A Guide for 4-H, FFA, or anyone interested in producing winning pens
The 4-H (and FFA) Rabbit Project has, in my opinion, not received the respect it is due. I’m not here to knock any 4-H or FFA Livestock Program, but rabbits fit some situations better than larger projects. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER. First is the issue of space or zoning requirements. Not every 4-H member has the room or the permission from the “powers that be” to have a steer, pig, or even a lamb. Rabbits may be able to fill the bill. Rabbits are suitable for rural or urban settings (in town or out) because they have very little odor and make almost no noise. Your neighbors will not even know they are there unless you mention it to them. You probably should check your local ordinances however because some towns don’t allow the possession of any non pet animal within a certain distance of residences. A few cages can be kept in a garage or shed where they won’t antagonize the neighbors. Rabbits don’t bleat, squeal, or moo. Their droppings, if cleaned up regularly, are fairly inoffensive and can be applied directly to flower beds or vegetable gardens with no danger of burning the plants. Secondly, rabbits are much more affordable and are especially suitable for urban or “beginner projects”. But raising a rabbit meat pen requires careful planning, superior management, and excellent evaluation skills. In many ways, a rabbit meat pen project has more “meat” to it than the average market animal project. So let’s get started…
Rabbits should be kept in a cage approximately 24”x36” or larger. They need a cool dry area with a good breeze such as under a carport. Never put rabbits in the SUN. They don’t tolerate heat well and can die in a very short time. Putting them in the shade of a tree is risky too because as the sun moves during the day, so does the shade. You can accomplish the same purpose by placing a cover over your cage and keeping it in the shade. Remember they are wearing a fur coat and cannot sweat so the heat stays inside them. Rabbits are cooled by the air blowing across their ears. For that reason, it is not unusual to see lighter colored ears on Californian rabbits when it is hot. You may want to attach a fan near the rabbits for more air movement. It is probably best to not blow it directly on them because, just like people, they can develop colds or allergies if exposed to too much draft. Blowing across the top portion of the cages is probably best because it creates more air flow around those ears. Providing plenty of fresh air is one of the best things you can do to keep down the odor and your rabbits will not be as susceptible to diseases.
Providing a clean, cool source of water is another important thing you can do for your rabbit. Without water they won’t eat. It doesn’t matter if you use crocks, bottles or automatic systems you need to keep it clean and don’t let them run out of water. Don’t just add water to the bottle or crock, wash it out and put fresh water in. If you have an automatic watering system you will have to watch the temperatures in cold weather or it will freeze up on you. Feed is the final key to successfully raising rabbits but that can get complicated so it will be covered in a section all of its own below.
Choosing the Breed
The American Rabbit Breeders Association now officially recognizes 47 different breeds. These breeds are grouped into five (5) distinct body types: Full-Arch, Semi-Arch, Compact, Cylindrical (the only member of this group are Himalayans), and Commercial. It is the Commercial group of breeds that we are interested in.
All commercial breeds are not created equal. The Commercial Type Group contains 18 breeds, but all are not suited for Meat Pen Competition. Right off the bat, you can eliminate French, Giant, and Satin Angoras. These are wool breeds. Silver Fox, although gorgeous, have a unique standing fur which does not conform to the normal fur standard. You might find a judge that would disregard this, but why take the risk? The goal here is to maneuver you into a position of producing a winning meat pen. Next, you can eliminate Rex, American Sable, and Silver Martens. These breeds are beautiful in their own right, but they just don’t have what it takes to produce a uniform, consistent (competitive) meat pen. The clue here is that the ideal weight on senior bucks is 8 lbs. They just don’t have what it takes to produce a 4 ½ lb to 5 pound fryer at 8 to 10 weeks of age. We’re going to eliminate Blanc d’Hotots next. They are a striking rabbit in appearance, but they can’t cut it as far as producing meat pens. They don’t have the growth rate or the substance of flesh to produce a winning pen. French Lops have TOO MUCH substance. They are a little too massive. At a young age, they have almost more bone than flesh. So where does that leave us? We have six left to choose from: American Chinchilla, Californian, Champagne d’Argent, Cinnamon, Crème d’Argent, New Zealand, Palominos and Satin.
You could produce a respectable meat pen out of any of these breeds, but I’m going to narrow it down a bit more. I can not recommend using Champagnes, Crème d’Argents, Cinnamons or American Chinchillas. Here is my rationale: These are great breeds, but are relatively rare in many parts of the country. The genetic pool may be a bit saturated. In other words, the lines may be so inbred as to reduce your chances of producing consistently, what the commercial market is looking for. So my advice is to eliminate these breeds from consideration. The final contenders therefore are: Californians, New Zealands, Palominos and Satins. Californians and New Zealand (Whites) are the leading favorites and by far produce the greatest number of winning pens. For those who like something a little different, Pals and Satins come in a close second. They have an advantage in eye appeal, but they do tend to grow a tad slower and may not be as consistent in size, so you will definitely want to shoot for 10 week-old fryers on weigh-in day.
Now that you have decided on the breed you’re going to use, you have to locate and purchase your breeding stock. Here’s where some of that advance planning comes in. You can get by with a bred doe or even purchase 4-5 babies to allow you to see if you like it. If you are planning to do this long term, I recommend you start with a minimum of 6 does and 2 bucks, if you can afford it and have cage space. I know the prevailing wisdom is to start with a trio (1 buck and 2 does) but I discourage that. If you want to continue to develop a breeding herd, you need some genetic diversity. If you start with a trio, you will be limited in this area. I am certainly not opposed to line-breeding, but if you start with a trio, your line-breeding becomes in-breeding real fast. Also, if you want to offer breeding stock to other rabbit raisers, it’s nice to have some genetic diversity to offer your customers.
Again, continuing with the careful planning, do some research, find out who raises the breed(s) you’re interested in. Go visit them, talk to them, but don’t buy any rabbits just yet. Attend some rabbit shows where the breeder(s) you are considering are showing animals. Talk to other rabbit breeders.
What do you need to know? What is the breeding history of the herd? . Is the herd generally healthy? Do the animals exhibit good, basic commercial type? Does the breeder concentrate on show animals only or is he or she breeding year-round and producing fryers for the commercial market? You want to purchase animals from a breeder that KEEPS RECORDS and is willing to show them to you. Does the breeder target a minimum of four litters per year with an average of 6 to 8 kits per litter from his or her producing does? Folks who intensively show their animals often don’t concentrate on production as much as a breeder whose sole focus is the commercial market and that’s OK, but you don’t want to buy animals from someone who is content with one or two litters per year either. It is often difficult to get the does pregnant if they are not producing on a regular basis. The animals may be good type-wise, but you don’t have any evidence that they are capable of producing good candidates for Meat Pens. Buying animals from a breeder who only produces commercial fryers may be do-able, but you must be able to ascertain that the offspring produced conform to the commercial meat type the judge is looking for. Very often a breeder produces good numbers of rabbits, but the type is so-so. You want to strike a happy medium and purchase animals that are good examples of commercial type AND are productive. You don’t want does that are too productive either. Huge litters of 12 and more kits result in a smaller sized kit. Better to have a smaller, more uniform litter as far as the kits are concerned.
As part of your research, find out if the breeder(s) you are considering maintain a couple of lines within their herd. If they do, you can consider buying both trios from them – one trio from one line and the second trio from the other. If they really only maintain one distinct line, you might want to purchase one trio from them and your second trio from a different breeder. If you decide on the latter, keep this in mind…find out if the two lines are compatible or “click”. Some lines just do not mix/cross. Others blend quite well. Ask around. Ask the breeders. Ask other rabbit breeders.
Purchase your stock well in advance of when you actually want to produce your meat pen. It is best for them to have raised one litter prior to breeding for your show. It is not only good practice for you but you also need to be able to know in advance how the rabbits will perform in YOUR rabbitry. If you start with young maiden does, you need to know if they will produce, PERIOD. Same goes with purchasing an older doe. If you buy a senior doe be sure she isn’t a cull on her way out. To be safe, a senior doe should be under one year of age. Be careful of BARGAINS. Some breeders are very ethical and provide 4-H discounts and offer quality animals. Some breeders are looking to unload worn out stock and are only interested in making a quick buck. That is why it is important to do your research.
There are a lot of good feeds out there and every breeder you talk to may suggest a different one. The important thing is to select a balanced ration with a 16% to 18% protein level. This will give them all the nutrients they will need for condition. Watch the fiber and fat levels just as you would on your own diet. It is Ok to add some hay to their diet (not alfalfa, it is too rich) but you need to remember, just like with humans eating lettuce, the more roughage they eat, the less protein and the less weight gain. Their stomachs will fill up. The two times you really need to do this is when you are trying to hold their weight or if they are not getting enough fiber. Rabbits must be kept in good condition in order to breed. Do not over feed as they will not be able to conceive (see breeding section above). Use the same scoop/can and adjust the feed quantity based upon the animal. Some will require more.
If the rabbits go off their feed (won’t eat) you can do one or all of the following; give them a well done piece of toast, some oak leaves, some plain yogurt, hay, or as a last resort - one cc of vitamin B12 given IM (in the muscle).
In order to produce a meat pen, you need to breed the doe(s) to the buck. Make sure your does are experienced. That is why I told you to obtain your stock well in advance of when you need to produce your meat pen. Your does should have at least one good litter under their belt. You don’t want any surprises. Breed two or more does to kindle on the same day. This way, you can foster kits between does to even up litter size.
Rabbits may be a little different than most animals that you are familiar with. They do not have a “heat cycle’. They are “induced ovulators”. That means that the actual sex act makes eggs drop from their ovaries into the fallopian tubes where they meet and interact with the sperm introduced by the bucks. If they meet, baby bunnies are conceived and 31 days later they are born. If they don’t meet, it was all just for practice. Females that are too fat have a tendency to build up fat in their fallopian tubes, thereby making it difficult for the eggs and sperm to meet. Therefore, before attempting to breed, the buck and the doe should be in good (but not too fat) condition. This can be assured by following the feeding program discussed below. Optimum vitamin levels are assured by feeding the grain mixture for one to two weeks before the breeding date. If the doe is “ready”/receptive, the vent/genital area should be a dark red/maroon in color. If she is a light red or pink give her about three days check her again before putting her in with the buck (always put the doe in the buck’s cage). The buck will chase her around the cage till he tops her. If he doesn’t “fall off”, he did not successfully breed her. It sounds confusing but once seen you will know exactly what I mean. Wait an hour and rebreed. It is helpful to put the doe in a holding/carrying cage for the hour. If you are doing this in the evening, you may want to wait until morning for the third time. Experts can’t agree if the second and third time actually improve your odds of conception or litter size but it is my opinion that it does. I am currently experiencing 85 – 90% conception rates with average litter sizes of 6 to 8 babies. That is optimum for my purpose - meat pens. Remember both the buck and the doe need to be in good condition.
When breeding a buck and doe, ALWAYS put the doe in the buck’s cage. Rabbits are often very territorial. If you put the buck in the doe’s cage, she might attack him. WATCH the breeding process. See that the buck mounts the doe (from the rear, not her head), that the doe raises her hindquarters, and that the buck either falls backwards or over on his side. Sometimes the buck has extremely good balance, so it may appear that he didn’t actually fall over, but you’ll see him jerk backwards. (That’s why I say WATCH.) Let the buck breed the doe a couple of times. It really only takes once, but sometimes the first ejaculate has fewer sperm in it. REMOVE the doe from the buck’s cage after she has been serviced. DON’T LEAVE THE DOE IN THE BUCK’S CAGE. You will hear of people that routinely leave the buck and doe together but bucks have been castrated. Bucks (or does) have also been killed. It’s a good idea to turn the doe over and see that the buck has deposited his semen in her vulva and not just on her tail. Write down the day you bred your rabbits so you don’t forget the nest box. Keep a record of what doe you bred to what buck. This will aid you in evaluating their breeding performance later.
Learn to palpate.
This is an industry skill that every good 4-H or FFA rabbit project member should learn. It is surprising to me how many “seasoned” rabbit breeders can’t. Visit breeders who know how and have them show you. Practice it. Once you learn, it is really quite easy. Start out palpating your does at 14 days. Many breeders routinely palpate their does at 10 – 11 days and have no problem determining whether or not the doe is pregnant. (http://www.arba.net/district/4/palpation.pdf)
Preparing for the Litter
Do not consider the doe pregnant until palpated. After that, when the doe is about 3 weeks along, you can slightly increase her feed, but only by an ounce or two. I recommend beginning to add a tablespoon of Animax®, Calf Manna® or Calf Maker®, etc. to the doe’s daily ration. Give this supplement in the evening. A pinch of old-fashioned oatmeal can be given in the morning if desired. 16 - 18% protein is adequate for a doe and subsequent litter. I do not recommend full-feeding (keeping the feeder full) does without litters. I practice limit feeding (feeding a set amount each day). A commercial-type doe should be eating between 5 and 6 oz of feed daily.
Now, you’ve bred your rabbits, palpated the does and know that litters are on the way. 28 days following breeding, provide a nest box for the doe. The box can be homemade out of wood, metal, or even made with wire with a cardboard liner. My preference is wood because the metal ones hold the heat or cold and the rabbits tend to eat the cardboard liners but they all work. My boxes are 10”x16” with a 6” tall front wall and are 10” tall on the other 3 sides. That allows the does to get in and out easier. This box does not have a top on it. Some people like a top but it makes it easier to see in if there is no top. If you put the box at the back of the cage, you can look in from the front you will not have to bother the babies. You should be able to see the fur and babies in the nest. I always put good clean hay in the box and put it in the cage on the 28th day after breeding. The babies are due on the 30th or 31st day but I will leave it in for at least 4-5 days just in case. Some does might be early/late in dropping the babies. You might have to clean the nest box out and put fresh hay in it because some does will use it as a litter box. If the weather is cold, you might want to put a lamp on top of the cage so that the light will take the chill off the babies. I use a 40 watt bulb. Put your hand over the nest in the box if you can feel a little warmth its OK if not, go to a 60 watt bulb. Just make sure you can feel just a little warmth. Do not make it too hot. You will cook the babies. With the fur and hay the doe will make it so they will be warm.
Here are some recommendations: Use an open box design rather than an enclosed box. A small shelf on top is fine. If you use a metal box, use one with a removable wooden bottom. Metal floors are cold and slippery. Metal floors contribute to chilling of the litter and spraddle legs. Don’t use them. Make sure the box is not too big. Too large a box encourages the doe to rest in the box which can lead to suffocation/mashing of the litter. Make sure the box is cleaned thoroughly between litters. They can be hosed out and left in direct sun to dry, washed with bleach water or you can flame them out carefully with a small handheld propane torch. Make sure the bedding is adequate for the time of year. If it is colder, put a thick (3”) layer of shavings (NOT sawdust) in the bottom of the box, and stuff the box with soft grass hay. If it is warm, add less hay. Use your good judgment.
Management of the Doe and Litter
The big day is here…the kits have arrived! You need to check over the litter thoroughly and remove any dead, deformed, or under-sized kits. This is the hardest part for many 4-H and FFA project members. This is often the time when the decision you make means the difference between a winning pen or not. If you want to increase your chances for a winning meat pen, DON’T KEEP THE RUNTS. If you want to increase your chances for a winning pen, try to keep the litter size down to 8 OR FEWER KITS. If you’re just too soft-hearted, that’s fine. Just know the consequences of your decision. The goals of meat pen production are different than that of producing fryers for the meat market. If you are raising fryers for meat pen competition, you are looking for 3 fryers, 8 – 10 weeks of age, between 3 and 5 lbs that are uniform, full and meaty. This is the time when you can foster kits between litters to even out the size. That’s one reason why it’s important to breed a number of does to kindle on or about the same day – at least within 3 days of each other. To keep track of kits you foster, you can tattoo, with a hand tattoo pen, a tiny dot or series of dots in the right ear so you can keep litter identification for individuals straight.
Some breeders will tell you to disguise your scent with Avon’s “Skin So Soft” or by sprinkling vanilla on the doe’s nose. My opinion is if the doe is going to cannibalize her kits, she will do so whether you touch them or not. It happens, but not all that often. (By the way, this tendency seems to run in families so make that part of your research before you purchase your stock.) If the doe is nervous or seems aggressive, remove her from the cage and place her in a carrier before you examine the litter. As a routine, I give the doe a slice of apple whenever I check the kits. It encourages a good appetite, provides fiber, and the doe soon associates your daily visits with a pleasant experience. Try it.
Related to the birth:
The little ones should open their eyes around the 10th day. You will need to make sure that the eyes are open. You may have to take a warm, moist cloth and open them by pulling the eyes lids apart. Be careful some might have a crust from the milk. Just put the warm wet cloth on it for a minute to soften the crust. Make sure that the nest box hay is changed out about ever 4-5 days. Fresh hay and keep some of the fur, if it is clean.
Hopefully, your doe will do everything right – pull fur, make a nest and place her healthy babies in the box. I always check the nest box to see if there are any dead babies. If so, pull them out. If the after birth is there I may leave it for a day. The doe will usually eat it. If it is still there after a day or so, I will remove it. I also will count them and keep checking them to make sure they are still alive. Does will not always “drop” their milk the first day. But if after three days, the mother has left them alone I would foster them over to another doe. (Try to even out the litter sizes. I have had to foster litters to as many as three different does. Because of that, I try to breed at least three does at a time (or even more if I have them) just in case I need to foster. Now that you have babies and they all doing well, you should check out how many you have and make a note of that. This will help you make informed breeding decisions later. This is also the time to start looking to see if you have any peanuts (runts). You might want to cull them at this time. The strong will survive. If you’re breeding for a meat pen you will not want more than five or six on a doe. You may even go to four down the road. Cutting down to four or five early allows the others to get more milk. Keep them on the mother till show time as long as their weights stay below the 5 lbs. Take them off in the last week if 5 days before the show they are at 4 3/4 lbs. This is when you start trying to hold them.
Health maintenance issues
Rabbits have, as you will quickly learn, fast growing toe nails. These need to be trimmed much as you would a dog or cat. Be aware that if you cut them too short, they will bleed but it is not life threatening. Rabbits are also prone to have ear or fur mites. These are actually bugs that are so small you can’t see them with the naked eye but they bite the skin of the rabbits. The first symptom you will notice is small scabs on the neck or way down inside the ear. In the ear these can be treated with some type of oily liquid (baby oil, Campho Phenique, etc) and a Q tip. Just rub them aggressively with the Q tip. These scabs are tender and the rabbit will not like it so hang on tight. It only has to be done once (per occurrence) and in a few days all traces will be gone. A way to prevent ear mites and other internal parasites (like worms) is to treat your adult rabbits with Ivomec about 3 or 4 times a year. Put two to three drops in each ear. Use a 16 gauge needle, stick it in the rubber portion bottle top then turn it up side down and squeeze it into the ear or draw it out in a syringe (leaving the needle portion in the bottle) and drip it into the ear directly from the syringe.
Another maintenance item is checking the rabbit’s feet. Some rabbits (especially those that have been sick, stressed or have thinner fur on the bottom of their feet) develop what is called “sore hocks”. They look like scabs on the bottom of the feet. This can be treated with Preparation H (yes, the hemorrhoid cream) or the purple prescription meds from a vet. But this can often be avoided by placing a piece of sheetrock in the cage when they first appear. Use a piece of sheetrock about 12” by 12”. That gives them enough room to sit on it and still have room to go to the bathroom. Don’t be surprised or alarmed if they eat on it, too. It won’t hurt them and the main thing is to give them a softer resting spot for their feet.
Weather related problems:
Hot weather is not your friend. Rabbits can't swaet so they are cooled by air blowing across their ears. You need to keep the air flowing around the rabbits but blowing hot air directly on them simply makes them hotter. Different people do different things to keep the rabbits cool. Some freeze soft drink bottles full of water and put them in the cages. Some put ice in the water. Good cool ventilation is the best. The question is how do you get the air cool to blow on them? Some people use air conditioners, old fashioned swamp/evaporative coolers or misting systems. Air conditioners are nice but expensive, the fur builds up quickly on the filters and you will need a way to vent it or it will smell and can cause respiratory diseases. The misters need to be outside the barn or they will also cause respiratory diseases and can do strange things to the fur. If, despite all your best efforts, you find a rabbit that is in stress (laid out and breathing hard) cool it off as quickly as possible by misting it with cool water or wrapping it up in a wet hand towel (especially the ears and underside). Ice in the water will also help if you can get it to drink.
Cold weather is not near as big a problem with rabbits (at least in Texas). If it is 32 degrees or below you will need to take some extra precautions in watering to keep the water from freezing. Do not use hot water. Crocks seem to work best for small herds (20 or less). If it gets exceptionally cold or if the does have litters, make sure that you put plenty of good, clean hay (horse quality, no stickers or thick stalks) in the nest boxes. This simulates their natural nesting places. You may have to clean it out every few days if they use it as a litter box. Shavings don’t seem to work as well in cold weather because they tend to hold the moisture in. With litters, in extreme cold, a 40 – 60 watt light above the cages can provide extra warmth. If the cages are arranged back to back, careful placement of the nest boxes will allow one light to warm up to 4 nest boxes.
The Litter is made in the Nest Box.
For the first 3 weeks of a kits life, they rely almost exclusively on the doe’s milk supply for their growth and development. One thing I cannot stress enough is to provide a constant supply of clean water to ALL your rabbits. Water is the least expensive, yet most important part of feeding your rabbits. NEVER LET THE RABBITS RUN OUT OF WATER.
I recommend gradually increasing the doe’s feed – taking a week to make the increase. I recommend allowing 5 – 6 oz. for the doe and ½ oz for each kit. (A doe with a litter of 8 should be getting 9 to 10 oz of feed per day.) Continue the protein supplement in the evening and the pinch of oats and apple slice in the morning. When the kits start getting out of the next box, turn it on its side. That allows them to find a warm spot out of the wind when they get cold.
At 3 Weeks…
The kits should be fat little balls of fur by now. At about 3 weeks, remove the nest box. (If it is very warm, you can remove it a bit sooner; if it is very cold, you can leave it in a bit longer.) The kits will also need access to water. I do not like crocks. Crocks are dirty. Water crocks can also be a hazard to curious bunnies. I use and recommend J-feeders (hoppers) for feed and automatic/semiautomatic water systems or water bottles for water. If you are using bottles, hang them low enough initially for the kits to get to the dropper easily. You can gradually raise the height as they grow. As a routine, I give the doe a slice of apple whenever I check the kits. I stop feeding apple to the doe when the kits are 3 weeks old. I don’t want them nibbling on it. Gradually, at about 3 ½ weeks, begin to increase the feed, but only by about an ounce per kit until the kits are about 4 weeks old.
At 4 weeks…
Continue to gradually increase the feed. I allow the doe her high protein supplement, but I don’t give any to the kits. I put it on top of the feed in the trough. The doe will scarf it, so you don’t really have to worry about the kits getting it. Some folks feed the supplement to the kits as well, but there is the danger of the kits getting loose stools. This inhibits growth, so you want to avoid loose stools at any cost.
At 5 weeks…
Continue to gradually increase the feed. Watch the feed consumption carefully. I don’t want to see the feeder totally empty in the morning.
By the time the kits are 6 weeks old, you should prepare to wean them. It is good practice to sort the kits by size so that you have groups of four kits to a cage. (You are going to need several growing pens if you want to raise winning pens.) In my experience, it is best to just wean the kits all at once. It is better for the doe as well. Contrary to popular belief, you lessen the chance of mastitis in the doe if you wean all the kits at one time. Make weaning time occur in the morning. When you move the kits to their new cage, give them some grass hay to nibble on. This won’t be a regular practice, as hay does nothing for weight gain, but it does help transition them to their new home. To help prevent digestive disturbances, I recommend mixing 20% of old-fashioned oatmeal to the kits’ pellet ration for the first week. 20% (mix feed 4 parts pellets to 1 part oats) of added oats will not inhibit growth, but does add extra fiber which keeps the droppings firm. After the first week, they can be on straight pellets.
I am a believer in Doc’s Enhancer. It was developed by an old time breeder, Doc Reed, and my rabbits seem to do better on it. I like to start feeding it (to bucks and does) about 2 weeks before the breeding date and it really seems to help them. I also like to add some pigeon feed. It comes in three different types. I use the conditioning which has popcorn in it. To this I add just enough oil (wheat germ or DAC-OIL.com) to dampen. I also give them about a spoon full once a day for a week before breeding. You can use a combination of black sunflower seed, barley, whole oats, add a little flax oil or sunflower oil. I use about two capfuls to a gallon mixture. Some will also add Red Cell but don’t use more than a capful per gallon ratio. Watch to make sure they don’t get loose stools. If they do, cut back on the liquids. Any imbalance can quickly cause diarrhea. A fryer with diarrhea is done as far as competing in a meat pen competition. They simply cannot recover quickly enough to be competitive. If you are feeding a good 16 - 18% pellet as outlined earlier, this is more than sufficient for flesh development of the meat pen prospects.
Selecting the Meat Pen
Well…now we’re down to it – selection of your Meat Pen. Let’s look at the ARBA Guidelines for Meat Pens. There are four criteria pertinent to evaluating meat pens. They are (in order of importance): (1) Meat type (2) Condition (3) Uniformity and (4) Fur.
Meat Type… (40 points)
What is meat type? In a fryer destined for meat pen competition it is compact and short. You are looking for a blocky appearance. The fryer should be smooth, with no protruding hip bones. The fryer should be as deep as it is wide. The shoulders should start at the nape of the neck and rise to a high point over the hips. To get an accurate picture of each fryer, it should be posed properly: Place the fryer so that the toes of the hind feet are even with the stifle (hip) of the hindquarters. The toes of the front feet should be placed below the eye. Hindquarters are most important, followed by the loin, and lastly forequarters.
Condition… (30 points)
Condition speaks to your management of your project. If you have fed and cared for your stock properly, they should have good condition. The fryers should feel firm to the touch. They shouldn’t show pot bellies or have loose, flabby skin over the shoulders. They should be clean and show no sign of disease.
Uniformity… (20 points)
The animals you select for your meat pen should look like “peas in a pod”. Look at them for every angle. They should look identical in appearance and feel as similar as possible. Weigh each candidate for your meat pen. You are striving to have each member of the pen as close in weight as possible. Note: Uniformity means just that, so if you are entering rabbits other than white, they ALL need to be the same color.
Fur… (10 points)
Fur is only worth 10 points because fur on fryers is generally not finished. That comes with maturity when the coat reaches its prime. Suffice it to say you are striving for the best coat possible, but it needs to be the SAME for each fryer in the pen.
So…here is my method for selecting a winning meat pen…
Take all your candidates and weigh them one by one. Mark down each weight. Write it on a piece of masking tape and stick it right on the rabbit. Try to group your fryers so that fryers in each group don’t vary more than a couple of ounces from each other. Hopefully you will have more than one group of four or more rabbits that are in the same weight group.
Now take each rabbit in a group and run your hands over them. Try doing it with your eyes closed. You are feeling for the proper meat type. You are feeling for smoothness. Set up each rabbit and pose it properly. Is it as deep as it is wide? Do the shoulders begin directly behind the nape? When should this selection process occur? Not long before the show because rabbits change as they develop.
As show time approaches, you will want to pull a rabbit out of its cage and “work its fur”. Put a little water in a spray bottle (be sure it is clean and has not been used to spray a chemical that could harm the rabbit), spray a little on your hands, rub them together until you feel the friction (that means they are “tacky” and the dead hair will stick to them) and rub the rabbit’s fur from the head to the tail. The direction is important because we want to pull out dead hair only, not give them a cow lick. Five or six times will usually be enough unless they are really in a molt. You will know if it’s enough because your hands won’t come away with dead hair stuck to them. It’s best to not use a cat or dog brush because it will not do as good a job as your hands will and could damage the healthy fur. This interaction also helps to socialize the rabbit, gets them used to being handled and they will behave better at the show.
Get everything ready the day before, but don’t load your rabbits until you’re ready to leave - the less stress, the better. At the show, groom your rabbits with your hands by moistening your hands with water and rubbing your hands over the fur until dry. Groom your rabbits when you arrive and at least once more before you take them before the judge.
I sincerely hope you have a Winning Meat Pen, but remember, it’s important to learn something and to have fun and to have a Winning Attitude. If you win, remember to shake the judge’s hand. If you don’t win, remember to shake the judge’s hand. Remember to shake the hands of your fellow competitors. Remember…it’s the judge’s job to select the winner. It’s your job to make his choice easy.
Important Note: The information contained in the preceding article is specifically aimed at those whose show rules require that they breed and produce meat pen entries from their own breeding stock. The reality is that many junior livestock shows, fairs, and expositions allow members to purchase early weaned meat pen prospects from outside sources. In these cases, it is important to follow the feeding program utilized by the original breeder. Because of the typically short time for feeding and developing meat pens, it is not recommended the 4-H or FFA member implement any feeding changes, to lessen the incidence of digestive disturbances in the developing fryers.
The information provided above is an accumulation of more than 22 years of breeding, raising and showing bunnies. It is only my opinion/experience and is not to be considered “expert opinion”. Much of the information is also included in a web article by Charlcie (Gill) Fowler. Go to http://www.arba.net/district/4/Meat_Pens.pdf to see the entire article.