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As homestead livestock, the domestic rabbit has no equal.
The main goal of a home meat production unit is providing tasty, nutritious, chemically free food at a minimum of cost. In addition, for most people, it's necessary that the enterprise doesn't require a great deal of capital outlay, that it can be run without a great deal of experience, and in some cases, without a great deal of room. Would I sound prejudiced if I said the rabbit scores higher than any other domestic animal on all these points?
Many prospective homesteaders overlook rabbits as a source of meat, simply because Americans aren't accustomed to eating much rabbit. Beef—at least until lately—has been plentiful and relatively inexpensive.
But in many other countries where vast ranges for beef cattle aren't available, rabbit has been a staple for centuries. Frenchmen, for example, consume 13.5 pounds of rabbit per person per year. France produces 60 million pounds of rabbit meat annually, and Italy produces 115 million pounds. In the United States, on the other hand, the per capita consumption is a mere two ounces.
No homestead food is worth producing if it isn't good tasting. I could no more describe the taste of rabbit than I could a prime steak; you'll just have to try it for yourself. The flavor is somewhat like chicken, but more delicate and subtle. Unlike the wild rabbit, domestic rabbit meat is all white. It's fine-grained, and when it's from a young pen-raised animal, exceedingly tender.
Just as important to the organic farmer, rabbit meat is nutritious. Although there is some disagreement with United States Department of Agriculture figures arrived at some years ago that placed rabbit higher in protein and food value than chicken, pork, or beef, rabbit still ranks closer in nutritional value to the red meats than to chicken. In infancy, rabbits are nursed on the richest milk produced by any animal: more than 15 percent protein, compared with cow milk which generally is about 3.5 percent. A young rabbit doubles its weight six days after birth, a calf doubles its weight only after 47 days.
Being lower in fat and higher in minerals than any other commonly used meat and being easily digested, rabbit is often prescribed for people with stomach trouble.
Besides being delicious and nutritious, homestead food must be easily and economically produced. Rabbit, again, walks off with the top honors. If, as we just mentioned, a rabbit doubles its birth weight in six days compared with 47 days for a calf, and there are usually eight young rabbits to a litter compared to one calf, the meat resulting from one breeding doubles in less than ONE DAY in the rabbitry.
To look at it another, more meaningful way, an 11-pound rabbit that weans 30 four-pound fryers a year produces 120 pounds of meat a year, or over 1,000 percent of her live body weight. A 400-pound brood sow that produces two litters of eight a year, with pigs averaging 25 pounds each when weaned at eight weeks of age, produces 400 pounds of meat or 100 percent of her live weight. A 1,000-pound range cow producing a 400-pound weaned calf gives a return of 40 percent.
Those 30 rabbit fryers, incidentally, are a conservative estimate and can easily be doubled when necessary or desirable. Moreover, while suckling pig and milk-fed veal are much more expensive (and presumably more valuable) than the meat from weaned animals, rabbits are commonly slaughtered without weaning. Not only do you get the higher quality found in suckling pig or veal, but it's actually more economical to butcher young rabbits—you get quality, and economy too.
There are other factors besides rate of gain that affect the price of meat, of course. Studies conducted by one feed company showed that it took 3.4 pounds of feed (including feed for the doe) to produce one pound of meat. If feed costs 5¢ a pound, the meat cost is 17¢ a pound. Most beef farmers figure their costs at twice this.
Then consider investment. While calf prices vary widely and have been fluctuating tremendously even within specific areas lately, a calf will cost at least $100. A just-weaned rabbit of good commercial quality can be had for $4-5, and while the cost of equipment will probably triple that figure, the total cash outlay is much less than for other livestock.
Naturally, rabbits require less space than other livestock, and while labor requirements are high, a few hutches can be handled in a few minutes of leisure time. Even children or elderly people can have fun doing the rabbit chores.
Perhaps even more significant in today's crowded world, rabbits can be raised in many places where any other livestock would be taboo. Properly housed, there should be no objectionable odor. They are noiseless. In most places rabbits are classed as pets, so even the homesteader who thought he was limited to a cat or a dog might be able to get into rabbit farming on a small scale.
And finally, we come to the "farm-retail spread." Ever wonder why a farmer gets, say, 35¢ a pound for beef on the hoof, and you pay three or four times that much? In 1971, a choice steer that brought the farmer $273.80, cost the consumer $427.98. This spread of $173.62 was up from $132.53 only five years earlier.
My family has raised pigs on our homestead that cost us around $40, and it cost us more than half of that to have them processed. We could have bought comparable hogs from local farmers at that time for $45. In other words, for six months of work, the risk of losing the animal through disease or accident, and investment in feed and equipment, we earned $5. For one afternoon of home butchering, we earned $21. And of course, going through a retail market would have added even more to the cost.
While home butchering hogs or cattle isn't for everybody, butchering rabbits is a cinch. My ten-year-old son is pretty good at it, and I've been in small producers' plants where the owners' teenaged boys did 100 an hour. What this means to the homesteader is that with a few minutes work, he can eliminate the middleman entirely by butchering rabbits, whereas he might not be able to with larger stock.
To look at the specifics on rabbits, I recently visited a processor who paid 27¢ a pound for live fryers. Pelts were selling for 2¢ a pound, but it cost 1¢ to ship them, so with the drying and other tasks, it wasn't worth it. He junked them. The dressout is about 50 percent, which automatically doubles the price of the meat. Processing costs came to 6cents a pound, and the price to retailers was 60¢ a pound. The retail price in that area at that time was 89¢ a pound. (Frozen, shipped-in rabbit in Wisconsin commonly sells for $1.29 a pound.) Get the idea?
Rabbit raising as a commercial enterprise hasn't really gotten off the ground, anyplace. In France and Italy and other countries where production is far greater than in the United States, most rabbit meat is produced in the "homestead" fashion we're interested in. The operations are small, family units. In France, rabbit farmers can be found along the roads on summer evenings gathering grass for their animals. Table and garden scraps are common ration ingredients.
There are some large units in the United States and in England. The American rabbit industry is centered in Southern California, in the Ozarks, and there are sizeable markets in Southern Oregon and Florida. But new areas are emerging, and rabbit farming holds more promise today than at any period before.
So in addition to providing meat for the family table, there is always the possibility of expanding to a commercial farming unit. Most experts agree that it takes about 600 working does to provide a full-time job, or an adequate income.
To the uninitiated, a rabbit looks pretty much like any other rabbit. The dyed-in-the-wool fancier, however, through years of studying the Standard and rabbits themselves, can tell at a glance which rabbit is "better" than the next.
The rabbit farmer should fall somewhere between these two extremes. Unlike the true fancier (unless he becomes one, of course, which is entirely permissible; homesteaders are human too, and deserve to have a little fun—and even the fancy rabbit raisers have plenty of culls for the dinner table!), the homesteader shows little concern over what color a rabbit's toenails are, the size or placement of a spot of color, or the shape of an ear. On the other hand, no serious rabbit farmer, no matter how small, would dare say one rabbit is as good as any other. That would be like a horse breeder entering a ragpicker's nag in the Kentucky Derby, just because it's a horse.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is simply to point out that rabbits are livestock. Since their discovery in Spain by the Phoenicians about 1100 B.C., they have undergone tremendous changes, some of which are very important to the homesteader.
This process of selection is as interesting as it is important. Consider for a moment that in the beginning there was a wild European rabbit, Oryctolagus Cuniculous. It was somewhat small, brownish (more correctly called agouti), with long ears. The Romans kept these animals in walled gardens to protect them from their natural enemies. The meat was said to improve a woman's beauty, and the embryos were considered great delicacies.
But also, given the rabbit's productivity and man's proclivity to experiment, entirely new breeds were developed from Oryctolagus Cuniculous. This didn't really get underway until the latter part of the Middle Ages, when French monks started keeping rabbits in protected surroundings and began breeding them selectively.
Natural mutations had presumably always occurred, but without selective breeding, the mutations were lost. With selective breeding, not only was the larger rabbit able to produce larger than normal young, to take just one trait, but the process could be carried on until it reached its natural limits, and rabbits of 20 pounds and more were being raised.
Today there are more than 75 varieties of rabbit descended from the wild European one. They bear no resemblance at all to the wild American rabbits. The domestic rabbit has all white meat which is delicately flavored, while the wild rabbits and hares (which are still something else) have dark meat which is usually "gamey" tasting.
Domestic rabbits come in mature weights of from two and one half pounds (the Netherland Dwarf) to 15 pounds and up (Flemish Giants). They come in practically every fur color imaginable, and some combinations that are pretty hard to imagine! (For example, the Harlequin, which in one color scheme has a head that is black on one side and orange on the other, a black ear on the orange side of the face and an orange ear on the black side, one front leg orange and the other black, and the hind legs just the reverse of the front. To add to the breeders' challenge, they must have hazel eyes, and white toenails are a disqualification!) Domestic rabbits are bred with long ears and relatively short ears, with arched bodies, compact bodies, and snakey bodies.
Ah, but you say, you're only interested in a few rabbits to eat. Isn't any rabbit edible, and if so, does it make any difference which breed you choose, just so it's big and meaty?
That's the whole point. Through genetics, animals can be molded to meet specific needs or desired goals. Just as the corn or tomatoes you plant in your garden bear no resemblance to the wild crops man first domesticated, and just as there are different breeds of plants to meet different needs—Roma tomatoes and the Beefsteak varieties, or field corn, pop corn, and sweet corn—the rabbits you choose to raise will bear no resemblance to the wild rabbits they descended from and certainly not to the wild American rabbit with which they have no connection.
So, if all you want is good meat for your own table, what breed of rabbit do you look for? Contrary to widespread popular opinion, the biggest isn't always the best. The 15-to 20-pound Flemish Giant is too often the first breed that attracts the attention of the potential rabbit farmer. Size alone is no criteria. The Flemish Giants are certainly edible, but their lack of fine bone and their heavy pelts as compared to the "commercial" breeds means you're putting feed into them that will not be converted to meat, but to waste. (The term "dressout percentage" applies to the percentage of edible meat to offal, which is the head, feet, and hide). Larger breeds take longer to mature, which means you feed prospective breeding stock longer before getting them into production. They also eat more. The Flemish aren't as productive as certain other breeds, again, because they simply haven't been bred for it.
We also hear a great deal about the Belgian Hare. (Actually, it is not a true hare at all, but a rabbit. Hares are larger than rabbits, their hind legs are longer, they do not have their young in underground burrows like true rabbits, and the newborn have a full coat of hair and open eyes when born, while rabbits are born blind and naked.) Interest in Belgian Hares dates back to the early 1900's, when some promoters with Belgian Hares to sell started an honest-to-goodness boom that's still remembered today. Fantastic prices were paid for Belgians (and even for some wild rabbits—to many people, a rabbit was a rabbit). Fortunes were made. But the poor people who bought their rabbits soon discovered that Belgians weren't bred for meat production; they are strictly show animals. And when the bubble burst, those fortunes were lost even faster than they had been made.
So we still hear about Belgian Hares, and there are still plenty of con artists around trying to duplicate that Belgian Hare boom with their offers of unbelievable profits raising rabbits.
As a matter of fact, the type of rabbit we, as homesteaders, are looking for, wasn't developed until after the Belgian Hare episode. A few breeders who truly believed in the rabbit stuck with it after the crash, and more than that, they set to work to develop the kind of rabbit they thought was needed to produce meat efficiently. The Belgian Hare was part of the foundation stock, but what they came up with was the New Zealand, and later and more important, the New Zealand White.
The New Zealand is by far the most popular rabbit in America today. The American Federation of New Zealand Rabbit Breeders is far and away the largest specialty club in the country, and one-third of all rabbits registered with the American Rabbit Breeders Association are New Zealands. Commercial rabbitries raise either New Zealand Whites or Californians, with New Zealands far in the lead. The reasons for the New Zealand's popularity are many and varied, but they should prove to any doubter that a rabbit is not just a rabbit!
Being bred for production, commercial-type rabbits have obvious advantages for the homesteader. The fancier looks for one or two good babies in a litter; the meat farmer needs seven or eight uniform ones. The fancier doesn't want to push his stock—four litters a year is fine. The farmer wants five, or six, or even seven (and some people who are in the business for money push their herds even harder than that). The farmer wants good dress-out. Belgian Hares can't be depended upon to deliver these objectives, nor can Flemish Giants, nor most of the other "fancy" breeds.
This means that the commercial rabbit has the stamina and vigor to raise large, healthy litters; the does are good milk producers; the animals have the correct body type to put the meat where it counts; and objectionable yellow fat has been bred out of the strain, as well as many common ailments and other faults that would cut into profits. In short, you have what is called the Hereford of the rabbit world: an animal bred for a specific purpose.
Incidentally, it's interesting to note that many people new to rabbit-raising are still interested in a market for furs, or they assume that rabbit furs are valuable. New Zealand Whites and Californians (which are white except for black foot and head markings which don't reach the pelt) were bred in white simply because of the fur market. Many processors who bought rabbits from producers paid a premium for white furs because they were worth more. They could be dyed any color, and most rabbit fur was used for trim. The fur market just about went out the window with the decline in popularity of fur and the advent of imitation furs for the small market that remained. The final blow was the drastic reduction in the manufacture of felt hats, which were made from rabbit skins. Today, most processors burn the pelts. In 1972, the price they got for a skin was less than the shipping cost.
Excerpted from Raising Small Livestock by Jerome D. Belanger. Copyright © 2002 Jerome D. Belanger. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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