely consume most of the natural vegetation. Another downsize would be less meat than your free-range idea, but still more than what would be possible with cages. I imagine another benefit would be protecting them from the predators you mentioned.

Just a thought I wanted to throw out. I’m interested to see what others would believe to be the benefits and disadvantages of such an idea.

Lweson January 24, 2012 at 11:30 am

Rabbits can be a good food source. But because rabbit is so lean, you can actually starve on just rabbit. So it would be good meat source along with chicken and other animals. Just not alone.

Bitsy January 24, 2012 at 3:42 pm

Yep, this is true. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_starvation

To successfully survive on a diet that’s rich in lean meat, you need some type of fat. So in addition to your rabbits, it might be a good idea to have chickens/eggs or a fish pond or a few pigs or something like that.

OhioPrepper January 25, 2012 at 11:32 am

Yum, bacon wrapped rabbit chops.

JeffintheWest January 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Plus there is a vitamin deficiency issue that comes with pure rabbit diets. If memory serves (sorry, it’s late, and I don’t feel like looking it up, and it’s been a while since survival school), I believe that you don’t get enough vitamin A from pure rabbit diets. Bottom line: you definitely want to try for more than one option — whether it’s chickens or koi, or whatever.

On a completely different (yet tangentially related) subject — don’t ever eat a Polar Bear’s liver — it will kill you. Lethal concentrations of either vitamin A or E (I forget which)! :-)

I’d like to take the opportunity to recommend the SAS survival manual at this point — it’s better written than most of the US survival manuals I have (either USAF or Army/Marine Corps), and has tons of illustrations to help you out. Sort of a “Back to Basics” manual for survival. I’ve even seen copies for sale at Wal Mart of all places!

OhioPrepper January 25, 2012 at 11:43 am

It’s called protein poisoning among others. Not enough fat. The polar bear BTW is vitamin A, which is fat soluble, and even in small doses will build up in the body. As for the SAS manual, I concur that it is excellent.

Caoimhin January 24, 2012 at 11:36 am

It’s been 40 years since I shot and ate rabbits. How about a refresher on cleaning them and how to process the fur and or leather. Thanks for the great idea. I knew a family in TorC New Mexico that ate jack rabbits for a few years. Mom was a pro with a pressure cooker. And to be truthful she made some really good meals with those jacks.

Tony January 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Overall I like the concept, but how do you keep them from getting out? It seems like they would dig out even if you have a fence they can’t get through. Also how do you catch them when you are ready to butcher them?

blindshooter January 24, 2012 at 6:26 pm

More wild rabbits in my area than I remember. I think all the new no till farming has allowed them to eat better and most times if something eats good it reproduces. But I’m not sure about turning out meat rabbits, don’t think they would last long, might just be feeding fox, coyote, wild house cats, bob cats, hawks etc. You can catch wild rabbits here and sell them to the guys that train rabbit dogs for good money. My youngest nephew has been getting gas money setting boxes. I helped him build one and he raided his fathers scrap pile for five more on his own. I’m right proud to show them something that could help feed them some day. Now if I could just convince him to save the money instead of blowing it on girlfriends…..but I guess you can’t change nature;^)

T.R. January 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Yep , if your going to do that , then make regular vermin patrols and even set up a blind with bait if needed to exterminate coyotes , dogs , etc . from your area . Look into your local hunting and game laws , you might find that the things you kill may have a local bounty , so why not make some extra cash from what you would be doing anyway . Around here , coyotes have a bounty as they are considered dangerous vermin .

HandAxeProMan January 25, 2012 at 1:57 am

It is true you can starve just eating rabbit. However, if you fry or baste the rabbit in one or more tablespoons of olive oil, you will not have to worry about rabbit starvation. Par boil your rabbit for about 15 minutes, remove from the water, and fry like chicken. Make milk gravy from the dripping and put over mashed potatoes, rice, or biscuits. A meal worthy of a king.

OhioPrepper January 25, 2012 at 11:47 am

I sit here having not had breakfast yet this morning and all of this rabbit cooking is making me hungry. Think I need to get something to eat.

Hunker-Down January 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Ummm,

Thems the best mashed taters and gravy ever.

OhioPrepper January 25, 2012 at 11:59 am

Around my area you would need to keep them in a hutch or a pen, making sure that the pen fence is buried at least 12-18 inches into the ground and extends at least 3-4 feet in height, with a barbed or electric top wire. Our big problem is that we have too many free range fox and coyote, and while they haven’t yet posed a direct danger to humans, they will kill and eat nearly anything from sheep, and chickens, to kittens. We can pretty much shoot them on sight, but they are very wary and Wiley (yes, Wiley coyote is still alive and well in the real world) and generally stay away from humans during the daylight hours.

SrvivlSally January 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Having a lot of rabbits around may seem like a good idea now but just imagine eating the same old meat week in and week out. Phew! That, in itself, would cause a lot of people to lose their appetite even when they are very hungry. Personally, my diet will probably not consist of any certain amount of home-raised tame or wild rabbit meat for the simple fact that they are a predator’s dream meal and with at least one cougar feeding on hares, deer and other animals not more than about a 1,000 feet from my front door step I would not be able to take on such a setup. My area being so full of predators and non-predators, I feel lucky that all I have to do is step outside and walk into the woods to go shopping and get myself something to eat. Ground Beaver are also another critter to consider, especially the full-grown ones. I do not know if it would be such a good idea to raise a large quantity of rabbits only because they carry fleas and could harbor ticks. With a few hundred rabbits running around, trying to manage the bug populations will be a difficult task and one that cannot be eradicated. So, if there is just one bite from an infected blood sucker at the right time of year, it could be lights out.

farmgal January 25, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Interesting idea, and somewhat how my father does at his place, he works away for months at times, and so planted a couple acres into a field to help feed the local wild rabbits and deer, he also buys and supples them with a number of hay bales and salt/mineral block and while there is typically a flush of babies, overall his generation population is very stable and would not provide more then a few weeks of steady meals.

On the other hand, I have been raising rabbits since we moved to the farm, and got to my first spring bird sale where I was able to get to expecting does and a unrelated buck, I don’t use a breed so much as a mix of the typical meat breeds, and raise a number of litters per year for the freezer, they are one of my steady supply of fresh meat in winter. I would rather put a bit of money into a proper hutch for safety of the rabbits, the breeding and raising, as well as being able to have the ability to run worm bins under them, giving you a source of compost, and protein for your chickens or bait for fishing etc.

SurvivorDan January 25, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Interesting idea. Lots of rabbits even here in the desert. Maybe rather than introduce new rabbits, all I need do is to be a good steward to them. Kill off some of the many coyotes here abouts. Partially bury some old pipe and tires for habitat. Siphon up some canal/irrigation water for them in the hot summer months. Hmm…..food (pun intended) for thought.

axelsteve January 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

We have 2 rabbits in our backyard. They are my daughter inlaws and they stay in a dog run that we do not use.They are fairly tame but they would not do well as free range since we have free range dogs.For some reason our pit and our lab pup are very fascinated with them.They probably would not hurt them but they would chase them so they might be injured for that reason.The lab likes to bark at then though.Once a rabbit got out and my pit was protecting the rabbit from being chased by the lab.It may work for us I am not sure.

aaron February 22, 2012 at 12:18 am

you could look into europen rabbit gardens. a pile of hay bales two deep and fenced all around and underneath as well. Apparently the rabbits burrow in the hay (eat it too)and do thier thing without much fuss. this was used by the victorian age europeans to have a supply of rabbit meat. there is some info on it on the web. I cant remember where I saw this mentioned but I found it searching for an economical way to raise rabbits for meat.

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