So, you are thinking about showing Rabbits.  This is a quick guide to help you get started and help find other resources.

The first question is how long do you want your project to last?  Rabbit projects generally fall into two categories:

·         Market rabbits (known as meat pens) for showing at a county show can be a short duration project lasting just over a month. 

·         A breeding rabbit project can quite frankly be a lifetime project (or until you sell them). 

Show Market Meat Pen Rabbits

For most 4-H’ers and FFA members their first (and often only) experience with showing rabbits is raising Market Rabbits at their local County Show.  Meat pens consist of three rabbits shown as a group.  They are judged on having a good body type, and for having uniformity among the three individual rabbits.  Basically you are looking for 3 identical triplet rabbits based on weight, width, depth, frame, and fur.  Two exceptional rabbits shown with a fair rabbit normally will not beat three good rabbits.  Since you have to show 3 identical rabbits, it is best to have a few spares to choose from to pick the ones that look alike.  This means ordering 4 or 5 rabbits for each meat pen you intend to show.  I personally like ordering all the rabbits from one litter, less any runts.  The meat pens do not have to be from the same litter, but the chances of them looking the same from one litter are normally higher since they have the same genes.  If you have to get rabbits from different litters, look for ones that have the same father, as it increases the chances of having a similar body type.  If you have a chance to pick bunnies, look for rabbits that look the same the day you get them, because they do not generally get any closer in look as they grow.        

 Most meat pen rabbits are not more than 70 days old when they are shown.  They are often 5 weeks (35 days) old when you pick up your rabbits.  However, someone needs to be thinking far in advance.  Where are you going to get your meat pen rabbits?  Using our County show which is in late December as an example, the mother does must be bred in mid-September.  In the hot south Texas weather, the bucks will be sterile unless kept cool for a month before breeding.  So, the planning for the meat pen starts about 5 months before the show.  Ideally, you would be reserving an order for your meat pen by August, if not as soon as you know your show date.  Since most people do not think about rabbits until September, many local breeders get prepared expecting the calls to come in for orders, but most out of town breeders will not breed until an order is placed, and they will require deposits at that time. 

Generally, the breed of meat pen rabbits in south Texas are either New Zealand Whites or Californians.  The New Zealand White rabbit is pure white, while the Californian is white with black points on the ears, nose, feet and tail.  I would estimate that 75% of rabbits at south Texas market shows are Californian Breed with 20% New Zealand Whites.  There are a few other breeds, but if you are reading this for a new project guide, I would not recommend them, because they are rare and top quality bunnies are not likely to be found.  I would guess that the split between New Zealand Whites and Californians is purely the result of availability, as one breed can win over the other at any given show.           

Like most other types of animals, genetics is the first key to a good meat pen, with feeding being the second.  The best feed bunnies without the genetics for a body type will not win, and great genetics without sound feed will not do any better.  The feeding is fully in your control.  So how do you select the genetics?  Very experienced breeders can tell a lot by looking at and feeling the bunnies.  However, it is hard for most people to judge the quality of a 5 week old bunny that was likely only weaned a few days earlier.  Like most other animals, bunnies also go through a short period where they look awkward right after they are weaned.  Most Counties require the bunnies to be owned and validated about 30 days before the show, so you can’t wait for this awkward period to pass.  My advice is for you to know the person you are buying your bunnies from - know what their meat pen breeding history is and how they have done in the past.  Does that person appear to continue to invest in getting better breeding stock?  Often these indicators of good quality bunnies come with a price, but the best feed bunny without the genetic body type will not win.  Not all bunnies from the same rabbitry are of the same quality.  Many reputable breeders may vary their price of bunnies, because they know some are better than others.  It does not hurt to ask if they have different pricing when ordering the bunnies.  Also, ask what kind of feed the breeder feeds or recommends, because changing feed on new bunnies will slow their growth.  Request a small amount of transition feed to mix with new feed if changing.    

Once you have your bunnies ordered, you have to have a place for them to live.  Assuming you have purchased 5 baby bunnies, they can all live in a single 24 x 30 inch cage to start.  As discussed below, it is recommended to have two additional cages.  I call these the “hold” and the “push” cage.  As you weigh the bunnies every few days, you will see some will grow faster and others slower.  After about two weeks, you will want to move the ones gaining weight fastest to the “hold” pen to reduce the amount of feed, and the lighter ones to the “push” pen where you make sure food is always available.  So again, I recommend 3 separate cages for meat pens.  I highly recommend all wire cages.  Cages made of galvanized wire is most common.  The bottom should be made of small wire, usually ½ by 1 inch rectangles and sides and top out of 1 by 2 inch rectangles.  They are normally assembled with J clips.  Cages with wood will be chewed on over time.  The wood also allows diseases and parasites a place to live.  Cages can be hung by wire inside barns, or simple legs can be made with T posts.  The wire floor is very important to allow the waste to fall through.  The waste under the pens should be cleaned out weekly to reduce flies and odors.  A simple piece of tin may be used for a roof.  Most important of all, a barrier is needed to keep dogs or other animals from getting under the cages.  We use hog panels as a simple way to keep other animals away.  Dogs love to try to get rabbits.  They can harm the rabbits by chewing off toes (a disqualification) or by scaring the rabbit to the point they will injure themselves (often by breaking legs or back) by trying to get away.  Way too many people overlook this and come home to major disappointment.  The rabbits also need to be kept in a place out of weather extremes.  Rabbits can tolerate cold weather far better than hot, but in either case it will slow down their growth.  You need to provide wind breaks in cold weather, but good ventilation in warm.  Rabbits that get wet due to wind-blown rain grow slower or can get a cold (snuffles).  With the meat pen rabbit growth period so short, if they get sick one week, they have lost 20% of their growth period.  There is limited medicine that can be given to rabbits, and likely the withdrawl period is too close to the show.  So it is in your best interest to keep them healthy.  I will say I saw a number of prize market rabbits raised in very primitive pens, but these pens did keep the rabbits healthy.          

Remember to check show schedules to see when validations are scheduled.  At validation, a permanent   ID tattoo will be placed in the rabbit’s left ear and a validation tattoo will be placed in the right ear (this may vary by county).  You want to make sure that you pick up your rabbits from the breeder before your validation date.  On the day you pick up your rabbits you must check the following:  Verify that the rabbit has top and bottom front “buck” teeth, check for four toes and toenails on the rear feet and four toes and nails plus a dew claw on the front feet, check for hernias on the stomach, no visible wounds, scabs in the ears (ear canker), check eyes to make sure they’re clear (no cloudiness), check nose for runniness (snuffles), and check insides of front feet to see if they have been wiping their noses (dried snot, sign of sickness), and lastly that the rabbit body feels plump and not a bony, skinny rabbit.  All of these things should be rechecked before the show, as missing or broken teeth or missing toenails, snuffles, ear canker, and other signs of illness are disqualifications.    

Once you have your bunnies you have to get them to grow.  They are likely less than two pounds when you get them and you should try to get them to be close to (but not over) five pounds on show date.  That is a lot for a little bunny to add (2.5 times their weight!) in 35 days.  To get them to grow, they need lots of fresh water and feed.  Water can be provided in a licking water bottle or a crock.  Crocks should be cleaned daily and refilled twice a day with fresh cool water.  As noted below, using the same feed they were raised on is a good idea, however, mix feed over the period of a week if making a change.  We like Petrus 700 Grower feed (not 700B for meat pens).  A store locator can be found at www.petrusfeed.com.   Four meat pen bunnies will eat about 50 pounds of feed in 30 days.  Whatever feed brand you use, it needs to be a grower, and not a general purpose rabbit feed.  The key to any feed is freshness and minimum dust to get the bunnies to eat a lot.  We recommend feeding in a rabbit feeder with a screen bottom to allow dust to fall out of the bottom.  Bunnies like chewing pellets, but will not eat the dust that is found in bags or is a result of chewing. Keep feed available at all times unless you are trying to hold bunnies that are growing too fast.  Do not put more than one day’s feed out at a time.  Rabbit feed absorbs moisture from the air, and goes stale in a matter of hours.  Bunnies want fresh dry feed.  Empty uneaten feed from their feeder every day.  If you keep feed in the feeder more than a day, the bunnies will not like it.  We feed meat pens twice a day.  Some bunnies like digging in the feeder to find fresher feed.  That wastes lots of feed, but is a result of the temperament of the bunny, and there is not much to do about it.  Ask your breeder for their recommendation on a recipe for a feeding conditioner.  This usually consists of extra grain given to help condition the bunnies, and contains oats, barley, and sunflower seeds.

Bunnies should be weighed very often to see how fast they are gaining weight.  They will start by gaining about an ounce per day, but that will increase to 4 ounces per day near the end.  Keep a chart for each bunny.  Start weighing them twice a week and then increase to daily as the show approaches.  Bunnies under 3 pounds or over 5 pounds will be disqualified.  Most people try to get the bunnies as close to 5 pounds possible, without going over.  If one bunny in the set is disqualified, the whole pen is.  The scale you pick should be able to read ounces, and most bathroom scales some use are to the nearest half pond which is a lot on a 5 pound rabbit.  Though the time you are raising the bunnies, try to spend time handling and posing the bunnies.  The bunnies need to get use to people, because scared bunnies will not pose correctly for the judge.  In big classes of rabbits, many times judges will not spend much time with “wild” bunnies, and just place them at the bottom of the class.   

As show time approaches, try to see if an experience person can assist in evaluating your bunnies to tell which ones should be the pen of 3.  If you have been playing with them a lot (as you should) it will be hard for you to be objective.  Bunnies can change significantly within 24 hours, so keep evaluating until it is time to present the pen of three.  In the end, you are looking for 3 identical triplets, so let that be the basis of your selection.  As an experienced meat pen grower, I know it is often easy to find two alike, but the third is hard even when you have upwards of 30 bunnies to choose from.  Don’t forget to check for disqualifications (see above) when selecting the bunnies for show. 

Here is a short summary of items you will need:

·         Bunnies, recommended 5, @ about $40 each

·         Grower feed, two 50 lb. sacks @ $20 each

·         Conditioning oats, etc.

·         Pens, recommended 3 pens that are 24 by 30 inches

·         Rabbit feeder with screened bottom

·         Waterer

·         Carrying Cage to pick up, validate, and take bunnies to the show

·         Scale (needs to measure ounces)

·         Time to care and tame bunnies

In most shows today, exhibitors get to take the bunnies home after they are placed, so you need to plan.  Sometimes there are people willing to buy the bunnies for about $5 for meat, you could take them home for pets, or if they are good you could consider turning them into breeders.  Regardless, you should have a plan on what to do with them once the show is over before you ever order bunnies.

Breeding Rabbits

The first thing to plan before you decide to have breeding rabbits in south Texas is a plan to keep them cool in the long hot summer, which seems to last for six months.  Think about wearing a fur coat outside when it is 100 degrees without being able to take it off.  Shade trees, fans, misters, frozen ice bottles, and ultimately air conditioning are all options that people have used successfully.  However, if your system for cooling fails for just a few hours or if you skip just one day, chances that you bunny will suffer heat stroke.  I know this sounds harsh, but it is reality when you have 60 days of 100 degree temperatures in a summer. 

There are many other things that could go next, but I will discuss rabbit breeds.  The American Rabbit Breeders Association recognizes 47 breeds of rabbits.  Within these defined breeds, there are countless varieties.  My suggestion is to attend a rabbit show to see the many different breeds all in one place.  Arrive early and look around the cages to see which ones catch your eye, and almost everyone will be helpful to assist in identifying breeds.  Wait until the breed is called to be shown and then watch the show.  This way you see which breeders are doing well on the show table, and that might be a good source to get your first bunnies.  Most judges will not give you much feedback while they are judging, but they will after they select the best of breed.  Don’t be shy - quickly ask the judge for pointers on what makes that best of breed the best before the winners take the bunnies off the table.  Some breeds will be very plentiful, while others will be very rare.  This will vary from area to area.  You will have to decide if you what to show against large classes or small classes.  Typically, the larger the class, the easier it is to find good bunnies, and the higher the chances that Best Of Breed can go on to win Best In Show.  However, young kids (and old) can be disappointed if their “prize” bunny comes in last, so small classes helps you place higher.  When getting started on breeding rabbits, ideally you want to look for a trio of bunnies, a buck and two does.  Make sure that the buck is not closely related to the does.  This sometimes requires going to a second breeder to complete your trio.

For most of the details of housing, feeding, and care, I am going to refer you to a very good beginner’s guide published for Texas 4-H by the AgriLIFE Extension service named the Rabbit Project reference Manual.  The line seems to be constantly moving, but last seen at:

http://texas4-h.tamu.edu/files/2011/12/publications_projects_rabbit_project_reference_manual.pdf

In addition to the local County shows, clubs affiliated with the American Rabbit Breeders Association routinely hold shows.  I did a quick count of over 20 named shows held in Texas each year.  Many of these are called “double” meaning that they will have two opportunities to be judged by different judges at the same event, and others are triples, meaning 3 judgings. 




Copyright 2012 www.KKRabbitry.com
Reproduced with permission only with source documented

 
Other information:

After trying other feeds, we currently feed Petrus 50/50 Rabbit Conditioner

We buy most of our bunny supplies from www.bunnyrabbit.com.  They have just about everything you can think of at reasonable prices.  They routinely attend most of the shows we are at, so we try to buy at the shows.  However, you can have the items shipped to you.  Many people are surprised to learn that they are based out of Spring Branch, Texas.    

At most shows, the exhibitor needs to present their 3 bunnies to the show secretary to check the bunnies in.  The bunnies will be weighed and pre-screened for any obvious disqualifications.  Then the bunnies are placed in a cage to be judged against the other people’s rabbits.  Depending on the size of the show, this may take several hours, so be patient and hope for the best from your hard work.          
www.petrusfeed.com purchased from West Feeds of San Antonio (210-635-8004).  Above all, freshness of feed is important to keep the rabbits eating.   We also like the minimum dust.  During show season, we will add a mixture of oats, barley, and sunflower seeds to give a little extra cover.


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