A friend recently reminisced to me about her experience of living abroad 20 years ago. During that once-in-a-lifetime adventure, she recalled eating an amazing meal that still makes her mouth water just thinking of it: a rabbit dish from in a restaurant in a small Italian village. Years later, she continues to search out the best rabbit from her local butcher in order to recreate that special meal.
In the United States, understanding rabbits as a form of farm livestock is challenged by public opinion. More commonly, people think of rabbits as companion animals or pets. However, as one of the healthiest meats other than fish, rabbit also represents a commodity that Americans are beginning to learn more about.
“Rabbits are efficient and require low overhead,” says Eric Stewart, executive director of the American Rabbit Breeders Association. “They are economical to raise, offering better feed conversion ratios than larger livestock. But they are also sensitive to heat and have lower conception rates in the winter months. So there are lots of things to consider before choosing to raise rabbits for meat.”
Do Your Homework
Stewart explains that farmers considering raising rabbits for meat need to know the zoning in their area. For a small, urban or suburban farm, zoning restrictions may be an issue. While rabbits don’t smell and aren’t as noisy as chickens, researching zoning is the first step.
The second consideration is finding an outlet for processing and selling meat. Stewart says that like other livestock meats, rabbit meat that is raised for market must be processed and inspected in a USDA-licensed facility. Retail sales, in particular, require that the meat be processed according to USDA specifications. For personal consumption, rabbit raisers can process the meat at home without a USDA license. These two variables will determine the size of your operation at the beginning.
“My personal recommendation is to start small and grow as you go,” Stewart says. Becoming a member of the ARBA is an excellent way to learn about meat rabbits before starting a herd. An investment of $20 for an adult membership will provide you with access to tons of information including the organization’s Domestic Rabbit magazine, along with the ARBA Guide to Raising Better Rabbits & Cavies. This last resource provides detailed information about rabbit care ranging from caging and watering systems to ventilation diagrams, record keeping and butchering. A membership also offers a way to connect with rabbit breeding community.
Finally, after checking off these homework items, Stewart suggests exploring how you will market your product. Will you network through a local CSA? Will you sell specifically to a restaurant or will you be retailing the meat yourself? These are factors that will help you determine the size of your operation at the start.
Grow Your Rabbit Farm
Ruth-Ann Bell of Skyward Bound Farms in Pennsylvania got her start with meat rabbits as a 4-H project when she was 8 years old. Today, she and her family raise meat rabbits on their farm, and everyone plays a part in ensuring the animals are fed, have clean water and live in clean, temperate conditions.
“Sanitation and ventilation are keys to raising meat rabbits,” Bell says. “Rabbits do best in all-wire hutches in some kind of enclosure that protects them from the environment.”
Wire hutches allow waste products to drop through while keeping animals completely sanitary, and wire sides on the hutches keep airflow circulating through and rid the cages of ammonia smells.
Bell and Stewart recommend keeping rabbits in individual cages that are appropriate for their size. Female rabbits are very territorial, so individual cages provide the safest strategy for caring for does.
A female’s territoriality is also the reason for putting her in the buck’s cage for breeding: Stewart monitors the pair until breeding is complete, moving the female back to her own cage for the safety of the buck. The female’s ovulation is stimulated by the process of mating; she doesn’t come into heat like other mammals. This process of induced ovulation means that winter conception rates are typically lower.
When a female is ready to deliver her litter, she needs a larger cage: 30-by-36 inches. She remains with her offspring until they are weaned at 5 to 8 weeks of age and moved into their own individual cages. After weaning, rabbits are fed a 16-percent-protein pellet plus provided with plenty of fresh water, which is a major factor in promoting health and producing firm flesh. It takes another two to four weeks for the animals to reach a weight of about 5 pounds; ready for processing. Seventy days of age is generally the optimum time for processing fryers; waiting longer translates into a lesser gain for the feed provided and the meat is not as tender.
New Zealand Whites and Californians are the best breeds for meat rabbits when it comes to growth and size. These two breeds are well-known for commercial meat sales offering a consistent, high-quality flesh with good feed conversion efficiency.
Rabbit Herd Care Tips
Rabbits don’t tolerate heat as well as they do cold weather; in fact, Bell says a buck can become sterile in prolonged temperatures higher than 85 degrees F. When it’s too hot, Bell suggests adding fans, swamp coolers and misters to the rabbit barn. She also puts frozen water bottles in rabbit cages to help the animals keep cool. Winter months are not so much of a challenge; rabbits seem to like the cooler temperatures.
Bell adds that starting off with healthy animals is key to maintaining a successful herd; the work of raising the rabbits is more about cleanliness, care and providing safe conditions. Issues like diarrhea (which can pass quickly and be devastating to young animals) or Pasteurella (a respiratory condition that all rabbits harbor) can be mitigated with proper sanitation and ventilation through the rabbitry.
An initial rabbitry may host a small herd—five does and a buck or two—for producing sufficient meat litters. This herd size will offer a new meat rabbit raiser an opportunity to understand the elements of responsible rabbit care.
Taking Rabbit Meat To Market
Rabbit meat has the highest protein content of all land meats. It contains 167.5 calories of protein and 6.8 grams of fat in a 3-ounce serving. A beef serving of the same size contains 259 calories of protein and 18.3 grams of fat. Raising rabbits also reduces the carbon footprint of the farmer over other meat animals. Cows, pigs and poultry live on grains while rabbits consume forages, making them more eco-friendly. Rabbits also require a much smaller space than the other three species, helping to contribute to a lower impact on the environment overall.
Stewart raises Angora rabbits and goats. His rabbits are dual-purpose, first for their wool, and then for their meat. Angora, Giants, Satins and French are all dual-purpose rabbit breeds that enable the grower to harvest a fleece in addition to meat. The pelts of New Zealand Whites and Californians aren’t as desirable to the fiber market. The U.S. has seen a significant decline in the fur industry, and pelts are generally composted after rendering.
Terry Grubb, chairman of the commercial department of ARBA, is cautionary when it comes to considering meat rabbits as a revenue stream for hobby farmers.
“Almost all meat raisers find a niche market for selling their products,” Grubb says, suggesting thoroughly exploring and identifying your niche market before beginning if you want to move toward making a profit. “Raising meat rabbits is not a get-rich-quick proposition. I started with a small barn that was 40-by-200 feet and added onto it 11 times [as my business has grown]. With a niche, there are profit possibilities, but not like with other livestock.”
Grubb explains that on a small scale, farmers can raise rabbits to provide healthy, nutritious, homegrown meat for their families, as well as to sell to friends and neighbors. Although you cannot sell from your freezer, you can sell the live rabbit and offer to process it for your buyer. As you expand your business, explore niches, which might include specialty restaurants, butcher shops and the reptile industry (rabbits are fed to reptiles). The ARBA website has a page featuring the processing companies across the country; these are a limited resource, so finding one near you may be a challenge.
Humphries adds that vendors across the country purchase meat rabbits for human consumption, but pricing varies. And if the rabbits have to be driven to another city to be processed, this eats into the rabbit-raiser’s bottom line.
“If someone wants to sell rabbits, I recommend they do research and outreach before beginning,” Humphries says. “Focus on what you will do with their meat, how much you will keep for your family’s consumption and who your potential markets are. Find out the local regulations for butchering or identify your nearest USDA facility in advance.”
“A good way to get connected [to area resources] is to attend a local show,” Humphries suggests. “There you will meet people who are raising rabbits for show and for meat purposes.”
While raising and selling rabbit meat can have its challenges, such as finding a niche for your product, there are rewards, too. On a small production farm, it can be rewarding to add rabbit meat as a source of protein for the family diet. Raising your own rabbit meat offers you knowledge about the how the animal was raised, what it has consumed to reach processing weight and where the meat comes from.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.