Friday, June 7, 2013

Raising Meat Rabbits in Alaska


We raise rabbits both for meat and manure for the gardens (and they eat vegetable scraps). Although I embraced the practicality of this, the practice of being so practical has been hard! After all, both my sisters have raised rabbits as pets and we all shared one as kids (named Thumper, of course).



In fact, I wonder if the reason that Americans and the English seem more squeamish about raising/serving rabbits for dinner than the French and Italians is because we all grew up with Beatrix Potter's bunnies and Disney's intrepid Thumper in “Bambi.”

Below is information about my experience with them,as pets and as fodder, labeled by category for easy skimming.

Demeanor of rabbits as pets:

As pets, rabbits are curious, social beings. (We used to take Thumper on walks, with a chihuahua leash). When our current rabbits hear me entering the shed to top off their water and food, they jump around and then come to the doors. Even the babies come forward and two have fallen out when I opened it! Although the rabbit raising books I bought say that rabbits are content in a crowded warren, I rather wish these had bigger hutches and more place to play, because they alternate periods of great activity, with long siestas. Because they are diggers, we can't put them in the chicken run, once the ground has thawed. We also can't put the adult males and females together, or males and males, if we had them) because they will fight.



Rabbit pets can be house trained – my aunt did this. They are very clean animals, like cats, and silent. I see a lot of advantages to having rabbits as pets. The only difficulty if they are uncaged some or all of the time is that they are chewers and diggers by instinct, so household wires and furniture could be vulnerable to their natural predilictions, and fences might not keep a neighbor's dog out or your rabbits in.



Our experience raising them:

Besides the advantages of rabbits as pets, they are also currently marketed as “the sustainable meat” because rabbits breed like, well, rabbits, and therefore are in no danger of disappearing. Female (does) have no annual estrus cycle. They can get pregnant all year round. A single doe can bear four litters, up to 8 kits each, or 32 babies per year. A male (buck) with several females could sire hundreds in that time. Since we are trying to live a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, we said yes when a friend suggested that we raise rabbits for food and gave us a breeding pair of Flemish Giants and two adolescents.



As the name indicates, these are large. The ideal adult weight is 15 pounds, so they are larger than most house cats! Our does are grey/blue with white patches behind the shoulders. The buck is brown. Did you know that you can often tell rabbit gender by eyelashes? It isn't foolproof, but in our breed, at least, females have them. Males, don't!




SW corner of greenhouse and shed
Because of their size, Flemish Giants require larger hutches than many breeds, but since we were building a new structure from scratch that was not hard to accommodate. We had a contractor build us a multi-functional building as follows: an 8x16 greenhouse facing south, sharing its north wall with an 8 x 16 storage shed (for out of season items). Five rabbit hutches stick out along the north wall of this building like a range of bay windows (see second building photo below). Two of them have a connecting door – that's where the mother and her active 5 week old kits are now. When they are old enough, we'll put the males in one hutch and the females in the other.

 
Construction:

Rabbit hutches and rain barrel
We built the base and exterior of the hutches with 16 gauge wire mesh (strong enough, we hope, to deter predators).   (see photo) The porous base allows the manure (pellets) to drop through to the ground, where I can retrieve some for my gardens. This also keeps the hutches clean, as well as providing a cool surface for the rabbits. Let's face it – wild ones burrow out of the wind but into the snow!). The east and west walls are wood. The animals are in this location because furry rabbits like both the shade and the cool north breezes. The rabbits don't mind cold ((all that fur) but they need to be protected from biting winter winds and rain. So during the cold season, we hang a windbreak along the exterior. It is the same material as our greenhouse walls, transparent, double depth plastic. We leave an open few inches at the top so they can sniff, which they like to do, and the bottom remains open for ventilation and droppings. The hutches are about chest high from the ground, a bit out of sight of small predators, like fox, weasel, and coyote. We also have a solar powered electric fence surrounding the hutches a few yards distant, complete with a few bells dangling on the wires. We hope the bells or the sting will discourage a curious bear. My husband had the clever idea of cutting doors into the hutches from inside the shed. This renders the exterior wall stronger, of course, and we can tend the animals more easily from inside during rain or deep snow, as well as store their food there. The watering system of each hutch is linked to a heater in winter so they won't freeze. Each hutch also contains a nesting box (like an open topped shoe box). Upright to contain babies, we turn it sideways for adults. The box provides an additional windbreak and hard surface, where I put treats, and the adults like to climb on top, occasionally, too.



Food and chew toys:

We buy huge bags of rabbits pet food from a feed store, supplemented by snacks. As you would expect, they like carrots and other crunchy vegetables. They also like oatmeal, apples, raisins, and plain popcorn, but not pineapples. The lactating doe also appreciates dry milk. Once the landscape starts to green up, I gather ferns, birch leaves, grasses - any greens. They LOVE dandelions most of all.  Rabbits are, by nature, chewers (their teeth keep growing, like some other rodents), so they love to gnaw slim birch and spruce branches, straw and hay, and chew toys, like cardboard toilet paper rolls or even paper (to shred). They nibble my hand and jacket when I reach in to clean out debris or offer food. After two seasons, however, I have decided not to offer paper in the future.  The bits and pieces clog up the wire, get wet, and then collect food/water/excrement. Not pleasant for me or for otherwise neat and clean animals.  Instead, I increased the number of branches they could gnaw and leaves they could tear or eat. (Paper put in the nesting box for a pregnant doe was different.  She never pooped in there, even when she didn't conceive).


Breeding:

Adolescents are ready to breed around 5-6 months (but the males can get feisty around females before that time, even thought they can't do anything, so you need to separate them sooner). For insemination, we deliver the female to the male's hutch for a few minutes at a time. (Vice versa and she will likely hurt him to defend her territory.) The first few times we did this, the buck did not know what to do. He acted like a junior high school boy with a playmate – running around, jumping over her, bumping her. The next time, he tried humping her nose, shoulder, side – everywhere. She finally bit his ear to get him to lay off! Well at some point, around April 1, he figured it out, because on May 1, five kits were born.



We had read (Storey's Raising Rabbits, available at Amazon) that you can tell when the doe is close to delivering because she will start carrying straw around in her mouth. But everybody - male, female, adult, young, liked to nibble straw. We also read that she will start to tear up paper to soften a nest. But they always tore up paper. Finally we saw her tearing out her own fur to line the nest. Aha! That was new. On May 1, we saw some blood on the paper and could see that her nest was topped with a layer of fur like a pie crust on a pie, and the crust was gently moving up and down, with the breath and movement of the little babies underneath! For ten days we weren't sure how many there were - we were too cautious to peek beneath the fur - but every once in a while as they moved around, they left an aperture, and we could see intertwined, hairless pink creatures about the size of an adult's thumb.

I was worried about some dying because I read that attrition in first litters tends to be high. We NEVER saw the doe nurse in the nesting box. Apparently, mothers go in about twice a day. Those babies that grab a nipple, live, and those that can't, perish. It's a tough world. At about three weeks, they had fur. Two are orange, two are brown, and one is an albino, complete with red eyes. The mother started lifting a few at a time out of the nesting box to explore the larger hutch and to be with her. Sometimes, even months later, I would see one or another sitting up on her back. Other times, all five would huddle together as they had in their nest box. When exploring, their little feet preferred cardboard to the wire, so we covered most of the mesh base for them.

The mom on the left, with two of her kits


To nurse, the ambulatory babies had to go to the mother whenever she was still for short periods, like eating or drinking. If she swung around, several kits swung beneath her. At four weeks, we cleaned out the nesting box and replaced it sideways. The mother would often climb up on top to get away from the babies! So, up there I would leave fresh produce that she could enjoy but that the nursing kits were too young to eat. They are growing rapidly though, and at this point, it looks like four are eating pellets and only the smallest one remains nursing.



Manure for the Garden:

Rabbit manure is great for gardens for several reasons. Primarily, it is not as “hot” (excess nitrogen) as chicken or horse manure, so it does not have to age (decompose) before use. It can be scooped up fresh. A second advantage is the intact structure.  Referred to as pellets, it looks like round “nuggets”, about the size of store bought blueberries. They are easy to scoop up and parse out to various plants or planters. Manure of this structure (moose pellets, too) doesn't smell very much, so there is less of the “ick” factor in using it. In fact, the water stored in an old malt barrel in my greenhouse smells worse than the manure! We purposely built our rabbit hutches near our greenhouses and some upper gardens.   



Since we live in a spruce forest, the land we have cleared for gardens is HIGHLY acidic and needs a lot of remediation to grow healthy vegetables. The rabbit manure is much easier for me to manage than our compost pile, consistently available, and saves me from buying and transporting much fertilizer. I'm delighted to have it! I just need a better system for catching it below the cages so I don't have to lean under there with a shovel. After some observation and intermediate steps, we inserted an an angled sheet of plywood, covered with visqueen (sp) leading down to a slim, plastic child's sled.  This collects pellets (and hay and other detritus) from two of the hutches.  I can easily shovel additions from the hutch "basements" not currently involved in this process, and easily pull the full sled to the greenhouse or adjacent gardens.  Next year, guess what.  Three sleds!      



Butchering:

I admit to having been a totally hypocritical meat eater because I have never thought much about where meat comes from. Cities allow such a degree of specialization that I just had to walk up to a counter to buy it cut up, wrapped in plastic, and served in little yellow trays. I've never been a hunter who understands the element of death involved in my dinners. So it was distressing to see the blood on the snow the first time Bryan butchered a rabbit. But, when he brought me the meat, all cut up and cleaned, I could deal with it on “kitchen auto-pilot.” However, I must admit, that meal was the first time I cooked with clear images of the source animal we transported and fed daily to reach my plate. Now that we are taking more responsibility for raising our own food, I am becoming more respectful of the time, effort and process required to feed me!



An adolescent Flemish Giant (3-5 months) yields about 5 pounds of meat – about the size of a large roasting or frying chicken. We generally brine it first and then, since rabbit meat is very lean, I cooked it in the pressure cooker or in the smoker.  To keep it moist, I baste it, drape it with bacon, or cook with lots of liquid.  Various meals have included rabbit stew, curry,  burritos, and BBQ.  Rabbit meat has less cholesterol than chicken, and is one of the more efficient animals to raise for meat. Chickens are great, as 2 pounds of feed yield 1 pound of meat, but rabbits are pretty good at 4:1, lower than goats, sheep, and much lower than cattle (10:1). People who have edible greenery longer during the year than we do would encounter lower feeding and heating costs than we have.



I realize that I need to lose my squeamishness about eating rabbits if we want to be able to feed ourselves here, particularly when other food is unavailable and transportation is not feasible (during spring Break Up and fall Freeze Up). Last year, Bryan never saw a single bear or bull moose when he went hunting for them, and the fish runs were meager. We are still heavily dependent on quarterly trips to Costco. And while Alaska is full of edible wild plants all summer long – summer isn't long, it is short. I don't imagine that there are many vegetarians living  any distance from supermarkets in the various lands of the midnight sun. Raising these rabbits (and chickens in the prior article) for food and other functions, like manure, is a practical choice, but nonetheless, it involves many lessons that never occurred to me when I lived in that Houston high-rise.  


You might enjoy the latest book by John Michael Greer, Green Wizardry, about these and related topics.

3 comments:

  1. Kudos for this post. I really agree that rabbits are also great for a pet in our house because they can even behave more than a dog or a cat (just my opinion). We just need to be more responsible and do some research.

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    Replies
    1. Trying to learn about rabbits to feed the family this summer at our cabin. Thanks for the information.

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  2. Your article very instersting. I feel helpful.
    regards kelinci

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