Keeping and breeding rabbits makes a lot of sense.
As a modern First World person, it makes sense to me, because rabbits are of low ecological footprint, their meat is recognized as being very healthy, and it’s one food source that I can control and know exactly what went into the production of.
As a responsible person who values sustainability, it makes sense to me, because on top of the above, it also allows me to cut out several commercial steps and processes, resulting in a product that also saves fuel miles, machinery energy consumption, and saves having to destroy kilometers of natural land to make way for the bunnies.
As a prepper who wants to know I can survive some possible disaster scenarios, it makes sense to me, because it’s something I can do “right here and now” as a practical survival skill that isn’t socially unacceptable and which will thus be in place already if some disaster scenario does take place.
That last bit about the being “socially acceptable” is important in my philosophy. If / when there’s some disastrous event, I don’t want to learn just then how to survive on my garden produce, nor have to suddenly learn how to switch all my recipes from beef to rabbit. I don’t suddenly want to find out how hard it is to hunt critters, or how difficult it is to have to care for, dispatch, and dress rabbits at a time when my life could very well depend on it.
This is where rabbits come into their own. Society accepts pet rabbits far better than they do a flock of chickens with a noisy rooster, or a couple of rambunctious goats. Rabbits don’t make a lot of noise, aside from thumping, most of the mundane world are okay with you having cute little fluffy bunnies, and in general you can keep this sort of operation low key enough that no-one will complain here and now, or even think of you after a SHTF event.
There won’t be time to ramp up production if something happens. A SHTF event won’t signal itself politely and give us a three months heads-up to start breeding rabbits. And that’s enough reason for me – to always have enough rabbits breeding that I have a supply of meat protein. But as they say in all the best commercials, “wait! – there’s more!”
Rabbit is one of the healthier meats around. Some trawling of rabbit farming websites turns up that rabbit meat is high in protein percentage, (good) and lower in fat and calories than chicken. (Bad for survival – but can be corrected, as I’ll explain in a future article.) So right here and now, you’ll have some healthy meat that may cost you only a few dollars a kilo to produce, depending on your feedstuff availability. And that money saved on buying more expensive meats, can go towards your prepping, right now.
I already know that my main sources of meat proteins are going to be rabbits, poultry, and fish, with beef or mutton or venison or kangaroo as my occasional red meats when I can buy / barter for / hunt them. But there’s already always a steady flow of food happening already, and I wouldn’t miss the beef and other meats for a few months while I sort out trade and barter. In the meantime, my supply of rabbit would hardly falter.
The quality of feed I can give to rabbits is lower than what I would need to feed to cattle or sheep. That means that things like dry leaves and branches and weeds are all fair feed for rabbits, as are many vegetable scraps and trimmings and leftover grass hay etc. Also, making a “rabbit tractor” means I can semi-free-range my rabbits and keep weed populations under control.
Rabbits = More Than Just Good Meat
The reasons don’t stop there. Rabbit by-products are all valuable. The major internal organs are amongst the best-flavored in the small animal group. Livers, kidneys, and hearts are tops for flavor, and contain a high percentage of trace elements and goodies.
The heads and skeletons are great for the dogs, also the brains are good for cats and help keep their night vision sharp. The skins can have a variety of uses, from the obvious scraping and tanning, to less obvious like turning them into a very strong construction glue.
Back for a moment to the feeding angle. Because rabbits are lagomorphs not rodents, they don’t create a problem in the house as rats might, because rabbits won’t come looking for the same sorts of foods if they somehow escape. This also means that they can eat some things that the cattle or sheep might balk at or not eat at all. They have a unique digestive system which I’ll also explain next, and that’s the reason for the next valuable by-product of rabbits, their poop.
Lets Talk Poo
Healthy rabbits produce an almost dry “bunny berry” which is extremely good for use as a direct fertilizer on plants. Because of the way a rabbit’s digestive system works, their manure won’t burn roots or stems, meaning you apply it directly to the garden bed. Of course, there are other uses for it, which I’ll cover later. It’s great for the chickens to forage in, it promotes worm breeding in the soil, and it comes with its own inbuilt “agricultural lime” to sweeten the soil which otherwise tends to become slightly acidic from manure decomposition by-products.
The rabbit’s digestive system is extremely fast compared to similar sized animals. That means that their food goes through them very quickly. It’s why they should be fed a lot of fiber, because any slowdown or blockage will have disastrous effects on their health. Their guts are extremely good at recovering water from their foodstuffs, and they have very specific bacteria in their stomachs and guts that help them extract the nutrients from their food and store it in the other part of their guts, the cecum.
So the majority of their food goes through them quite quickly, and ends up in the form of those dry “bunny berries” that we’re used to seeing. Because of the speed of this passage though there’s a rather difficult problem for the rabbit. All the bacteria get swept along with the food, and they haven’t time enough in the main gut to multiply and colonize. A rabbit without gut bacteria could be eating like crazy, and yet slowly starve to death because it can’t get all the nutrients from the food.
And the cecum holds the solution. There, the beneficial components of food that weren’t extracted on the main pass through are collected, and the bacteria have time to regenerate and repopulate. It’s a perfect system, except that those beneficial nutrients and bacteria can’t get back upstream to the fore-gut where they’re needed.
But rabbits have got that sussed too. You may occasionally notice that there are sticky clumps of what looks like smaller bunny berries all stuck together in the pens. These don’t mean the rabbit is unwell, they’re the solution to how the rabbit gets all that nutrition and bacteria back into the upper digestive system. Loaded with live bacteria and all the minerals, vitamins, and other goodies that didn’t get extracted on the first pass through, rabbits eat these so-called “cecotrophs” (or “cecotropes”) as soon as they produce them, and that keeps their gut full of beneficial flora.
This is also why you rarely see these sticky lumps in the rabbit pen, because they re-ingest them right from their anus and only leave some on the floor of the pen if they’re A) over-fed and in the pink of health and don’t need any extra vitamins and minerals, B) leaving them for their new kittens to eat or C) sick. In this last case, you’ll see other signs of illness – the animal “moon-gazing” or swinging its head or not very active or not eating properly. Thing is, you rarely see cecotropes so I’m just telling you this to give you a heads-up – most of the time, seeing these is a good thing.
That’s also why scouring is deadly to rabbits – they can’t re-ingest liquid runny feces and cecotropes, so they can’t refresh their gut bacteria. Not having gut bacteria means they can’t digest most of the nutrition of their feed, and gives them even more scouring. And that vicious cycle is generally the end of a rabbit. (Although, I have nursed several rabbits through scours, but that’s for another day.)
Rabbits also have a unique body chemistry in that they have (and need) calcium levels that would kill most other animals, pound for pound. When you see rabbit urine, you notice that it is generally cloudy with a lot of dissolved reddish-orange solids. That’s normal for a rabbit, they excrete calcium in their urine. That calcium is what makes rabbit manure so good, because it sweetens the soil.
If chickens are allowed to forage under a well constructed rabbit pen system, then they will always have ample calcium levels for forming egg shells from eating scraps soaked in this urine. It won’t hurt the poultry and will in fact contribute to their health. And they’ll get the benefit of flies, bugs, and worms in the manure layer, and their own droppings will “mellow” in with the rabbit droppings so that they can all be used directly on the garden.
(However, don’t allow the chickens to get above the rabbit pens where they could potentially crap into the pen, because most bird excrement contains coccidiosis which is a nasty parasite that rabbits are particularly susceptible to, and it’s almost always fatal. For the same reason, don’t let rabbits forage in an area that poultry have used in the last month, don’t let poultry get into feed stuff you plan to feed to rabbits, and don’t keep rabbits on the bottom of bird cages and aviaries unless they’ve been thoroughly cleaned and there have been no birds living in that spot for a month or two. This applies to most birds and poultry, just don’t mix the two.)
I’ve used the trimmings from dressing out rabbits (gut, other organs, etc) to breed maggots for fish feed for my aquaponics system, it’s all good protein, and by processing it through the form of maggots, that isolates any potential for cross-species diseases that might otherwise develop. The maggots are also a good feed supplement for chickens to increase their egg laying capacity.
Ahh yes…their reproductive benefits….
There are a few more benefits to rabbits. Breeding to table times can be as short as three months at a pinch, or you can do what I do and let them grow until one is required for consumption, and keep maintaining the rest. This is how you avoid needing a large amount of refrigerated / cooled space for food storage. And that keeps energy bills down in the here and now, and is one less thing you’d have to worry about post SHTF.
Rabbits benefit from space to exercise and build healthy muscle tissue, but they can also be kept in limited spaces. The number of ways that rabbits have been raised and kept in other times and other cultures is impressive, and gives you a wide scope for how you want to go about it, how much space and resources you devote to them. This also makes them a good prep animal, and means you can have a fairly large operation in a small garage or shed.
They don’t require a huge amount of maintenance, twice daily feedings and observations are quick and easy to do, and will ensure you get decent results. If you’re prepared to invest at least that much time and resources into the rabbits, the results will be good, if you take a bit more, they’ll be even better.
Rabbits are a great resource if they are the sole animal you keep, but they fit into schemes with other animals and food sources quite easily and this multiplies the benefits. By exploiting “follow-on” effects and synergies, you can milk your every resource for as much useful output as possible.
An added bonus for me has been that people like them for pets. While there’s no major catastrophe on the horizon, that means you can sell some of the little guys on the pet market. In the “right here and now” while we have some leeway, that means that you have a source of some small amount of income. For me, it means that a rabbit that I would have had to feed for sixteen or seventeen weeks can be off my expenses list after eight to ten weeks. That’s a saving of six to ten weeks worth of feed right there.
Also, as a pet, the animal is worth $10 to $50 depending on what local market you have for them. If you grow the animal to table size, then turn off, clean and dress them and sell as table rabbit, they are worth a bare $10 – $15.
So it makes sense to me to sell as many as early as I can, for as much money as I can, because that allows me to essentially turn a few of my rabbits into other much-needed prep supplies. And the most important result is that I will always have some rabbits mating, some kindling, some growing, and some grown ready to process. If the SHTF tomorrow, I could have a rabbit or two a week without any disruption to my supply, just by stopping selling them.
By pacing my breeding pretty close to what I estimate I’d need for full production, I’m already aware of the rhythm of the rabbit shed, I’m used to turning off and processing them, and it’s one less thing I have to worry about learning about if anything happens.
So that’s some of the major reasons for keeping rabbits right now. They’re cheap to house, don’t make noise or take up much space, they produce useful output for quite low inputs and do so within a very short time frame, and they could already be helping you be a little more prepared. Next article I cover why it makes more sense to farm them than hunt them, and what to feed them.