So You Want to Raise Rabbits
A too-common conversation recently surfaced and, as rabbit meat gets more in demand, the numbers get larger. I understand the enthusiasm for a new project. But sometimes enthusiasm needs tempered by common sense. The names here have been changed to protect the foolhardy in an effort to, hopefully, inject some common sense into the conversation for those seeking to get into raising rabbits.
“Sam” contacted a fellow breeder. Had been given a set up that had 160 holes, formerly used for dogs. He wanted to get into rabbits and began calling rabbit breeders to fill up those cages. He began contacting breeders, despite the fact he has never raised one rabbit. When advised to start small, he said he had an Agriculture degree and had raised all other types of livestock.
This isn’t a one time request. Several other folks chipped in about people getting in and six or eight months later they were gone. Rabbits are then criticized as a waste of money, too expensive to raise, not enough return, etc. They can be all of that, especially if going into it like cattle or hogs.
Rabbits are not cattle or hogs! No disrespect to farmers raising either – there are many similarities to hogs in many ways, but rabbits have a whole different set of rules. Getting 120 does and a bunch of bucks when you’ve never had a rabbit and aren’t willing to do the homework needed is guaranteed to not be good for rabbits or people. Then anyone who won’t sell just “doesn’t want to share a market” with ‘Sam.’ He was planning on some practices that are not approved by the processor, and was told that they were not allowed, and he said “what they don’t know, won’t hurt them”.
Cages aren’t cheap – at $20-30 per hole (cage, feeders, water etc) it can be expensive. They need cages that aren’t used for other types of animals, typically. They’ll need nest boxes. They’ll need feed and handling that isn’t like other animals. The ag degree goes out the window in flames if you’re willing to deliberately violate production standards of the customer buying your product. It doesn’t matter if it’s rabbits, pigs, chickens or purple giraffes – your word should mean something.
What usually happens – Sam finds someone to sell him does, or several someones. He can’t keep straight who he’s talked to, so brings animals from different places together and without proper quarantine it’s survival of the fittest. Literally. He’ll start losing kits that are born to disease and mistakes. His feed bill will be higher than his sales. He’s deliberately deceiving the processor, and probably everyone else he deals with. Not listening to an experienced grower is business suicide.
At $20-30 each X 120 Sam is looking at over $3,000 before any babies are born IF all the equipment needed was free. IF that first 3-4 months of feed was free. IF there is no losses of adults during the transition. IF he knows to guard against heat and predators including dogs in the barn. IF he has a plan for manure and other issues.
Too many buy out other rabbitries for instant start, rather than growing into it. They end up with 200+ does, which is a full time job. They produce 50 fryers every couple weeks, and cut off those who could help. They lose does as fast as they buy others, have breeding problems, disease problems and volume loss of rabbits. They sell out, discouraged and defeated.
There’s a reason I sell trios. Take them, learn with them, learn if rabbits is something you want to deal with. Do it right with 10, then 20 then 50 does. Grow into it, keeping back daughters of the good rabbits you have. Those will be developed for YOUR barn and YOUR management style.
Ask questions. Be prepared to lose litters – new first timers can be clumsy and hurt or kill babies, some does kill a whole litter if things aren’t her way or if she’s threatened. They can harm their own babies. Sometimes everything looks good but a litter fails to grow…maybe it’s a one time thing, maybe it’s not.
I’ve often said the only thing that dies faster than a horse from bad feed is a rabbit. They’re like pigs in that they can’t handle the heat. Heat can render bucks temporarily or permanently sterile. A nest box by a window can cook litters and it’s easy to blame a doe when she’s doing her best in a situation we put her in that she can’t alter. Rabbits can have issues with coccidia, enteritis and bloat. They can’t burp or throw up, and don’t show illness until too late sometimes.
Don’t get a bunch of animals and throw together with dollars dancing in your head. Be it rabbits or sheep or hogs or cattle, that’s a dangerous prescription for financial loss. Don’t think more volume is more money…be efficient with management and grow into it.
I’ve handled 120-150 head of rabbits before and seen people make mistakes with volume that could have been reduced with experience on a smaller scale. People think if 20 rabbits are good 100 must be great…but everything inflates and some things inflate more than five times!
Manure handling, fly control, temperature issues, breeding schedules, kindling schedules – all of these things take increased importance as numbers rise. Don’t be the know other parts of agriculture and I have a degree so can blow you off kind of person. You’ll end up the financially challenged degreed expert with dead rabbits. The rabbits lose.
There’s more to it than sticking a couple rabbits together once every couple months. There’s ear mites and treating minor issues before they become major ones. There’s learning to adapt from other species because many things aren’t available for rabbits. Our misting system in the summer is adapted from other species. Sometimes looking beyond the species helps, but there are many things unique to rabbits that you won’t change.
Be smart. Start small. Listen. Ask questions. Resist the urge to buy more than you can handle. If you must, buy 50. With the first 25 litters you’ll have, with luck, 2-3 good does from each litter – and easily double your herd.
If you’re looking to raise rabbits, go in with as few obstacles as possible.