Chicken farming may be in vogue, but raising rabbits can be a worthwhile endeavor as well

Our family always had chickens when I was growing up. When I was off on my own I missed the messy little critters. I wintered a pair in my basement. The rooster would crow 20 times every morning when he thought it was supposed to get light. That’s what convinced me to get some rabbits.

I forget who it was, but somebody who wanted to get back at me for something I said or did gave me a pair of bunnies. I let them loose in the yard and went off to the Yukon Delta to fish for king salmon. I’m not sure how many rabbits there were in the yard when fishing was over for the season; a good guess was in excess of 50. The owls got some, my neighbors took a few, we ate some … and there were more.

Eventually there were only two, and both were males. That’s how one gets out of the bunny business. If you believe what you read on the internet, it will say that a single pair of rabbits left loose and unattended — with no predators — could multiply to a million in four years’ time. That seems a bit far-fetched, but the point made; there would be an awful lot of rabbits.

Alaska’s wild breed, snowshoe hares, periodically have population explosions. Hares and rabbits are not the same animal, but breeding habits are similar. Hares and rabbits cannot be cross-bred. Baby hares, called leverets, are born with hair and are mobile as soon as they are born. Rabbits, called kits, are born hairless and helpless. They don’t move around on their own until a couple weeks of age. They wean at 4-5 weeks. Female rabbits are sexually mature in 3-8 months depending on the breed. Larger breeds take longer to mature.

Hares are not mature until the following year; however, in Alaska, females may have four litters per summer. The average litter size is four. One female equals 16 baby hares. Female rabbits and female hares can get pregnant almost immediately after giving birth. This is not a recommended procedure with domestic rabbits as it extremely hard on the female, but it can happen.

Hares and rabbits are both quite good eating. Hares have a tendency to be stronger in flavor and a bit on the stringy side, especially if over-cooked. Domestic rabbits have meat texture very similar to chicken. The breeds developed especially for meat tend to have heavy loins and well-developed hindquarters. The top meat breeds, Californians, New Zealands, Champagne D’Argents and Silver Fox, have an excellent meat-to-bone ratio. They also grow extremely fast, reaching five pounds live weight in 10 weeks.

Rabbits are an extremely cost-effective source of protein. About 85% of their feed consists of hay. Commercial rabbit pellets are a good supplement to the hay, as are barley and oats. Rabbits take little space and are easy to manage. A 3-foot-by-3-foot cage will suffice, or they can be free-ranged as long as the bucks are kept separate. Should you choose to colony raise your rabbits, and don’t want to lose them, the pen needs to have wire — 1-inch chicken wire works — laid flat and covered with dirt all along your fence line. This will keep the rabbits from digging out. If you have an open top on your outside pen, it would be best to be sure to close the rabbits in at night or horned owls will have a field day.

The majority of Alaska rabbits are raised as pets. They tame easily and can be house-trained. However, there is a growing interest in meat rabbits. The meat rabbit industry is rather under the radar. Most people might have a couple females and a single buck. Several litters a year may be raised by a family for food. We know one family who raises rabbits to feed their small dogs.

Rabbit is increasing in popularity as a meat source. It is perfectly suited for the small producer and backyard farmer. However, rabbit production has a long, long way to go to compete with the chicken market. Consider that 8 billion chickens were eaten in the U.S. last year; compare that with 2 million rabbits.

We have 40-odd rabbits in our garage at the present time. One of our daughters decided to venture into commercial rabbit production. Remember when your kid wanted a baby bunny — and you kept having to remind them, “Did you feed the bunny this morning?” We went through that for several years. It is like teaching a beagle to count; it takes a lot of perseverance. But, when the light comes on, you may have just developed an entrepreneur.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.