This will be the last post in our series on how we manage our meat rabbits here at Willow Creek Farm. We have discussed Housing and Feeding, Buying and Breeding, Kindling, and Birth to Weaning. Now I will share how we wean and grow-out our rabbits.
We begin weaning our rabbits at 6 weeks of age. Like anything with raising rabbits, there are many opinions on the subject and you can find some people who wean as early as 4 weeks old and some who wean as late as 8. We choose to wean at 6 weeks because it gives the kits a little more time with their mother but doesn’t take from our ability to re-breed her and have her on to her next litter (we re-breed at 5 weeks as long as the doe is in good condition, so she will have one week of pregnancy while at the same time still nursing kits).
We wean gradually over a 4 day period. We find this has made it so we never have a doe get mastitis, and it gives the smaller kits time to catch up with the larger ones. The litter size will control how many are weaned each day. But we always wean at least two on the first day so no kits are living alone in a cage. So, to give an example lets say we have a litter of 6 kits. We would wean the largest two on the first day, then the next largest one on the second day, the next largest one on the third day, and the smallest two on the fourth day. We find that by the fourth day the two kits that were the smallest when we started weaning are now comparable in size to their larger siblings because they have been given more time with mom and have had access to more milk with no bullying. So if there were 8 kits it would be 2, 2, 2, 2. If there were 10 kits we would do 3, 2, 3, 2. If there are less than 5 kits we do it over less time than 4 days. If there was 4 kits we would do 2, 1, 1. Again, we never put one kit all by itself in a cage.
During the weaning process we gently palpate the doe’s belly daily, checking for mastitis. We continue this for about 3-4 days after all the kits have been weaned. Mastitis feels like a large, hard lump.
Weaned kits are fed unlimited pellets, hay, and water. After a few weeks we find that we are having to refill the food and hay 3 times a day instead of just two. We also put two water bottles on the cages with weanlings in them to keep up with their water needs and we are still usually having the water bottles almost empty at the twice a day farm chores. Depending on cage space, we split up litters to have about 4 weanlings per 36×30 cage (some of our cages are 36×36). Sometimes, however, we have to have more than that. We have had as many as 8 weanlings in one of the big cages, but man it was crowded and I wouldn’t do it again if possible.
Because of this, planning litters is a balancing act. We like to have our litters born within a day of each other so we can foster kits if we need to, but that also means we have two litters worth of weanlings at the same time. We have to make decisions based on how many weanling cages will be available, and what the risk of needing to foster is. If I have two good, proven does then I will rotate their breedings apart from each other so there is no weanling cross-over. But if I have a doe that isn’t proven and/or is a high risk doe I will breed her at the same time as another doe and then deal with the weanling cage issues when the time comes. We have, at times, utilized a large dog crate for short periods of time for our buck to live in while we are growing out weanlings because we didn’t have enough cage space. It works fine and is a good short-term solution.
We butcher at 10 weeks of age. There have been a few times where a litter isn’t up to weight until 11 weeks, but most of the time they are at a good fryer weight by 10 weeks. I think this has to do with the cross-breeding and hybrid-vigor because most people I know that do purebreds have to wait until about 12-13 weeks to get to fryer weight.
Now I have shared fully how we care for our rabbits here at Willow Creek Farm. I hope you have enjoyed the series! Please feel free to post questions if I have left anything out.
See our updated series: Managing Rabbits Round 2