It’s no secret that I used to raise rabbits for 4-H and FFA. I spent five years thinking, dreaming, and breathing rabbits. I was addicted. During those five years, I actively raised three breeds while dabbling in others here and there. I am a complete rabbit nerd. Despite having been away from the rabbit trade for about three years (I developed an allergy and sold out) I still consider rabbits an obsession of mine.
(Only I would have an obsession with an animal I can’t touch or be around for more than a few minutes without having an asthma attack.)
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about rabbits. I’ve been thinking about their lack of popularity as a mainstream food source. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the vast potential that rabbits could have in third-world regions. When I say “economics” of rabbits, I mean as a resource. I am not going to discuss money here, as currency fluctuates frequently and by place. However, rabbits, as a breeding population and commodity, have an economic value of their own. That, and I’m horrible with actual numbers.
Let’s break this down.
The common meat breeds in the U.S. are New Zealands (which I used to raise), Californians, Palominos, American Chinchillas, Satins, French Lops, Creme d’Argents and Champagne d’Argents. All of these rabbits have a very similar body type; they’re 10-12 lbs. These are “chunky” breeds, with a heavier bone build and full muscling. The best outstanding quality about these breeds is that they all have a strong loin section, which run the entire length of the back. These rabbits also have higher rate of gain than other breeds of comparable size. These rabbits are designated as “commercial breeds.” These commercial breeds are on the larger end of the spectrum (but tend to have better meat type than some of their largest relatives like low-shouldered Flemish Giants and hare-shaped breeds like Rhinelanders and Checkered Giants).
They breed like rabbits.
I’ve seen one female New Zealand raise up to 13 kits to weaning age. A low-productivity doe (female rabbit) may only “throw” two or three kits. The average for these breeds, though, tend to be six to eight kits per litter. This size of rabbit gestation has a period of 28-31 days. A female rabbit can go into heat within weeks of kindling (giving birth). The recommended weaning age for rabbits is approximately seven weeks of age. So, with that in mind a single female rabbit can have a litter of kits once every two or three months months (although, that’s a faster turnaround than you would generally see in the U.S., especially in the showing community).
A female can start breeding at six months of age and will continue to be fertile for years.
So, what about the meat?
The peak quality age for butchering these rabbits is the “fryer” stage, which tends to be around eight to 10 weeks of age. While this gets you the most tender meat, you can allow the rabbits to continue growing and gaining significantly longer. Rabbits of this sort tend to be fully matured around eight months old, and still retain some youthful tenderness up until about the time they’re a year-ish old. After the one-year mark, rabbit can be easily broken down for use in slow-cooking, high-moisture recipes.
So, in essence, you can butcher a rabbit almost right after weaning or wait as long as you need to. Either way, you’ll still still get a good return. (The younger ones have less meat of a higher quality. The older ones will have much more meat that won’t be quite as versatile.)
Let’s discuss the nutrition of rabbit meat.
I could go on and on about the ways that rabbit meat is beneficial. Instead, enjoy this lovely assortment of charts, graphics, and additional infographics about rabbit meat here. It’s a third-party site with no vested interest in rabbit production, and as far as my knowledge it is incredibly accurate.
Rabbit has a lot to offer the world.
It’s hard to deny the massive potential rabbits have as a food source in developing countries. Rabbits have been thriving in less-than-ideal environments for centuries, and are versatile, adaptive and low-maintenance enough to do well in just about any setting. If this is the case, why isn’t it a more popular food source in the U.S.?
For starters, rabbits are cute. Much like horses, U.S. culture has designated rabbits as a companion animal and large portions of the population consider it unethical to eat them. Another reason is that, as rabbit has become less commonplace as an everyday protein source, it has stayed fairly acceptable in higher-end dining. The combination of the public’s lack of interest, as well as the culinary world’s promotion of rabbit as a “fancy” dish means that it has virtually no place in the American food system.
What about in places where nutritious food is harder to obtain? What about the places where the stigma of “cute” animals doesn’t stop people from seizing opportunities for quality nutrition. Well, maybe this blog post can be the first step toward raising awareness for this easily-multiplied, easily-maintained, and easily-obtained food source, both in prosperous countries.