Monday, March 2, 2009

Meat Rabbits on Pasture

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?

Related post:
Going Mobile with a Backyard Flock

44 comments:

Anonymous said...

We are hoping to get some chickens this spring they will be the first animals in our small yard of one acre.

I would like to get some meat rabbits a few hutches would be great. Keep us up-dated on what you decide to do.

Where are you going to buy your rabbits?

~Renee

gardendesk.com

Kate said...

Renee, if you've got a one acre yard then you should have plenty of space. Our entire lot is 2/3 acre, and we keep hens as well as a large garden. I will definitely post as the meat rabbit project comes along. But I doubt I'll get any rabbits before summer is well under way. Lot of other things going on before that. No idea yet where the rabbits will come from. We'll see.

Alison said...

As usual, a very interesting and informative post. I'd never considered raising meat rabbits, having been more focused on eventually having dual-purpose chickens. However, my city's bylaws require a minimum one acre lot to keep chickens in a residential zone, and our rental property is about a quarter of that size. Thus, plans for raising my own protein had been put on hold.

Until your post, that is! I've just rechecked my city's bylaws, and lots under an acre are permitted to keep 2 rabbits! As a result, I am very interested in reading about your prospective adventures with meat rabbits this summer.

I think I'll wait another year, myself, as I'm getting married this summer, as well as working a summer job and taking on a part time college course-load. Thus, I assume watering the garden will take up all my available spare time. Hopefully next summer will be a bit slower-paced.

In the meantime, I look forward to learning as much as I can from your posts. Thanks for the inspiration!

June said...

I enjoy your blog and hope to be helpful.

You wrote:"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. "

The presence of tapeworms and coccidia are detected by a fecal sample, not a tissue sample. Coccidea stays in the gut so meat is not contaminated by the ocycsts.

White spots on the livers of rabbits can be due to Tularemia, a very serious zoonotic disease (humans contract tularemia) and any carcass demonstrating white spots on the liver should be handled extremely carefully and you would want to contact your veterinarian to confirm diagnosis: do not consume or sell the carcass!

again, hope this information is useful.

xacerb8 said...

I have been investigating rabbit meat. First, as a consumer. I found a place about 30 minutes from Boston where a couple are raising meat rabbits. However, I was stunned when they sent me their price list. $10/lb for rabbit meat. And $6 a dozen for eggs (organic,pastured).

So, I've moved on now and begun to consider raising our own rabbits. My two children are horrified, so perhaps the end result will be that we all end up vegetarians! :)

I enjoy reading your blog and was sorry to hear about your husband's impending job loss. Seems like every day I hear of another friend or family member who's losing a job. Still, it sounds as if the two of you are more than ready to meet the challenge.
Dana

Kate said...

Alison, I'm glad you found the post useful. And I'm glad to hear you're considering raising some animals for food. I will post as much as I can on this project once it gets underway. I expect there will be much to learn as I go along!

June, I think you've been very helpful. Thank you for adding this information. I don't know if I misinterpreted what Daniel Salatin said, copied what he said into my notes incorrectly, or if he misspoke. In any case, I will amend my post to point to this comment section so that people are aware of the unreliability of what I wrote. Thanks again.

Dana, I have heard of similar prices for pastured organic eggs in the San Francisco area. In the farmers' defense, feed prices soared last year and have remained high. Also, keeping animals on pasture is a lot more work than keeping them in battery cages. And you get a great deal more nutrition egg per egg, from pastured hens than you would from conventional eggs. Just saying. I know the prices can be extreme, and that's a great reason to do it yourself. It's nearly impossible to go back to grocery store eggs after enjoying your own eggs!

I'm glad to hear you're considering raising some of your own food. And I agree that vegetarianism is a totally legitimate reaction for people who can't face slaughtering an animal. In any case, it would be a good education for your family.

Thanks for the good wishes.

-Kate

Jerry in So IL said...

You said that the fryers take 12 weeks to reach 4-5 pounds and dress out at around 3 pounds. That seems allot longer than the 8-9 weeks it takes a typical NZL or California rabbit to get to 5 pounds.

Not flaming, but I would think a quicker rabbit is in order.

Jerry

Kate said...

Jerry, I don't read your comment as a flame, but I wonder whether you've missed the point of my post. Are you saying that CA or NZL rabbits will finish faster on pasture than these rabbits bred for 20 years specifically for that purpose by a multi-generation farming family? If so, please elaborate and cite your references or your own experience for this claim.

I'm well aware that it's possible to finish rabbits and other animals on a non-natural diet faster than it is on grass. But I'm interested in the financial benefits of pasture, as well as the health benefits to the animals and myself. Speed is really not a primary concern for me. If it is for you, then pasturing any animal probably isn't for you.

Jerry in So IL said...

Kate

Yes, I believe that a well bred rabbit for meat will out do these cross breed. Genetics will set the rabbits finshed weight and size at around 85%. Environmental affects the other 15%. I can't prove this, but I will post the study of low quality food study done at the end. Family has rasied pastered rabbits with throw outs from the produce stand in the summer. Rank the meat up there with pelleted fed rabbits in pens!

Also, I would suggest a 2x2 or 2x4 wire on the bottom instead of the slats. Allows the animal more access to the pasture, and lessens the digging out of the pen.

Can't get the address for the report, but have it saved. Can email it to you if you want. Email in the profile.

Jerry

Jerry in So IL said...

Kate

Not to take anything away for the 20 year old crosses, but I have a few questions for the breeders....

1)Did they use a control group?
2)What other breeds and crosses did you compare this cross with?
3)How many different breed and crosses did you test at once?
4)What was the time frame you set for grow out weight?
5)Did you also use pellet fed animals of teh same breed or cross?

If they didn't do this and keep records, then I would question if the these crosses were the best and took 20 years to develop.

Sounds like they just bred available rabbits and was happy with what they got.

Jerry

Sustainable Eats said...

I just found your blog - we got chickens and started the huge garden this year. As a result we've virtually stopped shopping at the grocers and are buying grass fed meat from farmers which is very pricey! We can have 5 chickens so we have layers but in my mind I'm thinking - next year rabbits and honey bees.

I love this post and the rest of your blog. I'm looking for an rss feed as soon as I post this comment!

Suburban Rancher said...

Wow, i just found your blog. This is excellent, thanks for all the information! I have been very interested in raising rabbits for meat myself. I did not realize that Daniel Salatin still allowed his rabbits on pasture, as I had thought they did encounter a difficulty w/coccidiosis. I also live in souteastern PA in the NW Philadelphia suburbs.

Robert & Connie Losee said...

About using the wire on the bottom of the rabbit cage, Salatin said he tried that in his book "You Can Farm." The rabbits get it in their teeth and then they don't want to graze. Plus it flattens out the grass where the rabbits can't nibble in their usual manner either.

Doing a search on "pastured rabbits", I found another man, a Salatin admirer, who made a few deviations over Salatin's slatted cages. He only puts one set of slats in a little from the sides and wire in the corners, all the areas where the rabbits are most likely to dig. He didn't say though whether he was 100% free of escaping problems though.

Thanks for the detailed post. Yes, I'm one who hopes to raise rabbits soon on pasture.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this article.

I used to raise chickens, ducks, and geese on 1 acre in a rural suburb, and am looking for as much land as possible to start a more ambitious farm. I remember my grandparents' farm where I grew up, and he raised thousands of rabbits at a time -- there was an entire barn devoted to rabbits. I don't want anywhere near that many, mostly just for my own family (though sales might be welcome if that happens), but I had some vague idea that I would really love to put them on pasture, though I've never seen or heard of it. Thanks SO MUCH for those details, because I was going to give it a try anyway. A little guidance is VERY appreciated. And ... I never knew my grandfather's practice of slaughtering was "Levitical" ... that's also very interesting to me. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Hey, just to be clear, these are not 100% grass fed/ pastured, half of their diet was said to be alfalfa pellets still? Thanks,

im subscribing to this blog, thank you!

Kate said...

Anon, that's correct. While these rabbits can certainly be called pastured, they are not 100% grass fed. Chickens and hogs also require supplementary foods other than grass, even if they are pastured. I suppose rabbits could live entirely on grass, and probably do in the wild. But confined rabbits can't roam enough to supply all their dietary needs from grass.

Friskey said...

Kate. I would like to know more about raising a garden to feed rabbits and chickens. Then feeding of alfalfa pellets. I do rainse garden for these critter but perhaps am missing some thing. Thanks Frank

Kate said...

Frank, I can't give too much advice on raising crops for chickens or rabbits. I know chickens like many cover crops, such as winter wheat and rye, clover, and alfalfa. I would imagine that rabbits would eat some or all of these too. Mangels are a traditional feed for many types of livestock. I'm going to experiment with growing some oilseed pumpkins this year to feed chickens. If that goes well, I'll be sure to post about it.

Anonymous said...

As a 4-H Rabbit Club parent I have a few issues with this article.

Chickenwire should never be used with rabbits. A 14 ga. woven wire should be used.

Unless your rabbits live in a colony setting placing them together in an enclosure may lead to fighting or breeding. Moving rabbits around or taking them from cages to a pasture cage is unnecessary work.

Domestic rabbits thrive on prepared pellets, water, and grass hay. Taking them out to "pasture" exposes them to diseases and predators with limited benefit. They don't need 40% green grass. If you want to give them a treat cut that fresh grass and give them a handful. They will love you for it.

bunnybabe said...

Dear Mr. Anonymous,
I would like to address your issues that you have with this article...
Anonymous said...
"As a 4-H Rabbit Club parent I have a few issues with this article."
I agree 4-H is a wonderful learning experience for all children, but it seems they teach the kids only one way of doing things and that's that
Chicken wire should never be used with rabbits. A 14 ga. woven wire should be used.
I agree, chicken wire SHOULDN'T be used for rabbits-for cage bottoms. their feet could get caught in the bottoms and they can break their backs, especially larger breeds, like the Flemish.
"Unless your rabbits live in a colony setting placing them together in an enclosure may lead to fighting or breeding. Moving rabbits around or taking them from cages to a pasture cage is unnecessary work."
If you keep the buck separated from the does, there will be no breeding. I also believe that you work as hard as you want to. Rabbit cages, as I'm sure you know, can be quite dirty and disgusting and need to be cleaned frequently to insure the health of your rabbits and your family. How is this different? In pasturing, the pens are simply moved frequently instead of being cleaned. It seems it would be less work to me.
"Domestic rabbits thrive on prepared pellets, water, and grass hay. Taking them out to "pasture" exposes them to diseases and predators with limited benefit. They don't need 40% green grass. If you want to give them a treat cut that fresh grass and give them a handful. They will love you for it."
Actually, rabbits should get quite a large amount of grass and hay to keep their digestive systems active. Rabbits need lots of fiber because their digestive systems just aren't efficient. They don't need to be. That's why they should eat veggies more than man-made pellets. Predators are rare because of the frequent moving of the pens, the scent of people, etc. Disease is even more rare, because, having read "Pastured Poultry Profits" I'm sure the Salatins give their rabbits non-animal-protein probiotics, which keep the diseases at bay as well as changing the pasture frequently. Staying in a cage for long periods would be more likely to breed disease than pasturing. Trust me, rabbits DO NOT THRIVE on pellets. They are not natural and often contain animal by-products which cannot possibly be good for an animal which was born to be a strict herbivore. Even the ones that don't almost always have some kind of artificial chemicals. Poisons. The less the rabbits get of pellets the better.

Source: breeding rabbits for years and researched the internet to find better ways of doing it!

bunnybabe said...

I forgot to ad, don't put two bucks together to prevent fighting. Perhaps devise a way of separating them within the confines of the pens?

patricew said...

Kate, this is not specific to rabbits, but I wanted to tell you that I just LOVE your blog! I am attempting to do the same thing on my 1/2 acre Vermont property...just getting started. Thanks for sharing your life and knowledge! Patrice
patricewyankeenotionfarm.blogspot.com

Kate said...

Patrice, that's very kind of you. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find something of use here.

Matt said...

Kate -
Thanks for this post. Friends of mine here in North Carolina raise rabbits on pasture, and I stumbled across your post while doing some background research for a presentation on pastured rabbits I'm giving as part of a Sustainable Livestock Management class. Your points are spot-on and I enjoy the back and forth in the comments! I love your blog and I will definitely be coming back regularly!

Kate said...

Matt, welcome, and I'm glad you found something of use on your first visit here. I see your own blog is called "Green Eats." I'm all over that concept, so we should both find much of interest in each other's blogs. I'll check yours out as time permits. Thanks for stopping by.

Business Affiliate Program said...

I do not mind the slaughter of animals, but if it is in a dignified manner, what bothers me is the mistreatment of animals when they are alive! thanks for letting me comment!

Scott C said...

Having just been to Polyface farms for one of their seminars and having raised rabbits in 4-H many years ago, I'd like to respond to some of the issues made by previous posters.

First, there is no need to worry about breeding or fighting. The rabbits will be moved into the breeding stock or turned into meat prior to reaching sexual maturity.

Second, the line of rabbits that Daniel Salatin has bred is specific to being raised on pasture in the Shenandoah Valley, and without the need for any type of medicine or supplements. It took a lot of culling to get domestic rabbits that would do well on grass. Most domestic rabbits must be fed pellets because 100% grass will cause diarrhea and very likely death.

Finally, the rabbits I saw were probably the happiest rabbits I've ever seen. They were far more active than any rabbits I remember from 4-H. They had as much food and water as they wanted, and seemed immensely curious about everything going on around them.

Kate said...

Scott C, thanks for adding your comments. Always good to hear from someone who's been to the source, so to speak.

Christine said...

Excellent post! You did a great job of explaining everything.

Kate said...

Thanks, Christine. Glad the post was useful to you.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I raised rabbits for meat in Houston when our five children were younger. They refused to eat rabbit meat, so we slaughtered the animals in the middle of the night and then I canned the meat. They thought they were eating chicken or tuna (fortunately they were in school so they didn't see me processing the rabbits). They assumed that the rabbits were being sold, and for years they never knew the difference.

Anonymous said...

you can kill, gut and skin a rabbit 100% humanely in around a minute with practice. I can't find the best video of this guy where he's doing it production style, but this will help if you don't know how to 'gitter done' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpwhOE74TMA

Kate said...

Anon, very sneaky. I guess I'd resort to that too. Did the kids ever catch on?

Anon, thanks for the video link; it's a good one. Seems there are many ways to skin a rabbit, but that one is certainly quick if you've got a cleaver. I had hoped he was going to talk about what he does with the broth from boiling the rabbit. Three hours hard boiling would probably make a cloudy broth, but if you used it in a pot pie, who would notice?

viagra said...

Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple

Dennis said...

Kate,
Awesome blog, exceedingly helpful. SInce I am a visual learner, do you have any suggestions where I can find a picture/diagram/drawing of the pens?

Kate said...

Dennis, no, I'm sorry. I don't have any idea where a diagram of the Salatin pens might be found. Did you check the link to the apprentice's blog to see if there might be a photo there? I do know that Polyface Farm is having a once-every-three-years field day this year though. If you're near Virginia, it might be worth your while to trek over there. I'd put money on you learning a lot more than just how the rabbit pens are constructed.

Mountain Home Quilts said...

Just found your blog through a "meat rabbits" google search...GREAT info! Thanks so much- I'll be bookmarking it.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to solve the disputed bit about coccidiosis. There's both a hepatic and intestinal form of the parasite. The hepatic one shows as white spots on the liver:
http://www.radil.missouri.edu/info/dora/RABBPAGE/par.htm#I.

Joel said...

Thanks for the great blog post. I've been searching high and low for good information on pasturing rabbits. I wonder, is the main reason the rabbits are only gaining about 40% of their diet (or less) from the greens due to the area they are allowed to harvest? If so wouldn't doubling that area per day increase to 80% forage efficiency?

It looks like you wrote the original blog post back in 2009. Did you eventually get around to running some rabbits on your propery? How did that go?

Kate said...

Joel, no we never did add rabbits to our homestead in a deliberate way. That's not to say that backyard rabbits haven't graced our table from time to time. We simply harvest the ones that make a nuisance of themselves in the garden, if you know what I mean. As for the dietary makeup of the forage, it could have something to do with the size of the pens. But I suspect that the amount of time the rabbits are out on pasture is a limiting factor as well. After all, they live only a few months and aren't put onto pasture until 4-5 weeks old. So I suspect Daniel Salatin was referring to the total lifespan of the animal when estimating how much of their own feed they forage.

Jeffrey A. Dustin said...

This blog is totally awesome. Haters will be haters. Take the kernel of truth from the flames and use it to more your argument stronger, better, faster, longer.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I raise meat rabbits on a combination of forage crops like wheat grass, cole crops, carrots and other grasses. They get more grain and hay in the winter, but I can provide them with fresh wheat grass almost all winter long. I raise about 50 rabbits a year and I live in town! I haven't purchased meat in a year!

Long live the rabbit, perhaps the most sustainable meat.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I would like to add that animals fed hay or even sprouted grains (sprouting changes it from a grain) are still considered grass-fed by the grassfed certification program.

Your blog is very informative on the subject of naturally raised rabbits, including the psychology of them. I currently raise grassfed dairy goats and poultry. I used to raise rabbits conventionally (had about 50 working does and wholesaled the meat), and want to do so again, but this time with a "few" less (enough to feed me and my domestic partners of the canine variety).

I am appreciative.

Anonymous said...

We just got back into rabbits. We have a small farm were we raise pigs goat's and chickens. And I for got about rabbit meat. Just got new Z's. I found this very helpful. Thanks