Raising Rabbits for Profit
By Callene Rapp
If you’ve been raising rabbits for a while as a hobby, the thought may have occurred to you that you could make a little money raising them. The thought may have even occurred to you that you can make a lot of money raising rabbits. After all, two rabbits will be 200 in a short amount of time, right?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
Rabbits have the potential to be one of the more profitable species to raise. They often give birth to large litters, and offspring grow fast and reach either market or breeding weight more quickly than any other species. They do not require large amounts of space compared with most other species, and they are generally quiet, nondemanding animals.
But there are several things you should consider before making the leap into raising rabbits for profit rather than as a hobby.
Selecting your rabbit breeds
Around the rabbit community, people joke that “all rabbits are made of meat.” True, but some breeds are better suited for the table than others. New Zealands and Californian rabbits are two of the more popular choices. But a few rare breeds are making a comeback, such as the American Blue and White, or the Silver Fox, which also are listed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List (see Historic Meat Rabbit Breeds).
These rare breeds are wonderful animals to work with, but they are not always easy to come by, and they may not have been previously selected for production qualities. New Zealands and Californians may be much easier to acquire, plus they have the added benefit of a white pelt, which is easier to market than a colored one.
Either way, choose a breed that is known for its meat-production qualities, and do some homework in finding bloodlines within that breed with the necessary qualities to be good production rabbits. Many people are disappointed to find that rabbits selected exclusively for the show table do not do as well in production settings.
Record keeping and rabbit pedigrees
Managing several hundred rabbits is challenging in itself, but managing those rabbits with an eye to conservation breeding is another challenge entirely.
For instance, it’s necessary to maintain more bucks than would normally be required in a general commercial operation. Typically in commercial breeding, pedigrees and lineages are not important, and in fact many large rabbitries will use crossbred strains rather than purebreds. And even if purebreds are used, pedigrees often are not maintained.
A single buck should be all that is needed per 10 does in a commercial rabbitry, but in conservation breeding, maintaining pedigrees and lineages is critical to ensuring genetic diversity and minimizing inbreeding depression. As a result, it is often necessary to keep more males than would be typical. Each line will need one or two representative males to keep the population viable and fluid. These “extra” bucks, while critical to the success of the conservation breeding program, will represent a drain on the profitability of the rabbitry, albeit an essential one.
It also can be a challenge to keep these bucks working and in good breeding condition. Sometimes bucks will get lazy if they get too fat or don’t get used enough. Maintaining bucks in prime condition and keeping them stimulated will go a long way toward ensuring they don’t get lazy.
Record keeping is another critical factor in the professional rabbitry. In order to be a profitable venture, good, detailed records are essential. It is not enough to just note sire and dam, and birth and weaning information. Accurate breeding-stock weights, as well as weights of litters at weaning and at processing are the minimum statistics to be tracked. It is important to maintain detailed information about each animal’s productivity, as this is key to making good decisions about profitability and which animals to cull or keep. Any doe can be forgiven for having a bad litter occasionally, but too many of these will eat into your pocketbook rapidly.
Additional leeway also may need to be given to a doe from a rare or difficult-to-obtain bloodline, which is another aspect of conservation breeding to take into consideration. Each individual breeder must come to a decision on her own.
Several computer programs track pedigrees and other litter information, and a spreadsheet also is a useful tool; the key is to have the data easily accessible when it comes time to make decisions.
Finding rabbit meat processors
Processing is the least pleasant of all the aspects of running a rabbitry, but one of the most essential. Several laws and regulations govern processing rabbit meat for retail sales, and laws can vary from state to state.
No law governs processing rabbit meat at your own home for your own consumption, but as soon as retail sales come into play, the processing picture changes entirely.
Rabbits are not considered “livestock” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which allows them to be housed in urban areas and kept as pets, but as a multipurpose animal used for meat, they exist in a bit of a limbo state. USDA inspection is required by law for any meat sold at retail; however, because rabbits are not considered “livestock,” inspection is considered voluntary, which translates into a rather expensive cost for the rabbit producer if she hopes to be able to sell her product legally.
Processing laws vary from state to state, and even from county to county within the same state. Some states require all meat sold for retail consumption to be processed in a USDA-licensed facility, and some only require processing in a licensed state-inspected facility. Check with your local processors, and consult the USDA website for more information regarding options available to your particular circumstances.
Finding a processor who has a special license for rabbits also can be a challenge. Generally, the same equipment that is used to process poultry can be used for rabbits, but the dearth of local processors who will handle poultry can make even this tricky.
Many small rabbit producers will offer on-farm processing of live rabbits for the customer, but again, check your state and local laws. Learning about the law the hard way is no fun.
If selling retail or to restaurants, it also is a good idea to maintain product liability insurance. In this increasingly litigious society we live in, it makes sense to cover your assets in the unlikely event of a problem.
In order to maintain profitability, it’s important for the rabbitry to produce litters year-round. This necessitates having litters when Mother Nature, and the doe herself, may not think it’s the greatest idea.
Rabbits, like many other animals, are at their most fertile during the spring and summer months, and they experience a period of decreased productivity during the shorter days of fall and winter. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to increase the day length for the rabbit by adding an incandescent light bulb or two to the rabbit barn.
The lights can easily be installed on a timer, removing the need to remember to turn them off and on manually. To maintain reproductive activity in the winter, aim to provide 12 to 14 hours of daylight for the rabbits. Bucks also will experience a period of decreased fertility in the winter months, but it is generally not as pronounced as the does.
Bucks, on the other hand, suffer greater reproductive loss from the heat of summer than does. At consistent temperatures above 85 degrees F, which much of the Midwest and Southern states experienced during the summer of 2011, bucks can become temporarily sterile. This is not generally permanent, and most will recover when cooler weather hits, but when it does happen it can leave a gaping hole in your production. Does will cycle and accept the buck, who should still be willing to work, but no litters are born.
Adding a swamp cooler, cool cell, or misters to fans located around the rabbitry can help lower the temperature and at least cool things off at night enough to give the rabbits some relief from the constant heat.
Unfortunately, these things will increase your cost of production, but if the alternative is to lose animals to the heat, it’s an easy choice to make.
Production costs of raising rabbits
Production costs are a factor that should be seriously evaluated, and regularly re-evaluated, in a for-profit rabbit operation.
Feed cost will be one of the biggest expenses, and also the one most likely to steadily increase. It also is the one that needs to be the most consistent, and the place where the fewest corners can be cut. The summer of 2011 taught many producers exactly how high feed costs can rise, and how much grain markets can fluctuate before trickling down to the consumer.
Several other fixed costs in raising rabbits may not be as readily apparent. Electricity for lights and fans, and water for the animals come quickly to mind, but fuel, processing and other factors of production can very rapidly eat away at profitability. Initial start-up costs for equipment can vary widely depending on your area and which type of equipment you select (such as water crocks versus water bottles).
It’s a good idea to develop a business plan before embarking on a rabbit-raising venture; a good business plan can help nail down all the miscellaneous factors that can seriously affect profitability, and also represent a welcome tool if a producer ever needs to approach a financial institution for a business loan.
Finding your market
Marketing is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of raising meat rabbits. Restaurants are good venues and appreciate a good-quality product, but changeable menus may mean that they will not purchase regularly, and relying on one or two customers can lead to disaster if they should change their format or, heaven forbid, go out of business.
As far as marketing breeding stock, that market can eventually prove finite, as only so many new breeders will be in need of stock. Farmers’ markets can be a great place to sell fryers to customers who will appreciate the work and dedication that goes into them. But remember the laws governing farmers’ markets vary from state to state, so again, check with the local laws and ordinances before jumping in too deep.
Diversity is a good model both for the farm and for the marketing plan, so explore as many potential outlets as possible, and remember, the best advertising is a good product and good word of mouth.
Raising rabbits for profit can be hard work, and it is certainly not a “get-rich-quick” venture. But for a person with good stewardship skills who isn’t afraid of a little hard work, it can be a very rewarding, and yes, even profitable way to make a living.
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