Up to this point I have written four articles about meat rabbit genetics and how to breed for color and specific color patterns (solids, charlies, and brokens), but I have never really tackled the specific subject of establishing a successful breeding program. Because selecting a specific breeding program and maintaining your herds health as well as genetic diversity is so important, I decided to write this article for those of you who are just getting started raising meat rabbits.
Whether you are breeding meat rabbits just to supply your family with a healthy nutritious source of meat, and/or you want to be able to sell extra livestock to off set your food costs; how you setup your breeding program after you have purchased your first rabbits will have a significant impact on your rabbitry's performance. The topics I am going to discuss in this article are: inbreeding, linebreeding, outcrossing (outsourcing) and crossbreeding. Before we get started, let's look at a few important terms.
Inbreeding – Inbreeding is the process of breeding closely related rabbits such as brother to sister. With this type of breeding program all the rabbits in your herd are closely related.
Linebreeding – Linebreeding is a specific form of inbreeding in which all of the rabbits in the herd are related to a specific ancestor or ancestors to maintain a specific trait. The genetic relationship of the rabbits in linebreeding is generally further apart than with straight inbreeding.
Outcrossing – Outcrossing or outsourcing is the method of breeding your livestock with that of another genetic line of the same breed. No matter how successful you are, eventually every breeder will look to add some new blood into their herd.
Crossbreeding – Crossbreeding is the method of breeding in which two different breeds of the same type of animal are bred to produce an offspring with traits from both breeds.
If your are raising meat rabbits for the sole purpose of meat, then in theory you could follow a program of straight inbreeding. Rabbits raised using this process will be closely related and will have offspring that are not as genetically diverse. Because of this, inbreeding accentuates both good and bad existing characteristics and or traits. If you are not vigilant and do not cull your herd properly (removing rabbits with poor traits), you will soon find that you will begin to have substantial problems as the less desirable traits begin to increase exponentially in your herd.
Problems that arise with an inbreeding program include: malformed teeth, deformities, smaller litters, higher mortality, and less disease resistance. Keep in mind that if you later decide that you want to sell meat rabbits, then you need to adopt a program of linebreeding as opposed to straight inbreeding as no one will want to purchase your rabbits if they do not meet the standards of the breed due to abnormalities, or if the appear sickly.
Line breeding is the selective process of breeding related animals, that have specific traits that you desire to have in your future off-spring. The goal of linebreeding, is to keep the amount that any one animal contributes to the DNA of it's offspring at or below 50%. Therefore, line breeding can be an effective way to improve the individual traits of the rabbits in your herd. The genetic relationship of the rabbits in linebreeding is generally further apart than with straight inbreeding. A good linebreeding program involves the use of relatives such as grandmother to grandson, grandfather to grandaughter, uncles to niece, mother to son, father to daughter etc… With linebreeding as opposed to straight inbreeding there is a little more genetic variation in your herd.
This is the type of breeding program that is followed by most successful rabbit breeders, whether they are breeding for meat or for show. While it is technically a form of inbreeding, by following a specific line breeding chart, you can maintain a wider genetic makeup in your herd without having to worry about the problems associated with straight inbreeding.
Outcrossing or Outsourceing (Bringing In New Stock)
No matter how successful you are, eventually every breeder will look to add some new blood into their herd. Outcrossing or outsourcing is the process in which you do this. Whether you are looking to improve a specific trait such as fuller hindquarters, or a more luxurious coat, or you simply believe your herd is becoming too inbred and losing vitality, then outcrossing may just be the way to go.
There are two specific was to outcross your rabbits. The first, and the one that most people will end up doing is simply purchasing a new buck for their herd. The second option is to take one of your does to another breeder to be mated with one of their bucks. Of the two, the first option injects the most new genetic material in your herd and has the most impact. By purchasing a new buck, as opposed to a doe, you can use him to mate with all the females in your herd adding his genetic makeup to your herd.
When outcrossing, only choose rabbits with the specific traits that you are looking for. If you are outsourcing using option one and are purchasing a new rabbit, then it is my advice to purchase a new buck that is pedigreed. A pedigree does not guarantee you that 'all' of the offspring that this rabbit will produce will have the specific traits and features you are looking for, rather it gives you a genetic road map of the potential of the animal. Remember, it is not necessary that the rabbits that you purchase come with a pedigree, rather they should come from a long line of rabbits that carry those same specific traits you desire. Personally, I would rather purchase a quality looking rabbit without a pedigree, then purchase a less looking desirable rabbit that has a pedigree. Yes, I have done this, and over time (generally three to four generations) you can develop your own specific pedigree.
If you have a friend or family member that is a fellow breeder, or you know of another breeder in your area that produces quality rabbits that has a genetically different line of rabbits, then option two may be a viable choice. This option is less desirable (because it has a lesser genetic impact on your herd), but it is also the cheapest (does not require the purchase of an animal). A variation of this theme is to trade or barter one of your good quality offspring for that of another breeders offspring. My friend Steve Coyne (owner of Texas Bunny Barn) and I often trade livestock, and or outcross our does. This has worked out well for both of us. While I originally purchased all my 'John Gillis' line of livestock from Steve, I have since added some Basgil/Borden bucks and does to our herd as well as a few from breeder Bonita Hunt (who raises meat rabbits of show quality, and wins a lot!) so we have different genetic lines.
The Good and Bad Of Outcrossing
If you have read any of my articles on rabbit genetics on our blog, then you know that all rabbits will carry some recessive genes (genes that carry traits not visible to the eye). Therefore, any new rabbit that is brought into your herd will carry some of these recessive genes that will be passed along to their offspring. So if the first generation of outcrossed offspring is not exactly what you hoped for, keep the offspring that have the traits you desire and cull the rest to the freezer. Then take those offspring that you saved and breed them back into your line. This technique will maximize the good traits that you desire, while eliminating the transmission of less desirable traits into your herd. By continuing to follow this process, you should then start to have good results rather quickly, and you can keep your freezer full of meat, which is my opinion is always a bonus.
Many of the rabbit breeds we have today are the result of crossbreeding two or more rabbits to create a unique breed. As mentioned, the process was historically performed by breeding two different breeds with the breeder keeping those offspring with the desired traits and culling the less desired offspring. Through the process of inbreeding they continued to refine those characteristics for multiple generations. Then changing to linebreeding they continued to selectively breed until they had a genetically different rabbit.
For the home meat breeder, crossbreeding usually means the breeding of two different breeds specifically for meat to put in the freezer. While we do raise two different breeds of meat rabbits here at TAP rabbitry (American Blues, and New Zealands). We currently do not crossbreed. My friend Steve Coyne of Texas Bunny Barn, raises the same breeds and has bred crosses many times for meat. I must say that the crosses of New Zealand and American Blue's that Steve has bred appear to be somewhat larger than the New Zealands themselves and this may be an avenue that we one day approach just to put meat in the freezer.
If you are wanting to sell meat rabbits to supplement your income, be careful of crossing breeds. If you are a sloppy record keeper, and do not keep your crosses separated you could soon find that your herd of pure bred rabbits all end up as hybrids. Now hybrids fine if you are just producing meat, but not a good thing if your are telling your customers that your rabbits are pure bred when they are not. Selling someone a rabbit you claim is a pure breed when it is not is not only a poor business practise, but it has a direct impact on both the reputation of the breed as well as your rabbitry.
In animal management whether you are raising cattle, sheep, goats, chickens or rabbits linebreeding is the most common method for procreating and expanding your herd. If you want to ensure long-term breeding success in your rabbitry, then linebreeding is your best bet. By consistently mating rabbits of similar backgrounds, you can keep the rabbits with good traits and cull the rabbits with bad ones to the freezer. This process will allow you to consistently produce good, healthy animals without having too many surprises in your litters, as well as keeping your freezer stocked with delicious and nutritious meat.
When the time comes that you need to outcross by purchasing new livestock for your herd, my recommendation is to purchase a good quality buck as it will have the greatest genetic impact on your herd. If you can outcross with a friend or fellow breeder for free that is even better. However, given the choice to outcross for free to an inferior rabbit versus purchasing a good quality buck should be avoided. No sense adding genetic crap to your herd just because it is free. Free crap is still...well crap. In my next article I will explain how to use Flech's linebreeding chart to help you implement a successful linebreeding program into your rabbitry.
I hope this article has shed some light on some of the questions regarding breeding of rabbits for meat production. Yes, these same principles apply to all rabbit breeds whether you are breeding for meat or show. As always, if you find any information in this article useful, please share it with your friends. Don't forget to send us a friend request on Facebook or Google+.
Bennet, Bob, Storey's Guide To Raising Rabbits, North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009
Patry, Karen, The Rabbit Raising Problem Solver, North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2014
Fellow Breeders Mentioned In This Article:
Steve Coyne (Texas Bunny Barn) Terrel, Texas (972) 742-4922
Meat Breeds: New Zealand (Red and White), American Blues
Lines: John Gillis
Bonita Hunt (Baileywick Rabbitry) Dial, Texas (903) 946-4666
Meat Breeds: New Zealand (Red, White, Blue, and Black)
Lines: Basgil/Borden, Robatham's