Over the weekend I attended a workshop on income opportunities in agriculture. One of the speakers was Daniel Salatin of Polyface Farms. The son of Joel Salatin, Daniel began raising meat rabbits twenty years ago when he was only seven years old. So he knew quite a bit about producing rabbits on pasture. This is a topic I'm very interested in. Since we eat meat and want both to be frugal and to reduce our carbon footprint, it makes sense to produce some of our own meat ourselves. Given our small residential property, rabbits seem to be one of the best possibilities.
I'm going to share what I learned from Daniel Salatin's presentation. WARNING: If raising animals for slaughter and consumption bothers you, you may want to skip this post.
Daniel raises rabbits that he has more or less bred himself over the last two decades. They are mostly a cross between the New Zealand White and California breeds, though he also once had a Dutch buck that contributed to the gene pool. His current breeding stock show coloration typical of none of these breeds. He said that he selectively bred for those animals that did well for him on their Virginia farm. It so happened that the ones who did well showed recessive traits in coloration. But he had no preference at all in their coloration when he made breeding decisions. The rabbits have tawny-golden fur with slightly darker coloration on their foreheads. Very attractive rabbits.
When the does are ready to give birth they are removed from pasture and kept in indoor cages. The kits and mother doe are kept indoors together for five weeks after birth. At five weeks, the doe goes back on to pasture, and the kits are kept indoors alone for one more week. Daniel said that the 5-7 week age is when the kits are most susceptible to coccidiosis. So although he must transition them to pasture very soon, he removed the mother at that point so as not to introduce two stresses (separation from mother, and change of scenery/feeding) simultaneously. After a week alone the litter is put together in a pen on grass.
The rabbit pens used at Polyface Farms are 3'x8' and about 2' high. They are designed hold 10 rabbits at a time, but usually hold one litter each. The frame is constructed from 2x2's with chickenwire siding. The roof is made from corrugated aluminum roofing, which is admittedly expensive but extremely durable, and can be re-used for decades. The bottom of the pen has long thin wooden slats running the 8' length of the pen with a reinforcing cross bar on top of the slats in the middle of the pen. When asked, Daniel claimed the slats are set about 1.5"-2" apart, although they looked more widely spaced than that to me, based on the pictures he showed. I would have guessed they were about 3" apart. But I'll go with the stated spacing when we construct our pens.
The critical aspect of the slats is that they be arranged parallel to the long sides of the pen, and that the pen always be moved in the direction of the slats. Rabbits will feed on grasses and other greens, but only if the tips of the plants are pointing upwards. They like to nibble from the tips down towards the roots. If the stalks are bent downwards by the slats or anything else, the rabbits will ignore the greenery and only eat whatever other feed is provided.
These pens get moved at least once per day, and often more frequently than that. As a rule of thumb, Daniel recommended that the rotation period for the pens be a full year, although he said they have had no problem at Polyface when using rotations as short as 6 months. In other words, he recommends that the rabbit pen not be put on the same piece of pasture more frequently than once every 12 months. Even for a small operation, that's a significant space requirement.
Pasture can supply 25-40% of the rabbits' dietary needs. They will eat clover and other high protein greens, but actually prefer plants that Daniel Salatin referred to as "stemmy" or scrubby. He specifically mentioned beet greens, comfrey and other plants with developed stalks, including green rye and winter wheat. He also said that rabbits will do very well over the winter months if they are provided with root crops for their consumption: carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, etc. The will eat hay in the winter months if nothing else is available. His standard purchased feed for rabbits is non-medicated alfalfa pellets.
The Salatins have never seen any evidence of either tapeworms or coccidiosis in their rabbits. They have periodically sent tissue samples for testing, which has never revealed either disease in their stocks. Coccidiosis would most readily show up as white spots on the liver of the animal. They do not and have never used any prophylactic antibiotics or other preventative medications on their rabbits. According to Daniel Salatin, even if a rabbit did have coccidiosis, the meat would still be safe for humans to eat, since the disease is species specific. But obviously such an animal would not be healthy, and he would not sell any animal he knew to be infected. (NB: Accuracy of this information is disputed. Please see the comment section for another perspective on coccidiosis.)
Rabbits are slaughtered on Polyface Farms at 12 weeks of age and about 4-5 lbs live weight. They dress out at about 3 pounds each. The Salatins adhere to a "Levitical" slaughtering practice that calls for the rabbits to first be stunned and then bled to death. After twenty years of practice, it takes Daniel less than three minutes to dress a rabbit. This work is done outside with buckets to collect the blood, with the rabbits actually hung upside down from a clothes line to bleed out.
Although the rabbits he raises have attractive pelts, he does not sell them or use them for any purpose. He said there's very little demand for rabbit pelts and what market there is prefers white fur. He allowed that a cottage industry could likely find some use for cured pelts, but with his other family and farm responsibilities, he has not had time to develop any such project. I'll bet some very warm hats with ear flaps could be made from rabbit pelts. He did show a photo of some of the farm cats dining al fresco on the organs.
I spoke briefly with Daniel's wife, Sheri, and she said that they have far more demand for rabbit meat than they can meet. She said if they had them, they could sell 300 rabbits per week! No doubt such demand came about through the Salatins developing their own market and through the cache of the Polyface Farms name. I didn't get this down in my notes, but I believe they said they sell their rabbits whole for $4.50 per pound.
I also asked her if they ever sell live rabbits as breeding stock. She said that they did, and that the price depended on the age/size of the live rabbits at the time of sale. Polyface Farms doesn't ship any of their products, so if you're interested in their rabbits for breeding stock, you would need to pick them up on the farm yourself. I do wonder though whether they might be persuaded to deliver live rabbits with one of their regularly scheduled deliveries to Washington DC, Maryland, or Virginia.
I found a great blog written by a Polyface Farms apprentice. Check out his posts about their rabbit operation, including pictures of just about everything I've mentioned here, if you'd like to learn more. But if my descriptions of the slaughtering bothered you, trust me, you don't want to see these pictures.
Based on what I learned at this workshop, meat rabbits seem largely doable for us. The biggest concerns I have are that adding rabbits on top of our laying hens would put us over the zoning limits for "outdoor pets" in our suburban area. Since we only have 2/3 of an acre altogether, and much of that is devoted to our house, garage, and garden, we also might run into space limitations in our backyard if we try to avoid placing the rabbits on any patch of grass more than once per year, especially if we run multiple pens to keep does, a buck, and litters separate. And then there's the issue of where we would keep the rabbits over the winter months. I think we could manage the slaughter and dressing of the animals once we got over that hump.
I hope some of you found this write-up useful. I think I've included everything I learned, so I don't know what else I could add. But if you have any questions, leave them in the comments and I'll try to answer them. Are any of you thinking of raising meat rabbits in the near future?
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