Free-Range Meat Rabbits
Raising Rabbits for Meat—Without Cages
If you're a homesteader, or a hobbyist, or small farmer like me, I'm willing to bet you've considered meat rabbits as a source of meat and maybe even extra income. If you haven't thought about it, you should! Even urban farmers have room for these efficient, productive, adorable, and tasty critters on their homesteads.
Rabbits are a popular choice for home-produced meat because they can take up so little space. Meat rabbits are typically raised in cages two feet by three feet, or perhaps three square feet for the largest breeds. This isn't much! Especially when rabbitry owners have come up with so many clever space-saving ways to suspend the cages or even stack them while still being able to keep them clean and tidy.
Like I said, three square feet . . . that isn't much space! Many of us don't like chickens to be confined in small spaces, so why should we cage rabbits this way? Humans free-range chickens—we go cage-free for chicken meat or eggs—can't we do this with meat rabbits, too?
Measuring Success in Free-Range Meat Rabbitry
I free-ranged meat rabbits for over a year, and when I say free-range, I mean it in the extreme. No fencing, no pens, no obstacles to impede their movements whatsoever; and I provided very little in the way of essential food or water.
The rabbits foraged all their own food and were very self-sufficient, but I also gave them waste out of my garden. I threw weeds and pruned portions of my vegetables over the garden fence for the rabbits to eat. I also had a "home base" location, which was just a scorch mark in my land from an old fire pit where I regularly dropped off various herbs and cuttings from tomatoes and Brussels sprouts for them. The bunnies and I had something of a symbiotic relationship during this time. I wanted to give them extra treats to keep them around so that I could see them out my bedroom window, but also just because I liked them. It was really special to wake up in the morning and look out my window to see a couple of colorful rabbits eating the castings from under the bird feeders. My husband and I figured, if we're going to have land and have the ability to do unique things with it, then why not?
One of the things that I really enjoyed was seeing them around my house at specific times of the day, usually around sunrise and then again at dusk. I could count on them to be where I had left them the treats, even if there was nothing there for them that day. It was really cool to get to know the rabbits this way, to see their personalities . . . which ones hung out together, which ones preferred solitude, which rabbits were brave enough to let me get within a few feet of them, and which bunnies were warier.
We even had a young rabbit small enough to squeeze himself through the garden fence end up getting stuck in there! This was one of the "Garage Bunnies," as I called them. He apparently stayed in the garden a little too long and found himself too large and/or fat to squeeze back out again. I saw him in the garden stealing my Brussels sprouts, peas, and peppers, for a couple weeks before I finally realized he was not able to leave. By then, I had named him Garden Bunny, and we took pity on him and caught him up with our bare hands and released him back into "the wild." Later, Garden Bunny wandered into my live trap and became one of the first rabbits that I butchered.
These free-range rabbits were truly free. They slept where they wanted, ate what and when they wanted, bred when they wanted, made nests where they chose. The rabbits went into the woods and got eaten by coyotes and hawks when they wanted to. The rabbit kits left the safety of the nests and burrows and got lost, drowned, or taken away by birds of prey because they were free to roam as they pleased.
It was a pleasure for me to see them that way, just being rabbits. I felt like they were happy and that made me happy. As anyone reading this probably can easily guess, this "hands off" method of free-ranging the meat rabbits resulted in severe losses to predation, and even to disease.
I still believe it's an enterprise worth attempting to perfect. I think there is always more than one way to talk about success when it comes to homesteading and small-scale farming. Did I end up with lots of rabbits to sell and/or eat? No, I didn't. I did have a really wonderful and, I believe, unique experience living with free-range rabbits on my farm for over a year.
Tips for Raising Free-Range Meat Rabbits
I know it didn't work out that great for me in terms of having lots of rabbits to make food or money with, but I also know I did a few things that resulted in the rabbits producing more rabbits!
- Offer the rabbits lots of places where they will have some protection from predators, such as little huts, sheds, a garage, access to your barn, or even a few nice piles of wood and tree branches.
- I left the areas around my stacks and piles of old wood to grow tall grass for the whole season. This provided some protection for the baby and juvenile rabbits that were susceptible to being eaten by birds of prey.
- Establish a "home base" for the rabbits by every day offering them tempting food items they can't find on their own, like garden vegetables or yummy fruits.
- Set out water bowls or tie up water bottles for them when the weather is very hot and dry, as they may not be able to find water readily on their own.
- When you see them, move towards and around them carefully and without making too much noise—this way, the bunnies get used to having you around, and you can enjoy them more. You will also be more likely to be able to intervene if a rabbit becomes sick or injured.
- Try to give them a dewormer (I use the Safe-Guard goat formula, it is safe for rabbits). I did this by dousing rabbit pellets in the medication and putting it out for them in the "home base" area where they were used to getting food from me. I want to point out that this is far from ideal! I was trying to care for them as best I could under the circumstances.
- Handle the kits when you find the nests, as this seemed to help at least some of them become more accustomed to me.
Before deworming your rabbits, check with a veterinarian for off-label use of products not specifically manufactured for rabbits. Ask a qualified veterinary medical specialist for proper dosing instructions.
Safe Wormer for Rabbits
Why My Free-Range Meat Rabbitry Wasn't Productive
I did have some issues with the rabbits free-ranging on my farm. There are enough of these issues that I don't plan on raising the meat rabbits in exactly this fashion again.
- Loss due to depredation: My meat rabbits were extremely susceptible to predators. The hawks and eagles, and probably even the owls, had a field day with any of the little ones that didn't find cover quickly enough. I am sure that the coyotes I often hear yipping and laughing at night took many of the rabbits, as well. This wasn't just a case of the predators wandering onto my farm, but more an issue of the rabbits leaving the main parts of the farm, like around the barn and pastures, and going off into the wooded areas.
- Loss to parasitism and disease: I found five rabbit carcasses between June and September of 2017, and I know of at least one full grown adult doe that died under my old chicken coop of who-knows-what over the winter. I can't be sure what illnesses caused all these losses, but the rabbits appeared uninjured so I can only assume exposure to disease, or a heavy parasite load, caused their deaths. Five rabbits may not sound like a lot to lose, but this was during a time where I had a total of twenty rabbits on my farm. I wasn't putting any of them in my freezer during these warm summer months because I was concerned about the worm load they might be carrying. I'm not squeamish about cleaning small mammals, but I would rather not eat an animal that had visible intestinal parasites or "something" on its liver, thanks. I've since learned that it would have been safe for me to take rabbits during this time, so in the future, if I have free-range meat rabbits, I won't wait through the whole summer to start butchering.
- Difficulties at butchering time: Obviously, it's a lot easier to butcher animals that you have confined. Your options when you decide it's time to butcher your free-range rabbits are pretty limited. Unless you've managed to teach them to literally eat out of your hands, you will need to trap them. I used live traps with varying measures of success.
- Small litter sizes: For whatever reason, my free-range rabbits produced smaller litters than I expected to see. I had learned in my meat rabbit research that litters of eight and more kits were to be expected, but the biggest litter I saw on my farm was only six. Litters of four or five little bunnies were typical.
They deserve a life beyond a wire cage.
A Positive Experience
I know I've said a lot of negative things about raising meat rabbits free-range style, but the whole experience was actually really cool.
I do honestly believe the rabbits were very content and even happy, by their standards. I was lucky to see a lot of social behavior like grooming and play-chasing, which just isn't possible when rabbits are forced to live separately in individual cages.
The meat rabbits on my farm truly were free to do as their instincts instructed them, for their benefit or to their detriment. This is not to be underestimated. Doesn't every living thing prefer freedom to confinement, freedom of choice to restriction? I know they're "just rabbits," and I know they're intended to be food, but doesn't that distinction obligate their producers to treat them with some measure of dignity? They aren't dumb animals, and there was a distinct difference in their behavior in and out of the cages. The rabbits did well, really. It may be the case that several of the does left my property and are having litters in the neighbors' woods. I guess the point that I'm trying to make is that even with the meat rabbit, we, as meat producers, should always be striving to give the animals in hands the fullest lives we can reasonably manage.
I've already written an entire article on the ethics of raising food animals, so I'll try not to digress any further here.
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How I Ended up with Free-Range Rabbits in the First Place
We've all seen them . . . big white rabbits in rows and rows of hanging wire cages, probably in a garage, with a "J feeder," a handful of hay, a hanging plastic water bottle, and boxes filled with straw for the pregnant does to have their little bunny kits in.
I have wanted to raise meat rabbits for years, but because I am the way I am, something about it has always bothered me: the cages. The confinement. The teeny tiny living space provided to these social, intelligent animals. I didn't actually set out to raise free-range meat rabbits. It was actually an accident. Here's what happened:
A friend's son gave me three rabbits: a male and two females. "Awesome, finally, meat rabbits!" I thought. I bought a couple cages and made a couple more following some excellent and not-always-so-excellent tutorials on YouTube. I created a "rabbitry" in my garage and followed all the instructions I could find about breeding and building nesting boxes and feed requirements and so on. Then, I lost a couple litters of baby bunnies. I found them frozen outside of the nest boxes, or worse, they had fallen out through the wire of the cages. I looked at the rabbits in these little cages and I honestly felt guilty. I couldn't stand it. I stopped breeding the rabbits and waited for the ground to thaw.
In the spring, I built the rabbits a pen to live in. I buried chicken wire 6 inches in the ground, wrapped small gauge wire around metal fence posts, and even hung netting over the top of the pen to deter birds of prey from swooping in and stealing future rabbit kits. I felt so triumphant when I finally brought all three rabbits in their hateful metal cages, out to the pen and turned them loose in there. I would sit and watch them for hours, zooming around, nibbling on grass and weeds, grooming one another, and just being rabbits.
There were a couple successful litters born in the pen, though I then quickly learned the lesson that very small baby rabbits start hopping around much sooner than I had originally thought, and will go right through any gauge wire fencing larger than chicken wire. It was too late for me to add chicken wire around the bottom twelve inches of the pen—this would have risked fencing some of the babies out, and sentencing them to death by starvation if I couldn't catch them. So, I shrugged my shoulders and decided to wait it out. I could always "have a heart" and try to catch them in live traps, after all. I would still be able to butcher and consume them, as I had intended to do.
None of that came to pass, as shortly after the baby bunnies started leaving the pen, my sheep escaped from their fenced area and marched right through the flimsy wire of the rabbit pen to eat the enticing bunny food; inadvertently, they let all of the rabbits escape.
I tried for months to catch the three adults in live traps. I did manage to catch two females, but by then, the baby rabbits were grown to butchering size and were still just hopping around on the farm, just living on my property, enjoying themselves. In a hilarious escapade, some of the rabbits actually escaped from their cages with the help of the other, pushing against the feeders and dislodging them. I think I even let one go again because she just looked so objectively miserable, and there were still so many rabbits loose everywhere.
By the end of it, I had one of the original does (Mrs. Red) and the buck (whom we affectionately called Buckly) running around on my farm with their summer rabbit babies all grown to adulthood, and the Minnesota winter closing in fast. The other doe, Mrs. White, became a house pet for a while. The outside rabbits? I left them pellets to eat, saw them in the barn eating hay alongside the sheep often enough, and just generally marveled at the fact that they were still alive in subzero temperatures. They made a home for themselves under the old chicken coop, some in my garage, raided my hay, cleaned up the sheep's grain after them, and toughed it out as their world froze.
In the spring, Mrs. Red, Buckly, and at least five of their remaining offspring took their first nibbles of new grass and clover, and drank spring rain out of puddles. They had survived the winter, and soon, I saw new little fluff ball bunny kits sticking their heads out from underneath the old chicken coop. As for me? I had free range meat rabbits. A "happy accident". I crossed my fingers and hoped it would work because the best part of it was just how natural the rabbits looked out there, beyond the cages, out of the pen, living their best lives.
That's what I thought, anyway. I learned a few things after. I'm always grateful that I get to keep learning, and I'm grateful to the animals that teach me, even if they don't know they're doing it.
Do I think free-range meat rabbits are worth it? Well, yeah actually, I do, just not in the extreme way I experienced them. Giving these creatures more space and honestly, just the best shot at a natural life that we can, while still protecting and caring for them, was rewarding. Modern farmers care for the cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and goats in our lives. Let's look out for the meat rabbits, too. They deserve a life beyond a wire cage.
© 2017 Rachel Koski