When we realized that we wanted to add rabbits to our homestead livestock we began the process of debating what breed of rabbits to use. New Zealand Whites and Californians are the most commonly raised breed for meat in the US and we did go see a rabbitry with NZW rabbits that raised their rabbits indoors. We felt hesitant about getting a breed that had been developed specifically for commercial production, with a high-maintenance setup -- indoor rabbit housing, artificial lights, heating and cooling, commercial feed -- that we did not want to replicate on our tiny homestead.
We stumbled upon a breeder of American rabbits on craigslist and were smitten from the first pictures we saw of her rabbit kits. They were beautiful animals and as we began researching the breed more we realized how good of a fit it would be for our farm.
The American rabbit breed was developed in the early 20th century by Californian Lewis Salisbury. Blue Americans became a recognized breed in 1917 and the white coloring was added in 1925.
Americans were developed as a dual purpose breed for both meat and fur use. The breed became very popular, but after the 1950s breeding numbers dropped. At one point the breed was close to extinction. In the last few years the breed has made a comeback thanks to a number of dedicated breeders. Americans have been moved from the "Critical" list to "Threatened" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Americans are still considered one of the rarest breeds in the US.
Americans are making a return for good reason. They have many good qualities and we found them especially well-adapted to homestead use. We use all natural methods for our rabbits -- no indoor cages, no artificial lights to stimulate growth, no commercial feed -- and it has led to a very hearty and healthy group of animals.
+ Calm temperament: Before getting our Americans we had heard of rabbits having heart attacks from a dog walking by the cage and pregnant does aborting litters due to stress. Our rabbits have proven to be practically unfazable. They tolerate train whistles (loud ones, from a crossing 200 feet from our house), prowling farm cats, a guardian dog who barks all night long, and a rambunctious six-year-old who likes to run around the yard hollering at the top of her lungs. None of these things seem to bother our rabbits in the least. They are very laid back.
+ Good mothering instincts: We have experienced this trait with our first doe Caroline. When she had her first litter we were so nervous that something would go wrong and were up all night checking on her. Her first litter went smoothly -- she pulled plenty of hair to build a good nest and had her babies in the nest box -- and her second litter was a day early so it surprised us completely! She has needed very little from us in the process of raising her kits.
+ Large litters: Litters of 8-10 kits are average for Americans and can be as large as 14. Our doe has been within this range - her first litter was six kits and her second litter was seven.
+ Excellent meat quality and flavor: This breed is a part of Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste for its high quality of meat. Rabbit meat is comparable to the taste of chicken meat, but is very lean. It is also 100% white meat.
+ High-percentage dress out rate: This means the percentage of bones to meat on the carcass is favorable compared to a breed like the New Zealand. One breeder butchers his kits at 8 weeks of age and a 4 pound kit yields about 2 1/4 pounds of dressed meat.
We've got nothing but praise for our Americans. We weren't sure how much work rabbits would be on the farm, but they need very little from us to thrive. We've found them well-adapted to natural feeding methods, which was important to us from the start, and the breeding stock we sell is now third-generation natural feeders. Having this breed has made our transition to being rabbit farmers very easy.
Further resources about the American rabbit breed: