Question of the Week
Answer: This information is excerpted from a forthcoming ATTRA publication on rabbit production.
Rabbit meat is high in protein and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium when compared to most of the meats eaten in the U.S. (1). The meat rabbit industry in the U.S. was significant around the time of World War II, but since then has declined. However, rabbit meat has great potential to feed people in developing countries and could be promoted in the U.S. as a healthful, natural meat.
Two medium-size breeds, the New Zealand White (NZW) and the Californian, are the most important for meat production. The NZW is considered the best breed overall, considering mothering ability and carcass characteristics. However, crossing male Californians to female NZWs and then breeding the female from this cross back to male Californians results in larger litter sizes and heavier fryers than using straight NZWs.
Housing depends on the scale of the operation; rabbits can be raised on a commercial or backyard scale. Practical Rabbit Housing (2) is a useful reference for designing housing, listed below. An experienced producer with a stable market may want to build a specialized building. Commercial rabbitries usually house animals in all-wire cages suspended above the ground. On a backyard scale, a hutch can be built to house a few animals outside.
Rabbits are ideally kept where the temperature can be maintained at 62°F. In any type of building, ventilation is very important in order to reduce ammonia buildup and to help the animals stay cool during hot periods.
While building or designing rabbit housing, remember that rabbits tend to gnaw, especially on wood. If plastic water lines are used to deliver water, attach them to the outside of the cage so the rabbits cannot chew them.
Rabbits eat only plants and are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. They recycle feed by re-ingesting the cecotropes. Cecotropes are small particles of digested food that collect in the cecum (hindgut), which the rabbit voids once a day and consumes directly from the anus. Cecatropes are sometimes called "night feces" and look softer than the round, hard pellets normally seen.
Rabbits are usually fed a commercial pelleted diet that is balanced in the necessary nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals). These diets contain alfalfa, grain (barley, wheat mill by-products), protein supplements (soybean meal), vitamins and mineral supplements.
If your herd is small, it may be economical to reduce the amount of pellets and feed rabbits some available greens. Greens and succulents include fresh legumes (alfalfa, clover), grasses, vegetables (lettuce, celery), roots and tubers (carrots, potatoes), weeds (dandelions) and comfrey. Rabbits may be pastured in outdoor pens placed on the ground in order to harvest their own fresh forage.
Instead of a commercial pelleted diet, producers can mix their own feedstuffs, especially if they grow or purchase their own feed ingredients. If you don’t have a recipe you trust, ration-balancing ensures that diets contain the correct amount of nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, minerals, etc.) for rabbits during different stages of growth or reproduction. The book Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition (3) has a section that deals with ration-balancing and nutrient requirements.
Rabbits do not have a heat cycle like many animals do—rabbits ovulate after mating. Birth of the kits (kindling) occurs in 31 days with NZWs. One can rebreed does about one and a half months after kindling for four to five litters per year. Kits are generally weaned at 30 days of age; however, if the doe is rebred at one and a half months after kindling, the kits can be left with their mothers for up to two months. A good doe sends an average of 50 fryers a year to market. Young rabbits (fryers) should be separated by sex after 12 weeks to prevent fighting and inbreeding.
It is important to keep production records in order to know when to carry out crucial activities such as putting in the nestbox and to aid in choosing the best replacement stock. Ear tags or tattoos are necessary with large numbers of rabbits.
Sanitation is very important. When fur and dust accumulate on cages, they can be removed by burning with a propane torch. Nestboxes should be cleaned and disinfected after use (one ounce of bleach to one gallon water is a good cleaning solution).
A commonly encountered disease is mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary glands, which is treatable with antibiotics. The bacteria Pasteurella causes snuffles and pneumonia; chronic Pasteurella sufferers should be culled from the herd. Rabbits showing overgrown teeth, those developing sorehocks, and poor producers should also be culled. The Rabbit Handbook contains more information on diseases.
If antibiotics are used to treat disease, a withdrawal period is required before slaughter to ensure residues have cleared the animal’s system. Since antibiotics and hormones are not routinely used in rabbit production, the meat is especially appropriate for natural and organic markets.
Rabbits that receive good nutrition reach a market weight of four to five pounds liveweight within 10–12 weeks and are marketed as fryers. It may take longer to reach market weight with poorer nutrition.
Rabbit processing generally consists of stunning or killing the animal, hanging it to bleed, removing the head, removing feet and tails, removing skins, eviscerating, washing the carcass, chilling the carcass in a water tank or refrigerated room, aging the carcass under refrigeration, and packaging. The Rabbit Handbook discusses home butchering.
If you are planning to establish a USDA-inspected plant, contact the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. There is very little information available on building plans for rabbit processing.
The federal inspection of rabbit meat is voluntary. Some states only permit the sale of rabbit if it is inspected under state laws. Contact the department of agriculture for information on regulations in your state.
Marketing rabbits can be difficult and frustrating, because there are few processors that buy live rabbits and supply and demand can be unstable. In the wintertime, producers may have a more difficult time raising rabbits and therefore supply is limited; however, in the summertime, supply can become glutted. A market report is listed at the following website. www.prma.org/marketreport/marketreport.pdf.
The U.S. does not have a history of rabbit consumption. However, there is untapped potential, especially for the natural and organic markets. At the same time, the rabbit industry has many challenges in the U.S. Rabbit meat is high in cost compared to other livestock and should be considered a luxury meat. Feasibility studies and business planning is needed if you are planning to invest money in rabbit production.
In many ways, rabbits are more suited for small-scale production than large-scale, industrial production.
For further questions about raising rabbits, contact Dr. Steve Lukefahr (4) at Texas A & M University – Kingsville, Dr. James McNitt (5) of the Small Farm Family Resource Development Center at Southern University, or Dr. Mark Grober (6) at California State University. Dr. Lukefahr’s international rabbit research program is described at http://users.tamuk.edu/kfsdl00/rabb.html . They are experts in the field and willing to answer questions. The state-of-the-art book Rabbit Production (7) covers all areas of production. Ordering information for the book is included below but you can also ask your library to borrow it via Interlibrary Loan.
Useful organizations include:
• The American Rabbit Breeders' Association (8), which publishes a membership directory of rabbit breeders and Domestic Rabbits, a show-oriented magazine.
• The Professional Rabbit Meat Association (9) provides information on raising rabbits for meat and has a newsletter and website www.prma.org/
• The American Branch of the World Rabbit Science Association has a website at http://arnica.csustan.edu/abwrsa/ Dr. McNitt is secretary/treasurer and can provide additional information. In addition the World Rabbit Science Association has a website at http://world-rabbit-science.org/.
• The Animal Welfare Institute (10) provides welfare guidelines for rabbit care. The guidelines are available at www.awionline.org/farm/standards/rabbitsprint.htm.
In addition to the referenced materials, there are many books and pamphlets available on rabbit production. University Extension services often have circulars on rabbit production available upon request, with some of these geared to 4-H rabbit projects.
1) Lukefahr, S.D. 1993. Research study confirms that rabbit meat is low in cholesterol.
Domestic Rabbits. May-June. p. 22–25.
2) McNitt, James. 1996. Practical Rabbit Housing. Southern University and A&M College,
Baton Rouge, LA. Title page, table of contents, p. 1–23.
3) Cheeke, P.R. 1987. Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. Academic Press, Orlando, FL. 376 p.
4) Dr. Steve Lukefahr
Department of Animal and Wildlife Sciences
Texas A & M University
Campus Box 156
Kingsville, TX 78363
5) Dr. James McNitt
Rabbit Production Specialist
Small Farm Family Resource Development Center
Southern University and A&M College
Baton Rouge , LA 70813
Telephone (225) 771 2262
Fax (225) 771 4464
6) Dr. Mark Grober
California State University, Stanislaus
Turlock, CA 95382
7) McNitt, James I. 2000. Rabbit Production. 8th Edition. The
Interstate Printers and Publishers, Inc., Danville, IL. 493 p.
Interstate Publishers, Inc.
P.O. Box 50
Danville, IL 61834-0050
8) American Rabbit Breeders Association
1925 S. Main St.
Bloomington, IL 61702
10) Animal Welfare Institute
P.O. Box 3650
Washington, DC 20027
Belanger, J.D. 1993. Homesteader’s handbook to raising small livestock: Installment II—Raising rabbits. Countryside & Small Stock Journal. September–October. p. 77–79.
Brooks, D. et al. 1989. Rabbit Handbook. Leaflet 21020. University of CA Cooperative Extension. 27 p. http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/InOrder/Shop/ItemDetails.asp?ItemNo=21020
McNitt, James, I. 2005. Market report
Accessed 10/12/05 http://www.prma.org/marketreport/marketreport.pdf
McNitt, J.I. 2004. Rabbit information available from Small Farm Family Resource Development Center, Baton Rouge, LA. 9 p.
McNitt, J.I. 1986. Starting a commercial rabbit enterprise. Missouri Farm. January–February. p. 25.
McNitt, J.I. 1989. Enteritis in rabbits. Missouri Farm. March–April. p. 24.
Meek, M.W. 1996. ‘Old-fashioned’ ways to feed rabbits. Countryside & Small Stock Journal. July–August. p. 51–52.
Perry, Janet G., Scott M Barao and Tom W. Smith. 2001. Rabbits can be raised on small acreage. American Small Farm. April. P. 34, 36-37.
Shirley, Christopher. 1995. Retail rabbits. The New Farm. p. 12–15.
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