Rabbit Meat Pens: 100 days to Sharper Skills
By Grace Westercamp

Why would you want to raise meat pens? If you are in the majority of rabbit breeders who raise 4 class rabbits your breed probably won't work for meat pens. So why devote precious cage space to a new 6 class breed? If you are a youth in 4-H and are taking rabbits to the Iowa State Fair 4-H show and only have 4 class breeds you'll only be able to take 5 breeding rabbits. If you brought a meat pen, single fryer, and roaster you could double the number of rabbits that you take. Whether you are a youth in 4-H or not, raising meat pens tests your ability to produce rabbits with consistent type, flesh condition, fur condition and weight. It also improves your planning, record keeping, evaluation, and husbandry skills. You can then apply these skills to your main breed whether it is 4 or 6 class. Also, if you raise a 4 class breed you probably know how hard it is to sell them in the fall. Whereas there is a steady demand for fryers all year round. The current market price is $1.45 live weight, so if you raised meat rabbits along with your 4 class breed they might help pay for your 4 class breed's feed.

 What is a meat pen?

A meat pen is a pen of three rabbits, that are not over 70 days (ten weeks) old, not under 3 lbs and not over 5 lbs, but you want them as close to 5lbs as you can get them without going over. They have to be the same breed and variety, but they do not have to be from same litter. They have to have a legible tattoo in their left ear. Working towards these requirements sharpens your eye in evaluating, selecting, and decision making.

Breeds used for meat pens.

The most competitive breeds are White New Zealands and Californians. If you have Californians or New Zealands you should already be showing meat pens. You can also use other 6 class breeds with commercial body type, like Champagne d'Argents, Cinnamons, Black New Zealands, White or Californian Satins, Palomino, and some of the larger 4 class breeds like American Sable or Rex, that have commercial type (there were some respectable American Sable meat pens shown in the 2010 Iowa State Fair Open Show). Some 6 class breeds which don't have commercial body type won't make a competitive meat pen, like Flemish Giants (Semi-arch type) or Checkered Giants (full arch type). Just imagine the sense of accomplishment if you beat the Californians and New Zealands with your meat pen of Champagne d'Argents or Cinnamons.

How to judge a meat pen.

When judging a meat pen the judge assigns points to: Meat Type: 40 pts Condition: 30 pts Uniformity: 20 pts Fur: 10 pts. For a detailed discussion consult your Standard of Perfection. Some websites with good articles on raising and judging meat pens include: http://www.rabbitgeek.com/meatpennotes.html http://www.showbunny.com/fryers pens.html http://heatonrabbitry.tripod.com/id15.html

Skill sets

Evaluation; The differences between fryers can be subtle so it sharpens your eye and is good practice for your main breed even if it's a 4 class breed. Meat Type: The most important thing is the hindquarters. You want full hindquarters that go all the way to the table. Next is the loin. It should be wide and thick. You also want strong shoulders that taper back towards the hindquarters. Condition: The rabbits should have nice firm flesh, not flabby. Uniformity: The rabbits should be uniform in weight, meat type, flesh condition and fur condition. You want the rabbits to be within 1 or 2 oz of each other. Fur: All three meat rabbits must have the same fur type. Most breeds have fly back fur, other kinds of fur are satin and Rex fur. 

Record Keeping; Weight: You should do some test litters and weigh them weekly begining at about 6 weeks so you know if your rabbits will be over 5 lbs at ten weeks. For example, next year if you want a meat pen for the Iowa State Fair, you can breed practice litters for the South Central Iowa RBA show in Colfax March 9th, and the Indion Hills RCBA's show in Oskaloosa June 4th and then the Iowa State Fair with the same does. If for example your fryers are hitting 5 lbs at 8 weeks you will need to adjust your breeding dates to about 2 weeks closer to the shows. Also some of your meat pens and fryers from the Oskaloosa show should be about the right weight (not over 8 lbs.) for a roaster at the State Fair. Litter size: You should do some test litters to find out how many kits your doe has on average. This will help you know how many cages you are going to need when you wean the kits. Some breeders wean the kits at 6 weeks old. Others wait till the day of the show.Breeding information:You need to write down when you bred, which does you bred, and to which buck, so you know when to start palpating, and when to put in the nest box. Gestation length: The gestation length varies from 30-32 days most commonly 31 days. You need to know this because if your doe kindles on day 30 they could be too old for the show you were breeding for.

Planning; Genetics: You have to plan which buck to use on which doe so you can get the best offspring. Breeding: You have to pick out which show you are going to breed for, and if you want 70 day old fryers count back 100 or 101 days and breed on that day. If your lines are growthy they might hit the 5 lbs. mark before they are 70 days old, so you would need to adjust your breeding dates accordingly, which is why you should do test litters. Cage space: You have to know ahead of time if you need to sell or butcher rabbits to open up cages. Feed: If you have to special order your feed, you need to make sure you order it enough ahead of time so the rabbits don't run out.

Husbandry; Keep cages clean: It is much easier to keep the cages clean then to get a stain out of your rabbit's fur. Have feed and water at all times: If your meat pen is without feed or water for even one day, it could ruin their condition for the show. Some breeders like to feed all kinds of things such as sunflower seeds, corn and bananas. We like to keep it simple and just feed a premium feed that has 16% protein and 3 or 4% fat. We feel that the high fat feed improves the rabbit's coat and condition. Grooming: wet your hand and run it over the rabbit's back towards the hindquarters.

Now I hope to see you all showing your practice meat pens at Colfax next spring!