Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sending The Bunnies To Freezer Camp!

If you raise meat rabbits for you and your family as a meat source, as a small commercial venture or a combination of both, there will come a time when you will need to butcher some of your rabbits. Here at the TAP Rabbitry, we primarily raise meat rabbits as a healthy food source. We do sell breeders when we can to help pay our feed cost, but that is not our primary focus. While we will keep a small amount of inventory past 12 weeks of age, most of the livestock that we do not sell gets butchered at about 12 weeks (3 months of age). That means that we butcher on average about three or four times a year depending on the number of breeders we have active at the time. The number of rabbits that are butchered during each session depends of the size and number of litters that our does have produced during the last few months.

In addition to butchering young rabbits, every breeder will have occasion to butcher older rabbits that have for one reason or another just earned themselves a place in the freezer. We have had to butcher a doe who no matter how many times, or with which buck she was bred, only produced 2 kits with each litter. We have also had to butcher both bucks and does that just would not breed for whatever reason. And of course you may have to dispatch a sick rabbit on occasion. So as I mentioned three or four times a year we send the rabbits to 'Freezer Camp'. Not a term I coined, but one my wife saw somewhere so we adopted it and that is what we call our dispatching and butchering process.

Breeders Note: While I have seen on some of the rabbit breeding and homestead forums on the world wide web that some people butcher sick animals and then consume them, we do not nor would I ever recommend this process. Regardless of the illness, sick animals are not recommended for human consumption.

So, welcome to 'Freezer Camp'. In this article I am going to talk about the tools we use and some of the specific techniques we use when dispatching and butchering our rabbits here at the TAP Rabbitry and Homestead. I am by no means a professional when it comes to butchering rabbits. I have probably butchered somewhere between 50 to 75 animals, not really a huge number. Rather my skill comes in the form of breaking down the carcass and cooking of the animal as I preformed a lot of this type of work in my 18 years in the restaurant business. I mention this only because there are a lot of different ways to dispatch and butcher rabbits and many people have their own specific techniques or style that they prefer to use. I am a firm believer that you find the process that works best for for you and eventually with a bit of practise you will become quite proficient at butchering your own rabbits.

Tools Of the Trade

A couple of tools that have become integral parts of my butchering process are my fillet knife, a pair of pruning sheers, and my rabbit gambrel (animal hanger) in addition to a sturdy, portable table and a cooler with ice in which to pack the freshly butchered rabbits. When we first started raising rabbits I tried an assortment of traditional butchering knives before I found a knife that I was happy with. After watching my friend and fellow breeder Ronda Jones dispatch a few rabbits using a Rapala fish fillet knife, I knew I had found the knife for me. I chose the smaller 6-inch knife available for about $13.00 at my local Wal-Mart and it has been the best knife I have used for butchering rabbits and small game. A fillet knife has a long thin flexible blade, and while Ronda uses a longer more flexible knife, I find that the 6-inch version has just the right amount of strength and flexibility for my needs.

To remove the front legs and split to pelvis (makes it easier to remove the gastrointestional tract), I use a pair of Corona bypass hand pruning sheers. These sheers are all steel construction and cut through bone cleanly and with ease. In addition, I use these sheers in the garden and they are fantastic. You can find them online or at your local Lowe's for about $21.00. My friend and fellow breeder Steve Coyne author of the 'Texas Rabbit Barn',and 'I Grow Vegetables' blog's turned me on to these sheers, and they are worth every penny. One pair will truly last you a lifetime, unless of course you lose them. One tool, two uses, gotta love it!

There are many ways to hang your rabbits after you have dispatched them so that you can actually start the butchering process. The tool that I use is a home made version of a gambrel (animal hanger) that my friend Steve Coyne was using when I first got into raising rabbits. After using the one that Steve had I knew I could make my own out of scrap PVC and some wire, and that is exactly what I did. The gambrel uses the weight of the rabbit to tighten the wire thereby holding it securely in place, and it's unique design allows you to rotate or turn the carcass as needed during the butchering process. I find using the gambrel is earier and faster for me than trying to make a cut in the leg and then hanging the rabbit by it's tendons. If you are a hunter or know someone who is then you have probably seen or used a gambrel to dress out deer or wild feral hogs.

Dispatching Techniques

There are a myriad of different ways to dispatch your rabbits and they all have one specific goal and that is to quickly and humanely kill the rabbit with the least amount of pain and stress as possible. My father grew up on a farm, and my grandfather raised rabbits as an additional food source for his family. When I was growing up, I watched my father use what I call the 'Karate Chop' method to dispatch rabbits. He would take the edge of his hand and holding the rabbit by it's hind legs deliver a swift blow to the back of the neck of the rabbit right behind the head. I have never been comfortable with this technique, but my father and grandfather were quite proficient at it. A variation of this technique is to use a steel pipe or heavy wooden rod or broomstick in place of your hand. My issue with this technique is that if you miss, or do not deliver a fatal blow, the rabbit not only suffers, but makes a painful crying noise much like that of a baby. Miss once and you will never try this technique again.

Cervical dislocation is another effective method employed by a lot of breeders. The cheap and simple method is to place the rabbit on the ground holding it by it's hind legs then place a large wooden rod across the back of it's neck then place a foot on each side of the rod as you pull back on the rabbits hind legs to dislocate the spine and instantly kill the rabbit. My friend Ronda Jones dispatches her rabbits this way and she is quite effective at it. I found this technique to be to cumbersome for me especially if you have a frightened or spastic rabbit on your hands. I like the idea of cervical dislocation and it is quite popular. There is a commercial product called the 'Rabbit Wringer' that many breeder use to dispatch their rabbits, but it is quite pricey at $70.00. If you can DIY, you can find a number of plans to make your own version of a rabbit wringer on the internet.

The last technique that I am going to talk about is the one we use here at the TAP rabbitry and that is the process of shooting the rabbit in the head. For this procedure I use a .22 caliber air rifle with hollow point hunting pellets. It kills the rabbit quickly and humanely with one shot, that is of course if you do not miss, but this has not been a problem for me. The key when using this technique is to have a small area in which to place the rabbit so that it's movements are minimized ( I use a tote with straw as a 'kill bucket'). I already had a .22 caliber air rifle so this was a technique for which suited me well with no additional outlay of capitol. The Crossman hollow point hunting pellets that I use are cheap $6.47 for 500ct at my local Wal-Mart and are an effective killing pellet. If however, you do not already have a hunting air rifle and had to purchase one, I think you would be better off spending your money an a rabbit wringer.

Breeders Note: When purchasing an air rifle look closely at the caliber of the pellet. Most air rifles used for hunting small game are .22 caliber or larger. While brand and quality matter, you can generally find them at most large big box retailers. The one I use is an inexpensive Beeman, which I have found when hunting small game to be not only accurate but quite effective. I have never used the smaller .177 caliber air rifle for hunting, while it's higher velocity is effective against squirrels and small birds, I am unsure of it's ability to make a clean kill on the larger meat rabbits so I cannot recommend this caliber for dispatching your rabbits.

The Art Of Butchering

This article is not an in depth review on how to butcher a carcass. While I watched my father and grandfather butcher a few rabbits when I was growing up, my father never raised rabbits. We simply moved to often during the 22 years that he was in the Air Force (USAF). Rather I learned by purchasing and reading a couple of books on butchering poultry and small game. In addition, I looked at the multitude of videos on YouTube on how to butcher poultry and rabbits. And while I knew how to effectively break down an animal carcass due to my many years of restaurant experience, the thing that helped me learn this skill the most was helping my friends Steve Coyne and Ronda Jones butcher. Even before my first rabbits were old enough to butcher, I volunteered to help Steve butcher some of his animals so that I could learn from his experience.

Finding a mentor or someone with butchering experience is a great way to learn this necessary skill. If you cannot find a mentor or anyone in your area that raises rabbits, then ask the breeder that you bought your breeding stock from if you can help them the next time they butcher. Be proactive, do not make the mistake by waiting until you have rabbits that need to be butchered before asking for help to learn how to butcher. I helped my friends Steve and Ronda butcher about thirty rabbits on two occasions before any of my livestock was ready to be butchered. I was a whole lot slower then they were, and I still am. However, since that time I have butchered a lot of rabbits, not only my own by many of my friends as well.

I have included some video links with short descriptions of each of the videos below showing how to butcher and process rabbits. The breeder in each video uses a slightly different technique as well as an array of basic butchering tools. There are a lots of other videos on YouTube, but the ones listed in this article will give you an idea of the options and techniques used to butcher your meat breeders. Be forewarned that these videos contain graphic examples of rabbits being butchered. You should not be surprised as this article is about butchering livestock, but if you have young children, you may or may not want them to watch over your shoulder.

One of the first videos I watched on butchering rabbits, and one I still like and recommend. I like this video because it is informative and the breeder uses a dislocation board to dispatch of his rabbits. Just by looking at the picture, you could easily make one yourself out of scrap wood. I have however seen some mixed reviews about using this type of kill board, but the videographer in this video seems to have the technique down.

A video with more emphasis on butchering wild rabbits, as opposed to domesticated meat breeders. Scott's makes this technique look quick and easy and it could easily be adopted by anyone with a small rabbitry. Not so sure about freezing the rabbit with the skin on, but if you wanted too, you could definitely gives this technique a try. There is a reason it has over 1.5 million views.

This two part video series shows a man that can butcher some rabbits using simple techniques. He uses a heavy pipe to stun/kill the rabbits and then hangs them with simple cord. In this series of videos he is talking with people who are doing a tour through their organic farm in Virginia and answering questions while he butchers rabbits. Some good information here and I like his quick and fluid technique.


Raising livestock to help feed your family or supplement your income is not difficult. It does take some hands on work on your part. My wife is an integral part of our rabbitry as she takes care of the rabbits on the days that I have to work. I do all of the butchering and the breaking down of the carcasses, not that she couldn't do it, but because I choose too. If you have ever lived on a farm, or raised livestock, then you know that butchering an animal is not hard. It is the process of dispatching the animal in a humane way is the hardest part about.

Having the necessary tools to perform the job makes the task quite a bit simpler and more enjoyable. You do not need to spend a wad of cash to do a through job. My grandfather dispatched and butchered all of his rabbits using his hands and a simple skinning knife. I choose to shoot mine then butcher them, others I know use cervical dislocation, the choice is a matter of personal preference. The hardest part is getting outside and making yourself do it for the first time. Once you have taken that step, the rest is easy.

In my next article, I will try to answer that one questions I see a lot on Facebook and in the Homesteading forums on the internet regarding the meat yield of butchered meat rabbits. I will also go into detail about how we break down our rabbit carcasses for storage. As always, we ask that if you find this information interesting that you please share it with your friends on Facebook and Google+. Don't forget to send us a friend request on Facebook and Google+. You can also subscribe to our blog so that you do not miss any of our new articles or our notices regarding new rabbit's that are for sale.

Books On The Subject That I Own:

Bezzant, John. Butchering Small Game and Birds: Rabbits, Hares, Poultry and Wild Birds. Ramsbury: Crowood Press, 2012.

Burch, Monte. The Ultimate Guide To Home Butchering: How To Prepare Any Animal Or Bird For The Table Or Freezer. New York, Skyhorse, 2012.

Mettler, John Jr. DVM. Basic Butchering Of Livestock & Game. North Adams: Storey, 2003.

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