9 January 1998

Rabbits – a pest to some, but a source of profit to others

Is there money to be made from rearing commercial rabbits

for the supermarkets? David Cousins talks to two

producers who are cautiously optimistic

WAS there ever an animal so loved and loathed by different sections of the population? For the generations of children who keep one in a hutch at the end of the garden, they are cuteness personified. For thousands of exasperated arable farmers, on the other hand, they represent an implacable enemy that eats some £30m of growing crops each year.

But there is a third type of rabbit, one that can be found in the same supermarket chill cabinets as chicken and turkey and which is becoming increasingly popular with younger consumers for its low-fat meat. So could this be a potentially profitable sideline for farmers with spare buildings and spare labour?

Devon rabbit producer (and SW representative of the British Commercial Rabbit Association) Terry King says yes, but with one or two reservations.

"The impression given is that its easy to keep rabbits," he says. "Certainly, theyre a quiet, clean pleasant animal and they wont push you over like a cow. But you have to work quite hard at it – its not a five-days-a-week job, and it takes a lot of attention to detail to make a worthwhile profit."

"Also, many people will tell you that you can achieve a margin over concentrate (MOC) of £70/doe/year. But thats based on a 3:1 feed conversion ratio, which only good does will achieve. If you get a feed conversion ratio of 4:1, your MOC goes down to about £55/doe/year. So its important to be realistic."

Mr King reckons that there are some 400 rabbit producers in the UK, ranging in size from big operators with 300-400 does to those with 25-30 in their garden. Its something that many people do as a sideline, he adds, and the number of mainstream farmers also keeping rabbits is fairly small.

The relatively small size of most UK producers means that the industry has struggled to supply the sort of quantities of fresh rabbit needed by supermarkets. In fact firms like Tesco and Waitrose have turned to bigger producers in France and Belgium to keep them supplied all year round. The frozen rabbit market is dominated by low-quality, ultra-cheap meat coming in from China and there is always competition from butchers selling wild rabbits.

Consumption patterns are a bit quirky too. Much more rabbit meat is bought in winter than in summer, whereas output goes the other way. Warmer weather and longer days means rabbits have bigger and more frequent litters and more of the young survive. So theres often a shortage of rabbit in winter and a relative glut in summer.

Thats where other farmers could come in, reckons Mr King. If more big operators entered the market, he reasons, supplies could reach the critical mass needed to keep supermarkets happy and allow foreign rabbit to be supplanted by UK produce. Greater availability in supermarkets would help to boost demand, especially among younger buyers interested in novel meats like ostrich, wild boar and venison.

Getting started

Before you even buy your first rabbit or cage, get in touch with a processor, says Mr King. There are currently only two or three processors in the UK (though numbers go up and down), so youd need to check whether your area was served by a collection service.

Go on a BCRA training course (the next one is at Worcester College of Agriculture on Mar 28) and visit one or two existing rabbit producers to find out how they do it. "We get a lot of people coming to us after the event, when they realise they have bought the wrong equipment or set up their system wrongly," says Mr King.

Buildings

Capital cost is relatively low. You need an old shed, ideally insulated, but with good ventilation. So old poultry sheds are ideal. Rabbits dont need heat, even in winter, but they do like consistent temperatures.

The standard cages are 0.46sq m (5sq ft) in floor area, ie 0.6m (2ft) wide, 0.76m (2ft 6in) deep and 0.4m (16in) high, but allow 0.9sq m (10sq ft) a cage for working at how many cages will fit a given size of building. They are available new, though the number of people who have gone in and then out of rabbit farming means that supplies of second-hand cages are fairly plentiful. You will also need feed hoppers and a drinking water system.

The cages have weld-mesh floors and are kept a foot or two off the ground, so that faeces fall through. However a barn full of rabbits can produce a fair amount of urine, so its important to think about drainage. Cleaning out should be regular but not necessarily frequent – too much disturbance simply increases the amount of dust and ammonia in the air and prompts pneumonia problems.

Life cycle

Rabbits are famed for their breeding prowess, and its this fecundity that makes rabbit producing financially viable.

"Rabbits have a gestation period of 31 days, and they can be mated again just three days after they have given birth. In France they mate them after five days, but in the UK its more typically 15 days," says Mr King.

The mating interval can make a big difference to output, he adds. Mating after four days gives 10 litters a year, whereas mating after 15 days gives eight litters a year.

Numbers of young (called kits) vary from animal to animal, but most producers aim for 10 reared kits/litter. Does are ready to breed at 16-20 weeks and are usually kept for two years before culling, having produced about 150 reared young in that time.

Despite what most arable farmers think, wild rabbits tend to breed only in spring and summer. To maintain year-round breeding, lights need to be kept on 16 hours/day, temperatures kept fairly constant and frosts avoided. While litters are likely to be smaller in winter and mating not quite as immediate as in summer, year-round production can be maintained.

One buck for every 10 does is the norm and servicing usually takes about 10 seconds! Mating can be done on a daily basis or in batches to simplify the job.

Meat production

Most UK commercial rabbits are New Zealand Whites, Carolinas (an NZ White derivative) and Californians. They are sold at 2.5kg (5.5lb) (compared with 1.8kg/4lb for a typical wild rabbit) at 12 weeks of age and end up as boned loin + rear legs on supermarket shelves. A 280g (10oz) pack usually sells for about £3.80.

There is a market for rabbit among restaurants and hotels but it can be fickle. Rabbits typically fetch £1.20/kg (55p/lb) in winter and £1.10/kg (50p/lb) in summer, whatever the outlet.

Slaughter and processing has to be carried out by licensed operators, though farmers already killing poultry can use the same premises (though not at the same time). Getting a new licence is possible, but considerable amounts may have to be spent getting the premises up to scratch.

Diseases

In the main rabbits are fairly robust animals, points out Mr King. However, myxomatosis (spread by mosquitos) can be a problem if there is a large wild population nearby. It can be vaccinated against.

Similarly VHD, a fatal viral disease is common but can be vaccinated against. Coccidiosis can be a problem, but weld-mesh floors combined with regular pressure washing of vacant cages should keep it away.

Enteritis can be caused by dirty cages/food/water, by overcrowding/bullying or over-hot condition, and pneumonia by lack of ventilation. But both shouldnt be a problem if basic husbandry standards are kept to.

Marketing

If you have 100 or more rabbits to sell, the processor will probably come to you. However for smaller numbers, you may need to join forces with other growers and take the rabbits to a collection point. The extra time and fuel cost must be taken into account when you are looking at the feasibility of the project.

Labour

"250-300 does is a full-time job for one person," says Mr King. "For 100 does you can reckon on 2/3 hours a day. However there is considerable flexibility in terms of mating and cleaning. "

How much can you make?

Income is quoted on a each doe cage. Each doe cage will rear an average of 45 young a year, giving an income of £55-£75/year. So a 50-doe unit should give a net profit of £2750- £3750/year. A larger 250 doe unit should give a net profit of £13,700 – £18,750/year. More advice available from BCRA on 01222-482011.

Rabbits have a 31-day gestation period and can be re-mated after 3 days. Average litter size is about 10. Hence the potential profitability of rabbit-farming.

To maintain year-round breeding, lights need to be kept on 16 hours a day during winter and temperatures should be kept as constant as possible. An old insulated poultry shed can be a good place to keep them.

Feed requirements are fairly simple – a mainly-grass pellet forms the bulk of the diet. Food and water hygiene standards must be maintained to prevent enteritis.