Line-breeding Rabbits

Line is Fine

baby rabbits in a nestboxIf you are starting out, you may have heard of line breeding rabbits.  Perhaps you’ve seen a “line breeding chart”  and perhaps it didn’t make much sense.  When I started in rabbits I often heard, “you’ll do best to line breed”,  but it was a long time before I realized the value of line breeding.  Now that I have developed my own lines in two breeds, I think I understand it better.  I have not made an outcross or purchased an animal for breeding in years, and yet my herd’s condition and show records continually improve.


What is line breeding?

Line breeding is a careful process of breeding closely related animals, in an effort to improve individual traits in your rabbits.


How does a “line” begin?

All great lines start with a few good rabbits.  The breeder breeds these rabbits together and keeps the best offspring.  They breed the offspring back to the parents and then those second-generation offspring back to the parents and grandparents and to each other, and so on, always selecting the strongest pairs and keeping only the best kits.  As time goes on, the herd branches out.  The rabbits get more and more distantly related as the foundation stock gets pushed farther and farther back on the pedigree.    Then what often happens is that the line produces an exceptional buck that the breeder uses on all their does, and the process begins again.


Why should you line breed? 
Line breeding is all about consistency.  If you want long-term success with your animals, line breeding is your best bet.  Sure, the occasional outcross may bring you a winning rabbit, but such an animal rarely breeds true (that is, consistently produces offspring as good or better that itself.)  The key that I think people often don’t realize is this: that rabbits can carry recessive traits for fur, type, and condition as well as for color!  These recessive traits might be good, and they might be bad.  If you consistently mate rabbits of similar backgrounds, eventually all the good and bad traits contained in a line will surface.  The breeder can utilize the rabbits with good traits and reject the rabbits with bad ones.  Eventually (at least, in theory), you should be able to produce consistently good animals without having many surprises crop up in your litters.  The other advantage to line breeding is that your will learn how rabbits in your line should look at various ages.  Kits of some lines develop faster than others, and by knowing what you can expect from your growing juniors, you can cull at an earlier age.

Having a unified line, where all rabbits are fairly similar, gives you the opportunity to tackle problems one at a time.  If you have a barn full of animals from different lines, they will show many different strengths and weaknesses.  But if you have a barn full of related animals, most of them may have thin ears, but they may also all have full hindquarters.  Then you don’t need to worry about correcting hindquarters on some and ears on others, but can set the goal, “I want to improve ears on my line”, and concentrate on that.  You get what you breed for, if you have patience—you really do.


The right way to line breed.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do everything, of course, even to line breed rabbits.  It can lock in bad traits as well as good ones.  Beware of too much inbreeding, that is, of mating rabbits so closely related that they lose vitality and disease resistance.  Also, there is some danger of going “barn blind”, and, for instance, being so used to full hindquarters that you let it slip. It helps to have a friend evaluate your animals sometimes and let you know what they think.  Always select for healthy stock.


The right time to outcross.

Sometimes, yes, “outcrossing” or breeding to an unrelated rabbit is the right thing to do. Perhaps you’re having trouble breeding out a certain fault, or perhaps your herd is becoming too inbred and losing vitality.  When you outcross, choose a rabbit (if possible) not only with strong traits to offset your faults, but from a long line of rabbits with those strong traits.  Breeders sometimes say, “you ought to buy rabbits, not pedigrees”, and while I agree that a good line can produce a poor animal, a good animal from a good line is the smartest choice of all.  Remember that a buck will go farther to impact your line than a doe—for obvious reasons.

The first generation of outcrossed babies may or may not be all that you hoped for.  Remember that the rabbit from the new line carries recessive characteristics that might clash with your line’s genes.  But take the best of those F1 babies back to your line, and soon you should see results.


Be patient in your line breeding.

Consistent winners are bred, not bought.  Line breeding takes time—but not too much time before you see results.  It takes patience, wise management, a keen eye, and a healthy environment, but with these things you should get there, sure enough.  A judge told me once that bringing your herd from average to good isn’t so hard if you know what you’re doing.  From good to great is a larger step.  Line breeding will help you get there.



Rabbit Coat Color Genetics Study Guide

This article is an excerpt from “A book About Bunny Colors: The Practical Breeder’s Guide to Rabbit Coat Color Genetics.”   Written from a breeder’s perspective, the book is designed to help every breeder grasp a working knowledge of rabbit coat color genetics. Now you can use the knowledge of rabbit color genetics to your advantage, and no longer feel like its victim!