Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Suburban Livestock: Rabbits vs. Chickens

Almost since the day we bought our house, Deus Ex Machina and I have raised rabbits for meat. 

I guess not, really, since the day, but about a year after we purchased our house, a friend of the family, who knew that we hoped to be more self-sufficient, had some rabbits she was looking to rehome.  She knew that we intended to raise rabbits for meat, and she just said she didn't want to know what happened to them.

We had no idea what gender our new rabbits were or really anything about how to care for rabbits.  What we knew was that there were three of them. 

We built a hutch out of old pallets and some hardware cloth. 

They over wintered in their new hutch.

In the spring we discovered we had two males and a female ... and a litter of kits (baby rabbits).

Two months later, we had twenty-two rabbits. 

We built a couple more hutches.

We learned that butchering rabbits is hard.

Fast forward eight years, and I'm at the feed store buying rabbit feed.  It's spring, and they have baby chicks.  I'm not sure exactly what happened.  It's kind of a blur, actually, but when I got home, there was a cage with a heat light, a chick waterer and feeder, some chick starter feed, and three little fluffy chicks of undetermined breed in my office. 

My daughters were completely smitten.

Deus Ex Machina was not quite so enthralled.

Five years later, after much learning and very conscious decision making,  each spring, I fill out three or four order forms for a dozen straight-run Cornish Cross meat birds to be picked up at two to four week intervals over the course of the summer.

We've been raising both rabbits and chickens for a very long time, and both definitely have their merits and draw-backs.

Raising Rabbits

Rabbits are quiet, don't take up a lot of space, and are pretty easy to care for. 

In fact, they are pretty ideally suited for a small space protein production animal.  One doe can produce four litters a year, although depending on one's set-up and where one lives, there will be certain times of the year when one might not want to breed one's doe. 

In Maine in the winter, if not properly housed, newborn kits can freeze to death, but only if the mom doesn't provide them a proper nest.  I've had rabbits kindle in the bitterest of cold days, and the babies were just fine, because the mom had a good nesting area filled with hay and she made an awesome nest with fur she pulled. 

In the south, the risk of losing rabbits due to overheating is a real issue. 

Optimally, the doe will produce two litters per year - one in the spring and one in the fall.

A rabbit's gestation is about four weeks (and just like human gestation, this will vary by doe).    The average sized litter is five.  The best time to butcher a rabbit is between eight and twelve weeks. 

One of the first questions most people ask when it comes to breeding rabbits for meat is "Do I need a particular breed of rabbit?"

For me, the answer was no.  All rabbits are edible, but it's like the difference between Cornish Game Hens and a standard sized chicken.  There's a desired ROI when it comes to just about everything, and the larger the breed, the more meat.

That said, a larger breed requires more maintenance (more feed, larger housing).   We tried raising a meat breed (New Zealand Reds), but we didn't have better luck with the meat rabbits than we did with just what some breeders call "meat mutts."

For us, the best rabbit is a medium to large rabbit of a non-specified breed (make sure the doe is larger than the buck, though, or she may have trouble kindling).  These rabbits will weigh around 3 lbs. 

In short, a single doe, bred twice a year, with an average of five babies each time will yield 30 lbs. of meat per year.  Five does can provide enough meat for one person for a year.

I won't include a bunch of nutritional information about rabbit meat which can easily be found with a quick google search, but I will say that it is the best meat with regard to overall nutritional value.  There is some concern regarding "rabbit starvation", but it actually would never be an issue for us suburban homesteaders.  Rabbit starvation occurs when rabbit is the primary or only source of nutrition, and the excess of protein consumed in the absence of fat and other nutrients can, literally, starve the body.  As long as one is eating other things (vegetables from the garden, olive oil bought in bulk from the grocery store, etc.), rabbit starvation is not an issue.

The hardest part about raising rabbits is making sure they have a proper diet.  We feed our rabbits a diet of mostly commercial pellets (#16) and hay.  Their diet is supplemented with kitchen scraps and some foraged greens from around our yard.  Rabbits love clover, maple leaves, raspberry leaf, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke stalk, and  a number of other leafy greens. 

It is possible to forage all of your rabbits' food.  It's also possible to feed one's rabbits using kitchen scraps, and we've even given our rabbits whole grain bread (in VERY limited quantities, and mostly just as a "treat").  In short, depending on one's circumstances, after the initial purchase, rabbits can also be a really cheap livestock. 

Extra benefits of raising rabbits

Rabbits have the absolute BEST manure.  It can go straight from the hutch to the garden with no composting necessary.  Chicken manure, which is very high in nitrogen, can burn tender plants if it isn't composted first. 

Rabbits have fur.  Raising rabbits opens up a potential income source.  If one raises any one of the several long-haired (or Angora) breeds, there is the potential to spin the fur into yarn.  Angora fur is amazingly soft, and it's waterproof.  The yarn can be used to make any knit items. 

In addition, regular old meat mutts also have hides that can be tanned and sold.  A good tanned rabbit hide sells for between $5 and $12 depending on the venue.  For the crafty, the hides can be turned into mittens, hats, blankets, slippers, and muk luks for babies (rabbit hides are very thin and wouldn't hold up well as moccasins for people who need sturdy foot coverings).  The link is to a hat on Amazon (yes, it's an affiliate link, but it's just to show what can be done and what the value of such a product would be).  Check out this DIY rabbit fur hat. We have a few tanned hides that need a purpose.  I love these hats. 

Rabbit's feet can be easily preserved (by soaking in rubbing alcohol, rinsing, and then soaking in a Borax solution) and made into key rings or other novelty items. 

Rabbits can be sold as pets.  While it wouldn't be optimum for one to be selling one's food as someone else's pet, sometimes when there was a particularly large litter, or a few of the babies end up with some really cool genetic traits (finer hair, nice coloring), those rabbits might make a nice addition to someone else's family.  I don't sell pet rabbits, but other backyard rabbit enthusiasts do.

In short:

1.  Rabbits are quiet.  In a suburban setting, one could have dozens of rabbits and the neighbors need never know. 

2.  Rabbits don't need a lot of space.  In her book, Possum Living, Dolly Freed shares that she and her father raised rabbits in their basement.  Setting up something similar in a garage or basement would be easy.

3.  Rabbits are a nutritionally dense meat.

4.  Rabbits don't cost a lot to maintain. 

4.  Rabbits offer some value-added benefits, like amazing fertilizer for the garden.

5.  Rabbits can provide an additional source of income without cutting into one's food supply (i.e. one can make money from raising rabbits without having to sell rabbits as food).

6.  AND, rabbits are a self-sustaining meat source.  That is, they make their own babies.

The one, major, drawback for raising rabbits for meat is almost wholly cultural.  In this country, we are conditioned to see rabbits as pets.  In fact, in many circles rabbits are equal to dogs and cats.  No one is about to suggest that we start raising dogs for food.  That would be barbaric!

It is important to be well aware of that when one considers raising rabbits for food.  Caution when discussing one's choice of livestock with new acquaintances and even some old friends  is well-advised.

Raising Meat Chickens

Raising backyard chickens for eggs has been gaining momentum like an avalanche on Mt. Everest.  It's all the rage these days - so much so, in fact, that I read an article cautioning suburbanites from growing too enamored of their backyard flocks.  The message was that chickens carry salmonella.  Don't kiss them or you might get sick. 

Um ... okay??

I'm going to be completely honest.  I love my chickens, but I'm not gonna kiss them.  Seriously.  Eww!

But they are pretty awesome.  They're quirky and silly.  They have great personalities,  and every single one of them is completely unique in her own right.  There's nothing quite so amusing as going out into the backyard carrying the compost bucket and having the chickens run up to us to find out what treat we have for them.

Everyone knows that chickens for eggs = good. 

The question I was asked to explore, however, was the benefits of raising chickens for meat versus raising rabbits for meat, and so, while I could spend many pages discussing the amazing world of backyard laying hens, I will defer that discussion to another day and focus mainly on raising chicken for meat.

There are dozens and dozens of chicken breeds.  Some breeds are specifically geared toward egg production (Rhode Island Reds, for instance, is a popular laying hen for people who live in Maine).  Some breeds are considered "multi-purpose."  Buff Orpingtons are a heavier breed that has a decent egg production, but is also meaty enough for a meal or two.  There are also some heritage breeds of chicken that were specifically bred for meat, like the Freedom Ranger. 

The most popular meat breed, however is the Cornish Cross.  It's the breed that we raise here at Chez Brown.  It's also the breed that is used in factory farms that supply chicken to the grocery stores. 

The Cornish Cross breed is much maligned.  There are some pretty serious and tragic health issues with Cornish Cross chickens.  They were bred to have very large breasts, which means that sometimes, they get so top-heavy that their legs can support them, and they end up with splayed legs and can't walk.  Resting on their heavy breasts can cause asphyxiation. 

But contrary to popular opinion and in my experience having done this for almost a decade, the Cornish Cross chickens are not completely stupid.  A common term for them is "meat blobs", and the general consensus is that they just lay around all day eating and pooping. 

In a commercial growing facility (a.k.a. factory farm), these chickens are sickly, both because of the way they were bred, but also because of they way they live - with thousands of birds housed in an inadequate space with little air flow and no access to the outside.

By contrast, my meat birds have full access to my entire back yard, which isn't big, but it's big enough for the birds to forage on grass and weeds, chase bugs, take dirt baths, and hide in the Jerusalem Artichoke forest.   In short, because there are only a dozen of them out there at a time, they get to live like chickens. 

And they ARE chickens.  We had one rooster who liked to drink out of the water hose.  This summer, we had one hen who could fly.  They aren't supposed to be able to fly.  We kept her and named her Echappee, which means "escape" in French, because that's what she did - literally, when she flew out of the tractor on butchering day, and then again when we decided to keep her and she "escaped" the visit to Freezer Camp.  At first when we put her in with the other hens, who relentlessly attacked her, we second-guessed our decision, but she's starting to integrate, and she should start laying eggs in a month or two.  I don't even know what color of egg Cornish Cross chickens lay.  Most of the time they never make it that far. 

What's super awesome about raising chickens is the ROI. 

1.  From brooder to butcher takes about ten weeks - eight if we're in a hurry and don't mind them being smaller; twelve if we forget to call and schedule an appointment with the butcher.  We try not to go beyond twelve weeks, though, because the meat can be a little tougher on the older birds, especially if the roosters are starting to get "mature" (and we know that it's happening when they start crowing).

2.  A dozen ten-week old chickens puts between 45 lbs and 80 lbs of meat in our freezer.

3.  One chicken is three meals - or more of we stretch it.  That's three, FULL meals for my family of four.  A sample menu might look like:   

Day 1:  Roast chicken.  Chicken is seasoned with salt, pepper, cumin, Thyme, and garlic powder (maybe some other stuff or different stuff).  I stuff the cavity with fresh herbs and garlic and then add about a 1/4 c. of cooking wine. 

Day 2:  Chicken tacos or fried rice with chicken.  We pick the chicken off the bones and mix it seasonings for tacos or add it to a pan with egg, sautéed vegetables and rice

Day 3:  Soup.  Boil the bones for broth.  Add potatoes or other vegetables.  Pick any chicken left on the bones and add it to the soup. 

Depending on the size of the breasts and/or how much meat we want to eat at each meal, a single chicken could make four or five meals. 

Plus, Deus Ex Machina will take at least one lunch featuring the chicken to work. 

Basically, one chicken can be as many as 20 servings. 

Unlike rabbits, there really aren't any side benefits to meat birds.  We don't save the feathers, and in fact, Cornish Cross chickens don't really have a lot of feathers.  The feet and offal can be saved, too, and used for food, but there's no equivalent to rabbit hides for money-making opportunities.  We could save and resell the feathers, but the customer base for chicken feathers is probably pretty small. 

Chicken manure can be used as a wonderful fertilizer, but it has to be composted first.  So, it's not as great as rabbit manure in that regard.

The one benefit of chicken over rabbit is purely cultural and that is that no one except staunch non-meat eaters will criticize raising chicken for meat.

An additional benefit, for us, is that we have a local butcher who will take care of the meat chickens for us at a cost of $5 per bird.  We take live birds to him and go back the next day to pick up frozen chicken.

That option was not available to us for our rabbits, necessitating our learning to butcher them ourselves.

And that's the last point.  The learning curve for keeping chickens versus keeping rabbits was a bit steeper for the latter, because when we were given those first three rabbits all of those years ago, we didn't know how to humanely kill a rabbit.  I had never skinned or eviscerated an animal.  I'd never scraped and tanned a hide.  I didn't know the first thing about preserving the rabbits' feet (and we made a lot of really smelly mistakes on that one).  Heck, I didn't even know how to cook rabbit.

I didn't know how to do most of those things with chickens, either (I did know how to cook chicken), but the point is, in the beginning, I didn't have to know for the chickens, because someone else did know and did it for me. 

Finally, rabbits excel in one final area where the chickens will fall short, and that's with regard to sustainability.  Rabbits breed like, well, rabbits!  All you need is one of each gender, and voila!  Babies.  Boy rabbits are just as quiet as girl rabbits. 

By contrast, roosters are not quiet.  For that matter, neither are the hens, and every morning, my neighbors know when one of my hens has laid her daily egg.  She's very proud of it, and like Walt Whitman, she wishes to " ... sound her Barbaric YAWP ... " or cackle or whatever it's called. 

It's loud. 

But not as loud as a rooster, I guess. 

Anyway, I don't have roosters.

So, I don't have baby chickens.

I have both male and female rabbits, and so I can have baby rabbits.

From a sustainability point of view and from an economic point of view, rabbits are the better choice for suburban meat production. 

The only drawback, as I've already said, is our cultural bias against eating certain kinds of meat.  If one can get beyond that, rabbits are absolutely the better of the two. 


  1. I too love my chickens. But no. I wouldn't kiss them either lol
    I have thought about having rabbits for extra meat. Just for a change and to help with balancing the budget.
    We are lucky that we have weathered the storms of life and are comfortable right now. But you just never know what the future holds and I alsways like trying my hand at new things
    You have given us lots of information. Thank you

  2. Exactly what I was looking for Wendy, thank you.

  3. This is an excellent post. Great rabbit information-- the French are very keen on rabbit. I'm very interested in doing chickens for meat; I have 4 laying hens currently, and lately have been getting pullets at Andy's Ag. Usually a Buff.x RI red cross. I raised Buff.s once from dayolds but they were not any friendlier than these pullets. I let the neighborhood kids name them.
    As I am reunited with my laptop, will be able to go back and read your other posts in this series. Hope all is going well!

  4. Thanks for this; I am vacillating between rabbits and chickens...I eat more eggs than I do meat, but rabbits have other benefits. No goats in your future? I want goats..they eat poison ivy, and I am crazy allergic to it. There's a lot of it down here in Ga. Milk makes cheese, too, and the right goats have spin-able fur for yarn. Another source of income (for rabbits and goats) is knitted things.