Rabbit: a Healthy, Nutritious, Sustainable (and Underappreciated) Food
April 4, 2013
Article originally published in Edible Aspen‘s Spring 2013 Issue.
Raising animals for food in your backyard is a great way to fundamentally change the way you look at our food system, and your land. Yet if you have limited space, your options for livestock can be limited. A cow in a suburban backyard is likely to depress your neighborhood’s home values, and too many meat chickens might warrant a visit from the health inspector.
What if there was a meat option that was cleaner, quieter and healthier than anything in a traditional farmyard scene? Rabbits are the answer! The idea of eating rabbit may seem unfamiliar outside of a gourmet restaurant, but there are many reasons rabbits deserve a fresh look, especially here in western Colorado. French and Spanish cultures, and even the USDA, have long considered rabbit to be one of the highest-quality meats. The health benefits of rabbit stop just short of improving your posture and whitening your teeth: Rabbit meat has fewer calories, less fat and lower levels of cholesterol than chicken. With its finer grain and higher density, it is actually more versatile than chicken.
Considering these advantages, why isn’t rabbit meat more popular in America? There are several reasons. The United States has subsidized many feed crops, especially corn, for decades. Cheap feed has driven down the cost of raising corn-fed animals, like chickens and cows. Rabbits can’t digest significant amounts of grain, so raising them on a massive scale is not as profitable as raising chickens. However, in your own back- yard the economic benefits of raising rabbits shine.
Depending on your situation the actual “nuts and bolts” of backyard rabbit raising can vary considerably. Many people with limited space raise rabbits in cages, hanging in a garage or a shed. Another way to raise them is in so-called “rabbit trac- tors,” homemade mobile pens equipped with a roof and a hide- out. These “tractors” allow the rabbits to munch on grasses in the pasture, while providing a dark space when they want to feel hidden, which rabbits often do.
The main advantage of raising rabbits in a “rabbit tractor” is the endless supply of free food. By moving each tractor twice a day (and tossing in a handful of barley) the rabbits essentially mow the yard—slowly but surely! Your backyard is probably full of rabbit food. Fallen leaves, bark and weeds are all delicious meals for rabbits. On a natural feeding system it only takes about three months for a rabbit to grow large enough to be table ready.
If you are a gardener, rabbits will give you both great meat and “black gold” to help build fertile soils. Unlike chickens, rabbit manure is considered “cold,” meaning it’s safe to use immediately as a fertilizer. Collecting the manure is as simple as putting a tub underneath their cage. Some people even build worm farms underneath their rabbits’ cages. If you are raising your rabbits outdoors you can even leave their tractor over a garden bed for a week or two at the beginning or end of the growing season. They will weed and fertilize your beds for you!
But what about Bugs Bunny, Roger Rabbit and the Easter Bunny? Will a first-time rancher feel completely comfortable raising and eating rabbits, given these adorable American cultural icons? Rabbits may be cute, but so are pigs and cows when you get to know them. It does make it easier, though, to know that you gave your livestock a healthy and peaceful life. Here at Rock Bottom Ranch, we know our rabbits are well fed, cared for and safe. Come to the ranch and see for yourselves!
GO FIND IT!
Rock Bottom Ranch 2001 Hooks Spur Road, Basalt 970.927.6760
~ Peter Arthur, RBR Agriculture Manager