Backyard Rabbit Keeping, Part 11/15 – The Harvest
If you keep large amounts of farmed or hunted meat, you really need a deep freeze. Unless you are prepared to eat salt meat like our ancestors did for months on end, freezing is the only way to cope with the large amounts of meat you get in lifestyle of husbandry and hunting. Rabbits are more useful in this respect. No electricity is needed, none of the gadgets of civilization need come between you and your rabbit dinner. One rabbit provides a good meal for a family and you can kill and dress them in ones, just as you need them. That is why Italian and Russian governments saw the rabbit as a means of warding off starvation. Every family can produce its own meat, as and when needed.
Another advantage over the bigger animals is that the killing and dressing is simpler. It is illegal to kill pigs and sheep at home in most places, but rabbits and poultry can be done without the journey to the abattoir and its attendant fee – provided the meat is for your own use and not to be sold. If you keep poultry, you will probably be used to killing and dressing them and rabbits will present no problem.
Select one rabbit from your first litter and isolate it for one day, with no food but plenty of water. This is not cruel and it is important – especially the water. Without water the meat could be tough.
The rabbit is killed by dislocation of the neck, as with poultry; death is instantaneous. Take the back legs in one hand and the back of the head with the other, stretch out force the head back and clown with a quick jerk. If you have access to an experience farmer or trapper, you may wish to observe this method a few times before trying it yourself.
Next, hang it up, either on two hooks at shoulder height, a leg in each hook, or from a nail with a piece of string round each hock. Tame rabbits are usually skinned first and the insides removed afterwards. Traditional rabbit keepers used to wait five minutes after killing to give time for the blood to drain to the head, before they started skinning.
If you don’t intend to keep the skin, you can pull it off down to the head and then cut off the head, skin and all. But if you want the skin, remove it completely before cutting off the head. Commercial rabbit keepers tend to remove the head before skinning, but their methods are geared to dealing with large numbers of rabbits at a time and some of them have special rooms for processing and packing.
To skin, you need a sharp, pointed knife. If you do the job while the carcass is warm the skin comes away more easily but you can do it when cold if this is more convenient. However, the guts should come out as soon as possible and it is usual to skin first.
Start at the hocks and cut round each with the point of the knife. Take care not to break the skin. Slit down the insides of the back legs to the vent, cut round the tail and pull the back end of the carcass out. Slip the skin off – it will peel off like a sleeve. The legs are slipped out of the skin and then cut off below the knee joint. Take action with the skin straight away if you want it since they go smelly very soon if they are left lying about.
You are still working upside down on your rabbit which is suspended by the legs. To take the insides out, slit the abdomen down the middle from the vent to the chest cavity. Great care must be taken not to puncture the intestines, or the whole thing will get very messy. Put the two fingers of your free hand in the hole already made near the vent and pull out the skin of the abdomen with them, in front of the knife. Guide the knife down with these two fingers and you should avoid the intestines.
The guts should come out whole in one go. The stomach, intestines, vent and bladder must come out – don’t spill the remaining urine from the bladder. The gall bladder must come out too; it’s under the liver. If you like a clean sweep, take out all the internal organs; but often the heart, liver and kidneys, which are all edible, are left in the body cavity.
When you have finished, the rabbit should be put in a cool place to set. Now you have what used to be known as Ostend rabbit. This was because the London market used to be supplied with dressed rabbits from Ostend in Belgium, whereas now they are from China and Australia.
The following video details a method similar to the one above and may be useful to gauge the process. May not be suitable for sensitive viewers.
[flv:dressing_rabbit.flv 480 368]
Cooling bins are used for rabbit carcasses in commercial units. Where large numbers are handled they are put into iced water and when set, they are drained and packed. There is no need to speed the setting process for home consumption -unless you need a dinner in a hurry for unexpected guests!
You may feel that this job of killing and dressing would be better done at one time, particularly if you have to ask someone to kill the rabbits for you (and it is no shame to do this; to tell the truth I get out of killing things whenever I can.) It might be easier to get him to do a whole litter for you rather than to come along every time you want a dinner. This is where freezing comes in useful! Rabbit freezes well. The whole carcass can be put into a polythene bag, or the rabbit can be jointed and frozen on a tray. It is usual to joint into eight pieces, 4 legs, 2 chest and 2 back pieces. The meat keeps quite well for 6 to 8 months in the freezer.
The value of rabbit meat is surprising, if you are new to it. It is fine white meat, similar to chicken with a mild, pleasant flavor much better than broiler chicken. Backyard rabbits taste better than commercial ones to my mind, and since they have no fat, are extremely versatile and good for children and invalids.
The protein percentage of rabbit meat compares favorably with most other kinds of meat; it is somewhere between 20 and 21 per cent, and only chicken is higher. Pork is about 13 per cent protein.
The fat at about 4 per cent is rather less than for any meat except chicken, and the mineral content is the highest of them all. It’s a pity that rabbit meat isn’t more popular because it is obviously very nutritious; and produced in the backyard way, economically sound. It can be argued that to get the most out of farm land, grain should be grown for human consumption rather than for processing through animals. We would thus miss some savoury dinners, but even accepting these arguments, a case can be made for the production of rabbit meat, not from pelleted grain but from green food and scraps. It makes good sense. The one drawback is that we are not now used to rearing our own animals for food and it is easier to let the professional butcher do the messy bits. But this means a loss of control over what we eat. It must be better to overcome our natural reluctance, learn how to kill rabbits neatly and then have the satisfaction of eating food we have grown ourselves, free from agribusiness and as far as possible from pollution.
It is not likely that your rabbit meat will be tough. Provided that you don’t take too long to screw your courage to the sticking place, the rabbits should be killed while still young; well grown, but not too mature. This is another advantage of freezing – the whole litter can be done at the right time. Commercial meat breeds of rabbit are ready for killing at about 4 1/2 to 6 1/2 lbs live weight, which when fed pellets, they reach at 9-11 weeks of age. They actually mature at about 20 weeks for a doe and a month later for a buck so they are killed well before maturity. I don’t suggest that rabbits fed on greens, hay and mash will be ready so soon, but they will be much cheaper! During the war, rabbits took about 20 weeks to fatten on this diet, but meaty, faster growing types of rabbit have been developed since then. Backyarders today might expect their rabbits to be ready somewhere between these two extremes. But the main cause of toughness in meat is age, so don’t leave them too long. If you need to eat an old rabbit, cook it accordingly – slowly and for a long time.
The meat also varies according to breed. Our rex rabbits were similar as meat whatever the color (we had mainly Havana and Sable) and of course we thought that the meat was the best of all the breeds, although it was rather dark in color There is an Ermine rex in which is united the advantages of fine grained delicate rex meat and the desirable whiteness. But these rabbits are rather slow to put on weight compared with the breeds which are kept purely for meat.
Backyarders, who have more time than businessmen, can afford to wait that bit longer for rabbits to be ready for eating. So that in our conditions, we can keep old-fashioned breeds such as the English, a delightful spotted rabbit, and the Chinchilla, which makes good meat given a little time. We are now so used to ‘instant’ everything that we tend to be impatient, and to buy time even in farming.
Whatever breed you choose, you will be aiming at a rabbit weighing about 5 or 6 lbs before killing. When skinned and dressed, this should give a carcass of about half the weight, which is a reasonable meal for a family.
If you get carried away by enthusiasm for rabbits and find yourself with more on your hands than you can comfortably eat, freeze or swap, the surplus can be sold and this will help to replace any cash outlay on the rabbits. Small numbers of rabbits can be difficult to sell but if you have a regular supply, a cottage industry collection of buyers may be your best route. These surplus rabbits will be sold live. This producer association is stronger in some areas than others. If there is a pick-up point near you, it will be a simple matter to take your rabbits there for collection.
You may have a local packer who would take rabbits. For example, in our nearest town there is a firm of poultry packers. They find that there are few rabbits in this area, but say that they will pack rabbits if they are offered a regular local supply.
The packers are very definite about their requirements. They want a plump, healthy rabbit of the proper shape, weight and age. Let’s face it – they are expecting a pellet fed rabbit. They want a meaty, not fat, rabbit of 4 to 6 lbs live weight. Livers have to be good (no nasty spots). Your rabbits may conform very well if you have gone into one of the usual commercial breeds, which would be wise if you intend to sell surplus. The main drawback would be that naturally fed rabbits would probably grow more slowly.
The other problem of course would be continuity of supply. Rabbits breed more easily in the summer, which means that there are more for sale then, so the prices tend to be lower and the packers more choosy although the standards are high all the year. But they are less likely to welcome new suppliers when they are already overloaded.
If you have got quite good at producing rabbits, the rewards for selling to a local butcher may be worth having, since rabbit meat is showing signs of becoming respectable once more. At this point, you should begin to research the local, state and federal regulations governing the chain of production as it may vary greatly from location to location. You may find that is more efficient to engage an existing provider at some step in the process. The choice is yours.
- Why Why Keep Rabbits?
- Rabbits Past and Present
- Some Basic Information
- Making a Start
- Growing Crops for Rabbits
- Harvesting the Wild Rabbits
- The Harvest
- Using Rabbit Meat
- Fur Production