Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Raising Meat Rabbits in Alaska (Part 2)

Breeding: 
We have all heard the description of some prolific procreators (of any species) as “breeding like rabbits.” So I thought that putting a male and female together would be easy. However, like most things in nature, we have encountered great variability in the rabbits we have raised. Some females are natural mothers; others don't know what to do. Some females successfully evade the efforts of males by speed or by aggressive biting, scratching and pushing; others are passive.  Some males are natural sperm donors and others just want the exercise of chasing a female around, followed by a meal and a nap. (Sound like any people you know?) A congenial mating pair can potentially produce about 4 kindlings (litters) per year, yielding 16 – 32 kits (babies).  A male with two females can possibly double that.  

We have experience with two breeds over two years: Flemish giants and satins (medium size).  We plan to buy additional medium sized breeds in the future, to see which ones work best in our setting and produce the most efficient feed:meat/care ratio.  


This February, a friend gave us a pregnant Flemish giant,  which was twice the size of two adolescent satins, a male and a female, that we bought.  She tipped the scales at 20 lbs (larger than many pet dogs!) and her predecessors weighed in the mid-teens. We have large hutches, but as this one ballooned in size, we doubled the size of her hutch by cutting a door into the adjacent one to give her more room. She made me think of those enormous Hawaiian royal ladies receiving visitors under a banyan tree.

The Flemish giant never acted pregnant. By that, I mean that a few days before the 30 day
Flemish giant doe
gestation period is up, most does (females) will tear up paper and pluck out fur to line a nest in which to protect the hairless babies from cold or insects. (One of the differences between rabbits and hares is that rabbits are born hairless and hares are born with fur). Obviously February is cold in Alaska, so, around Day 27, we set up a nesting box, lined it with cardboard and straw, and gave her some newspaper and wrapping paper to tear up. She offered no behavioral cues whatsoever. On Day 32, in 30 degree temperatures, we were startled to find five hairless kits (babies) writhing around on the cold wire floor of the open hutch area. We gently moved them into the nesting box and covered them over with straw for warmth. The next day, we were appalled to find that she had hauled them all back over the high lip of the nesting box, presumably one by one, into the open, where they died of exposure.

We waited a month, watching her behavior. She didn't seem stressed or sick. So, to get her pregnant again, we delivered the adolescent male satin to her hutch on several occasions and then stood out in the snowy yard, watching them, like some weirdo, cross-species voyeurs. At first, the buck chased her around, as expected. Eventually, she just lay down to make it easy for him. With their size difference and her passivity, she reminded me of some huge, fat madam of yesteryear initiating some clueless teenage boy. The satin jumped all over her, trying to hump her side, her back, even her nose. Finally, she seemed to get so tired of this that she actually demonstrated the behavior he was supposed to emulate, totally squashing the little guy beneath her! When he finally seemed to understand the process, we wondered if, given their size difference, procreation was even possible. Finally, he grunted in a rhythmic pattern that sounded to me like “I think I can, I think I can!” and then flopped over on his side. Success (babies) would take 30 days to assess.


See babies beneath fur, top right
Nesting box prepared by the doe
The same week, we put him with the adolescent female satin, which, given the “training” of the giant and the more compatible size of the satins, we thought might be more successful. (The doe bit Bryan but did not nip the buck). A month later, the female satin was plucking out fur and softening the nest box. The giant: nothing. No kits appeared for either one. Maybe the satin “thought” she was pregnant. So we mated them both again. Once again, the satin added to her nest and the giant did nothing, but this time, each female had a kindling the same
4 of the 5, 1  month old
 

week. The satin had five healthy kits, one grey, two peach, and one peach and white like her.  The giant had seven kits, but, just like before, she left them in the open, not in the nesting box, and let all of them die. After this behavior with two litters, totaling 12 kits, it was clear that she was not going to contribute to the gene pool, so it was time to move her along to a role as a protein source.

Butchering and other information:
As my husband says, our rabbits have just one bad day in their lives.  That's the day he dispatches them with a .22 to the back of their heads.  Then he skins them
Abattoir from plastic drum
in a homemade abattoir he fashioned out of a plastic 55 gallon drum with a wooden cross bar attached across the top from which he hangs the legs.  He bags the innards, the hide, and the head and we cart the package across the lake in the kayak to leave in the bog for predators. Then we burn the bag and hose/bleach the plastic drum.  I have not yet learned to do anything with the hides. I would like to try, but I am a bit leery of hanging out bloody skins to dry before the bears go into hibernation in October.  
I need to do a bit more research first. 

Rabbits can be mated at 5+ months.  For food, they can be harvested at 3+ months.  To reach that size, the satins eat about 1 cup of feed per day.  The Flemish giants ate 2 cups per day, and both breeds like whatever fresh greens we bring them every day from the yard.  Dandelions and fireweed seem to be particular favorites.  From the kitchen, they
love fruit and squash peels.

Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits advised that Flemish giants are not an efficient feed: meat ratio and we have come to that conclusion, too, after raising them for several years. We plan to shift to mid-size breeds altogether.

Cooking: 
According to the source above, see the following comparisons of various meats:
              Protein    Fat         Moisture         Calories
Rabbits    20.8%    10.25%   27.9%                795/lb
Chicken   20.0%    11%        67.6%                810/lb
Pork        11.9%    45%        42%                  2050/lb (this seems high)
Beef        16.3%    28%        55%                  1440/lb

Because rabbit is so lean, I think it turns out best when prepared with liquid.  I favor the pressure cooker (the meat falls off the bone) or smoking with lots of sauce.  I have yet to perfect a tender version of fried rabbit (like fried chicken) which many people love. The meat freezes and thaws easily.  The flavor is mild, and so, like chicken or lean pork, it can take on the various flavors in which it is cooked.  Thus, it is easy to eat often.

The bones are slim, as you can imagine, so they burn easily in our wood stove or fire pit, to become a calcium amendment, along with the wood ash, to our gardens (most Alaskan soils lack calcium). Their pellets are also an easy garden addition because, unlike other manures, they are not “hot” when fresh so they can be added straight to the garden, without aging.


For many reasons, I am surprised that rabbits are not raised more commonly in America, as either pets or protein. Either way, they are low maintenance, low disease prone, pleasant animals that provide useful manure for the garden. As a meat source, they are easy to care for, cold tolerant, tasty, and add calcium to the yard.

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Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”

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