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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Some Tips and Tricks on Raising Meat Rabbits, by Christine W.

Food production is the most important skill in survival. Without sufficient food you’re sunk. You won’t have the energy to protect yourself or your supplies, you won’t be able to get firewood to keep warm, or water to stay hydrated. So yes, you can live for weeks without food, but only if other people are there to take care of you and they have enough food! And meat is one of the best energy foods. Unfortunately most meat production is a high feed/time endeavor. It takes a lot of feed and time to get that cow to butcher size. Two years from birth to butcher if you’re looking at optimum growth. Plus a cow standing out in a field is going to draw attention, even if you live in the boonies. That’s why rabbits are such a good survival idea. They are very low profile, quiet, easy to raise, healthy, easy to feed, reproduce quickly, and reach butcher size in 10 to 12 weeks. No other livestock animal has a better feed to weight ratio. Meaning it takes less feed to get your rabbits to butcher size than any other meat animal. There are some great rabbit raising books out there with the standard information, but some info is only learned by experience. These are tricks about rabbit raising that we had to learn the hard way through trial and error, or was passed on to us by other rabbit raisers. So if you are a rabbit raiser or just starting a rabbit journey I hope this helps!

Health
Do not use straw in rabbit cages. If mice have been in the straw their feces and urine can carry infections that will spread to your rabbits. We had this happen! Old newspapers, clean grass hay, or dry wood shavings are the safest.

Wood Shavings as litter: I would only recommend putting litter like wood shavings, clean grass hay, or newspaper in cages for pregnant females for their nesting box. But wood shavings have a drawback. The dust can get in the babies eyes causing eye problems. We had this happen too! Mother rabbits should make their nest out of fur they pull off themselves, more on that later.

Clean litter trays frequently, at least once a week. Rabbit urine is high in ammonia and can cause health problems for your rabbits if left to accumulate. Keep your rabbits in a well-ventilated area. Rabbit droppings make excellent compost!

Give your rabbit a piece of natural wood to chew; they really like apple wood branches. This helps keep their teeth from growing too long.
Always put an untreated piece of board in the cage for your rabbit to sit on. Meat breeds are heavy and the pressure can cause sores called hutch sores to form on the bottoms of the feet.
If hutch sores occur build an outside run for your rabbit. Cover on the top with wire or wood but not the bottom. Let the rabbit run on ground until the sores are healed. Letting the problem go can cause feet problems or even death!

We use wire stackable cages with wire bottoms with trays underneath each rabbit to catch the urine and feces. We use wood shavings in the trays to absorb the urine and keep the smell down. It works much better than newspaper or straw. Stackable cages take up less space, are easy to clean, and make rabbit chores go faster. They are also easier to keep in a secure location like a garage or basement. Worth the price in my opinion.
Empty aluminum soda pop cans are fun and safe toys for rabbits to play with. Rabbits get bored too and can start destructive behavior! But be careful, a few rabbits will actually bite through the metal. If you have one of these then take the can out and try something else.
Always provide a mineral salt lick for rabbit health. Make sure its “mineral” not plain salt. And stock up, they are cheap right now, but may be unavailable later.
Keep rabbit food secure from mice. They carry diseases!
Give pregnant and nursing females oats (about ¼ cup per day), they love it and it helps build up fat stores for good baby production. Also give to babies to fatten them up for dinner!

Kindling/Baby Problems
This is the most problematic aspect of rabbits. You will devote more time to kindling (rabbit birth and newborn babies) than anything else in rabbit care. While rabbits are easier to breed and raise than chickens in my opinion, that is only true with a good experienced doe (female rabbit). If you have good mom, baby care on your part is non-existent. Here are some hard learned tricks to problems.
Do not use wood shavings in kindling (birth) box! Give the doe newspaper or clean grass hay if it seems like she is not pulling fur good enough. Putting grass hay and newspaper in may also stimulate her to start building a nest. Do this about a week before kindling (birth).

First Time Mothers
Almost everyone you talk to and every book you read will say that first time mothers will always loose the first litter of babies. And frankly this is pretty true. But I have noticed that it is usually due to the mother not making a good enough nest and the babies getting chilled as they are born furless. Also the mother almost never gives the first really good feeding that is necessary after birth, causing the kits to be weak. Put those two together and you have dead babies! So here are ways I have solved this problem. Works in other situations too.
Chilled babies: So you go out and find babies chilled and close to death. Or maybe you think they are dead. Hold on! Unless the baby is actually frozen to the wire they may be just barely still alive. Get them inside and if they are hardly moving submerge them up to their neck in warm (not hot!) water. Be careful to not get the head wet. I have had babies that were so still it took this measure to show me they were alive. And like a miracle they came back. Now after they are moving pretty well take them out and gently rub them with a warm dry cloth, being careful of the umbilical cord area. Once dry put them in a box with a heating pad covered with a folded towel or hot water bottles to keep them nice and warm.

Weakness due to lack of milk
If momma didn’t feed them right after birth your going to have weak babies who will be unable to nurse the next time, or if momma rejected them and you need to put them on a surrogate mother (more on surrogates later) the babies will need enough energy to nurse once put back with a mom. Here is what I do and it usually works. Make a warm sugar water solution 2 parts water to 1 part table sugar. Put in an eyedropper and put in warmed babies mouth. Do not give to a chilled baby! Wait until you warm it up. Give only one drop of sugar water at a time; it is horribly easy to drown these babies! After two drops stop. With any more you risk drowning the baby. You should see them swallowing while feeding, don’t force it. You will see these babies start moving around making noises and looking for food as energy increases. Now you know they are ready to be given back to mom or surrogate mom. If you fear it’s too cold outside bring mom to the babies inside to feed them. Mother rabbits only feed babies once a day. Some moms won’t feed under these conditions and then your going to have to try taking babies out to mom twice a day and bringing them inside until they get fur. Or to solve this problem keep your rabbits in a rabbit barn with heat available, or only breed in warm weather.
Insufficient Nest: Mother rabbits should pull out their fur to make a nice warm nest, but first timers almost always do a bad job. If this happens you’ll have to do it for her. After birth (if you do this while mom is still pregnant you can kill the babies inside her due to her struggling) take mom out and gently pull fur from her tummy and sides. It will come out easy due to hormones and reveal her nipples to babies. Shove all this fur into a nice nest shape and make a hollow with your fist. Put babies in and cover with fur. Now put mom in and watch closely. If she tries to reject them you will know because they will start screaming as she hurts them. Get them out! Now you have a problem. Hopefully you can find a surrogate mom.

Surrogate moms: I always breed more than one rabbit at the same time, that way if one mom rejects or has too many babies to support you can give them to another mom. Most rabbits can only support about 8 to ten babies at one time. And if you are breeding meat rabbits your going to have big litters. If different litters are born too far apart it is harder to get the surrogate to accept them. So breed together. Here is how to get a surrogate to accept different babies. In the morning (not night) take the babies and put them in the new nest. Cover well with moms fur so they will smell like the other babies, you can also rub vanilla extract on moms nose to help mask the scent. Now watch mom closely, if she rejects you will know. Check the babies a few times first day, trying not to upset mom. The more you mess with a new mom the more likely she is to kill her babies.

As I have said meat rabbits have big litters so your other moms may not have room to take more babies. What then? Well, you can keep another smaller breed of rabbit just for surrogating. The smaller lops make excellent moms. We always bred our pet Holland at the same time as the meat rabbits. Smaller rabbits generally have smaller litters, but can still support up to eight babies. Our Holland was a rock! She accepted anything and always took great care of her litters. Also bonus, you can tell whose babies are who’s. This is important for future breeding purposes. If all babies look alike then you will not be able to tell which babies came from which moms for future breeding.

Buck Problems
Most bucks (male rabbits) have no problems except one. Due to living in a small cage they have very little staying power when it comes to breeding. So when you are trying to breed a male to a female he gets tired very quickly. The solution is to give your buck an open space or rabbit run to live on. His muscles will be stronger and he will breed better as a result. Just make sure it is secure from dogs and predators!
Predator problems - Animal and Human
Rabbits are a prey animal for pretty much anything bigger than a squirrel. So securing your rabbits is a major concern. The biggest predators Pre-SHTF are neighborhood dogs. They get really excited when they see a rabbit and kill mode kicks in! Even a Yorkie could kill your rabbits simply by jumping at them and barking. Rabbits aren’t the cleverest of creatures and panic easily. When they get really scared they will run circles in their cages and jump up sometimes breaking their own backs! Any rabbit not in a secure cage is a sitting duck for owls, dogs, cats, hawks, raccoons, skunks, badgers, possums, and mean kids! And that is just in town! So my advice is put your rabbits in a rabbit barn. This can be a humble shed, garage, or basement. This will become even more important in a SHTF situation. You will not want people [outside your family] knowing that you have meat available.

Heat - The Silent Rabbit Killer
The most tragic thing to come home to is a barn full of heatstroke-killed rabbits. Rabbits can die of heat stroke in 80 degree Fahrenheit weather. That’s it! They are covered in nice warm fur, which is great in cold weather, but not in the heat. Here are the ways to avoid heat death:
1. Shade! Never, ever, put your rabbit hutch in direct sun in warm weather, or they will die! Put your hutches or cages in the shade of a building or tree.
2. Always provide frozen water bottles for your rabbit to lie on in the heat. I like big 2 liter ones for our meat rabbits because they last most of the day. Keep one in the cage while the other one is in the freezer refreezing.
2. Always provide lots of water in the heat. Use water bottle feeders so the rabbits can’t defecate in them or spill them.
3. In really hot weather 90 or above soak the hutch roof and sides in water from a hose several times a day to cool it down.
4. If you notice your rabbits panting take action immediately, your rabbits are in heat stroke! Mist your rabbits with the hose and put frozen water or pop bottles in the cage with them. Monitor to make sure they are cooling down.
5. If a rabbit is laying still in the cage and won’t wake or is sluggish but still breathing it is now in a coma from heat. Get it out and submerge in a bucket of cold water up to the neck. It should revive if not too far gone.

Conclusion
Rabbits are an easy animal to raise once you get the cages and feeders, and much of that you can make yourself. They are also perfect for kids to care for, as they are small, cute, and generally non-aggressive. The worst you will get from a rabbit is a bad scratch. A cow or a pig however, could easily kill or injure your eight to ten-year-old child.

If you had 5 to 10 does breeding every two months you would have a good meat supply for the year. Another major advantage is that you can butcher for daily needs. If you butcher a hog or cow you have to process, pickle, salt, or freeze hundreds of pounds of meat all at once. It’s a tricky business to do safely. With rabbits you have no possibility of spoilage and a nice pelt of fur to turn into clothing. We have seen interest in our rabbits triple in the past months. So much so that I have run out of breeders to sell. This is something that has never happened to me before! People are waking up and looking for ways to ensure food safety. If you are looking to buy breeding stock then make sure they are young (under a year of age) or proven to be fertile, and buy from a good breeder who knows about proper care and feeding. Good Luck!