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Why Does Type Matter?

As I talk with folks about meat rabbits, I often refer to “type” or “commercial type.” When doing so, I’m referring to the ARBA defined ideal conformation of the breeds of rabbit best suited to meat production.

Now, that definition is available in it’s entirety within the ARBA Standard of Perfection (aka the SOP). I STRONGLY suggest that if you are going to breed rabbits, you get a copy. It will be the most valuable $20 you ever spend in the rabbit raising venture, no matter what your end goal actually is. You can get an electronic or digital copy via the ARBA Store.

In 1996, the ARBA removed the dressed carcass classes from their sanctioned shows, and the standards from the SOP, and I personally feel that was a negative turning point for commercial breeds as production livestock.

Here is an article from the ARBA’s Domestic Rabbit magazine that the ARBA links from it’s own website. While this article is focused on selecting and evaluating meat pen show rabbits, understand that the same evaluation points mentioned are what you want to be seeing in your own meat herd.

I wholly believe that well developed meat pen rabbits are the EPITOME of what a commercial breed rabbit should be, as compared to the Open level, Breed class winners. In my unapologetic opinion, being a winning fryer should be a pre-requisite to being a BOB winner for all commercial beeds!

See how easily I can get off track?! LOL Let’s see if I can get this train back on the rail, shall we?

Since 1996, when the ARBA removed the dressed carcass standards, commercial type breeds have certainly continued to be improved, but there have been and continue to be trends lending less toward form-to-function, and more toward a more modernly visually appealing, dramatic, “pretty” rabbit on the exhibition tables. That has led to a drastic disassociation with what the rabbits are intended to be used for, and what they are capable of in their current physical form.

Think first about what the useful parts of a meat rabbit are.

Originally, meat rabbits were also pelt rabbits because it just makes sense to use as much of any production animal as we can (much like beef cows are also leather sources), but even now the primary purpose of a meat rabbit is to be a quickly grown, feed efficient meat source.

The largest amounts of edible meat come from the hind legs, loin, then shoulders. It makes sense then that those areas will have the largest comformationally important structure.

To paraphrase:

Commercial type rabbits will ideally be as wide across the hindquarters (when viewed from above) as they are tall at their highest point (when viewed from the side), being slightly narrower at the shoulder than the hip, and they will arc steadily from a point just behind the ears to a high point over the center of the hindquarters, rounding from that high point smoothly down to the table (the flat surface upon which they are sitting for evaluation).

It doesn’t sound all that complicated, but there are a lot of moving parts that go into setting up that ideal frame, and how those work together in the movement of the animal has an important impact on the growth and development of the muscles.

There is currently a popular shift in preference among show breeders to a short-coupled, highly arced profile on commercial type rabbits, with the claim being that the loin is wider, longer, thicker, and therefore better. The current standard doesn’t help much on the technical interpretation, because it states:

they will arc steadily from a point just behind the ears to a high point over the center of the hindquarters”

Both of these rabbits “arc steadily from a point just behind the ears, to a high point over the center of the hindquarters.” Which is “correct?” They BOTH meet that description as it’s written.

Photo available publicly via Facebook
Image available publicly via breed association web page

I’m not alluding that EITHER of these rabbits is a bad rabbit, because neither of them are by any stretch of the imagination. However, the rabbit below also meets that description (obviously this isn’t a posed picture).

One of these three rabbits is a commercial type, production rabbit; the other two are exhibition rabbits.

The largest problems with that kind of shift in commercial animal conformation is the impact on growth rate, mechanical functionality, and carcass composition.

Ask as many show breeders as will discuss it with you how quickly their show animals reach fryer weight. Ask them what their dress-out percentages are (live weight vs edible, bone-in carcass weight), and what their meat-to-bone ratios are. If you get answers, please let me know because every single one that I have asked has refused to answer, or actually got angry and verbally abusive.

If they can’t, or won’t, answer those questions realize that they are not breeding commercial type rabbits for their intended purpose as you are, they are merely raising exhibition animals. To misquote Forrest Gump, pretty is as pretty does! 

Realize that you aren’t seeing that extreme exhibition type on 70 day old, 56 to 88 ounce fryers, and when those fryers grow up they don’t look like the popular exhibition animals.

What a rabbit looks like and weighs at 8 months of age is of little value if the growth and muscle development of the carcass is lacking at 70 days of age.

So, what IS a “good” carcass?

Typically, you will start with a five pound live rabbit, and after processing and removal of the inedible portions (leave kidneys, liver, and heart inside the carcass) you should have a minimum of a two pound eight ounce carcass. That is a 50% dress-out. The ideal would be a 48 oz carcass, which is the 60% dress-out mark.

However, there are many breeds and varieties of domestic rabbit that will dress out 50%, or even better, and still not give you a good carcass due to the weight of the remaining inedible portions. To determine the meat-to-bone ratio, you have to remove the bones.

De-boning a rabbit isn’t terribly difficult, but it does take some practice. I really like this tutorial video if you, like me, learn visually!

Now, does all of this even matter if you’re just raising enough to feed your family? It absolutely does!

You want to produce the most meat, with the least cost and time you can. The longer you have to grow a fryer (or roaster or stewer), the more you have to feed it (and it’s parents), and the more space you MUST to have to do it in.

Meat rabbits are supposed to be a fast growing, highly productive, efficient production animal. Once you start looking at weights and carcasses instead of win pictures, you will find that it really is not too difficult to find or breed a good meat rabbit.

You will also find that sometimes the pursuit of “perfection” leaves you with animals that don’t perform at all like they should. Don’t be afraid to break it all down to numbers (conception rates, litter averages, weaning weights, daily gains, and carcass ratios for example) to determine the real worth or value of your herd, and let the exhibitors do their own thing.

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