Pastured Rabbit for Profit

Final Report for FNE15-822

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2015: $12,694.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Nichole Carangelo
Letterbox Farm Collective
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Project Information

Summary:

The goal of this project was to fine-tune our pastured rabbit operation and use it as the basis for a glass-walls model for other farms. Emphasis was on executing high animal welfare standards, promoting good quality of life standards for the farmers and demonstrating real economic viability for the enterprise.

Our research tells us that a pasture-based rabbity offers good economic opportunity for the small scale farmer, given the following criteria are being met or will be met in the near future.

  • Other, larger enterprises exist to help carry overhead costs. In order to carry all of its own overhead costs a rabbitry would have to scale up considerably. However, for farms that are already producing a variety of products and serving a range of outlets, rabbits can be easy to integrate. Likewise, they’re an asset for existing markets and enterprises because they increase product diversity and produce free fertility.
  • The farm is operating year round. An economically sound rabbitry requires efficient production. The numbers in our guide are based on each doe producing 6 litters per year. Therefor, farms with year round staff and sales teams will fare better than those without. However, developing markets for frozen product eliminates the need for year round sales (although it still requires four-season production).
  • You can find good feed at an affordable price. There are a lot of options out there, from conventional to organic, to growing your own. Farmers need to just be sure they are doing the math and adjusting their number accordingly.
  • You have consistent access to a legal processor. This is the true wild card, since it may be totally out of a producer’s control. Farmers who live in states that allow on-farm processing are all set. Others will need to find a quality licensed slaughterhouse near them before opening their rabbitry.
  • Regional markets support appropriate pricing and purchase in high enough volume. Consistent sales at a fair price are at the crux of a successful enterprise.

However, producers who aren’t quite there in these regards should not rule out rabbits all together. Starting a small rabbitry is a great way for a new farmer to get some skin in the game while they build the rest of their business. Low start-up costs along with minimal space requirements and light, portable infrastructure make rabbits an ideal starter enterprise, especially for part time farmers without permanent land tenure.

The project culminated with the production of an easily digestible, practical resource for farmers intended to guide them through the start-up phase of their own pastured-rabbit operation. This resource includes a full enterprise budget and rabbit husbandry guidelines.
The guide has been made available for free download through Northeast SARE (here: PasturedRabbitGuide), the Letterbox Farm website and has been shared with The Greenhorns and the Stonebarns Virtual Grange for them to post at their discretion. The lead project coordinator has also presented this research in person at the NOFA NY and Stonebarns Young Farmer conferences.

Introduction:

In a 2010 article published by Salon Magazine, locavore kingpin Michael Pollan made the following claim:

Rabbits make more sense than chicken.

In a country with a $41 billion broiler chicken industry, Pollan is making a pretty bold statement, but it’s not unsubstantiated. Time Magazine agreed in their piece, “How Rabbits Can Save the World” and The New York Times has been quick to jump on the bandwagon with catchy headlines like, “Hip-Hop Cuisine.” The world is all abuzz about the supposed super-protein, and yet very few farmers are stepping up to meet the rapidly increasing interest in sustainably-raised rabbit meat. We believe this is directly linked to the lack of comprehensive resources available to young farmers would otherwise consider starting their own rabbitry.

At the commencement of this project, there did not exist a single fully developed resource on pasture-based rabbit production that was at once available, comprehensive, and accurate. The lack of this resource forced farmers interested in rabbit production to piece together bits of information from many publications that were difficult to find, too narrow in scope, and often, inaccurate.

We saw an opportunity to create a resource that would close these gaps in information and accessibility while equipping farmers with the information necessary to create a pastured rabbit operation from the ground up. At the culmination of our research, we developed a comprehensive guide that can be utilized by both professional rabbitry operators looking to switch to pastured production and by farmers new to raising rabbits who wish to tap into this growing market.

Our Research Partners

Our advisor on this project of Steven Haddcock, of Cornell Cooperative Extension. He was instrumental in linking us to other rabbit producers in the area.

As part of our research, we conducted site visits to three different farms where we interviewed those closest to each one’s rabbit operation. These farmers/farms included:

Daniel Salatin, Polyface Farm: Polyface Farm is famous pasture-based livestock farm in Swoope, VA. They produce approximately 700 rabbits for sale annually in addition to a wide variety of meats and eggs.

Carrie Edsall, Black Willow Pond Farm: Carrie teaches animal science at SUNY Cobbleskill and raises rabbits, laying hens, turkeys, meatbirds, sheep and hogs on her commercial farm.

Ellen Fagan, Deep Spring Farm: Deep Spring Farm is a small, diversified farm in Earlville, NY. Pastured rabbit production is at the heart of their operation.

Our Farm

The bulk of our research utilized our own production and sale records. In 2016, during the height of our research, our farm was run by three full-time, year-round managers and three full-time, season crew members. Our annual enterprises included:

  • 3 acres of intensively managed greens, herbs and vegetables
  • 2800 pasture-raised meat birds
  • 300 laying hens
  • 24 pastured hogs
  • 24 doe rabbitry

Our markets during this season included:

  • A 30 member full-diet CSA
  • 3 high traffic farmers markets
  • 10 local restaurant accounts
  • 3 wholesale accounts
  • 1 humble, onsite farm store

Letterbox is a for-profit commercial farm that prioritizes:

  • Land stewardship & animal welfare
  • The production of highest quality products sold at appropriate prices
  • The health and well-being of its farmers

In regards to this last point, our target goals for our farmers include:

  • 40 hour work weeks
  • Paid time off & sick leave
  • A teacher’s salary
  • Work that is meaningful, engaging and reasonable

Every potential new enterprise is vetted for its ability to contribute to these goals, and part of this research was putting our rabbitry to the test. We are pleased to report that pastured rabbit has passed the test.

Project Objectives:

Our objectives included:

  • Research AWA/CHR guidelines for pastured rabbit housing and modify plans for the demo rabbit tractor.  While we were unable to work the the AWA or CHR boards (neither have developed guidelines for humane rabbit production to date), we did do extensive research on appropriate housing for rabbits in both caged and pastured systems. We then modified our housing plans based on our findings.
  • Build and document demo rabbit tractor. We did build new rabbit tractors during our research, but because we used plans from another farmer, we did not document construction in our guide. We did, however, link to the comprehensive plans that we used and included all of the modifications we made to these plans in our guide.
  • Onsite Research. We conducted nearly two years of research in regards to our in-house rabbit production and sales.
  • Off-site Research & Site Visits. We visited three pasture-based rabbitries and conducted thorough interviews with the produces are each farm.
  • Online & Print Research. This aspect of our objectives was ongoing throughout the span of our research and project execution.
  • Evaluation and Cost-Benefit Analysis of Letterbox Farm’s pastured rabbit enterprise. We used the expense and sales data from both 2015 and 2016 to complete this analysis.
  • Resource development. Our project coordinator completed the guide, Pastured Rabbit for Profit, that was intended to:
    • be based on thorough primary research methods, not second-hand information or anecdotal evidence
    • include information gathered from a number of farms with established rabbit production systems
    • document in detail a system that is relevant to commercial-scale farmers, combining financial feasibility with humane and sustainable practices
    • present a comprehensive management system, detailing all major aspects of meat rabbit production including breeding, kindling, housing, feeding, disease mitigation and management, processing and pricing for market - within a pastured management system
    • include numerical data on feed conversion ratios, costs, and labor time
    • include replicable building plans for mobile hutches in an easy-to-follow format
    • be made available through extensive outreach, including both online sources and in-person demonstrations and workshops.

           We reached our goals for the guide on all accounts.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Stephen Hadcock

Research

Materials and methods:

Our goal was to execute thorough primary research in raising rabbits on pasture, combine it with the best existing rabbit husbandry resources and create a comprehensive enterprise guide with our findings. In order to accomplish this, several accompanying steps were taken.

On-site Research. The comprehensiveness of our final resource was dependent on the thoroughness of the research we conducted on our own pastured-rabbit system. For this reason, we collected data from all aspects of our rabbit enterprise, including:

HEALTHWe recorded:

  • Our breeding and kindling schedule
  • Our litter sizes and their vitality
  • Our disease problems and management
  • Predation issues and other incidents

FEED CONVERSION:  We monitored our animals’ feed intake and weight gain by measuring feed and taking weight samples weekly throughout the season. Our results were compared to industry standard FCRs, allowing us to benchmark our growth patterns.

LABOR. We tracked our labor throughout the seasons by recording time spent managing all aspects of the enterprise, including:

  • Tractor construction and maintenance
  • Daily chores
  • Monitoring breeding and kindling
  • Catching and transporting rabbits to be processed.

COSTS. Since our project has an emphasis on financial feasibility, we tracked virtually all of our costs involved with our rabbit enterprise, including the cost of:

  • Breeding stock
  • Feed
  • Equipment
  • Labor
  • Processing fees
  • Marketing fees

SALES: Including how many rabbits we had available, how many we sold, what outlet they were sold through and for what price.

We used this information in order to complete an accurate enterprise budget of our own pastured rabbit enterprise that included:

  • Determining monetary costs (ex. feed, labor, housing) and non-monetary costs (ex. physical damage to the farmer caused by moving tractors)
  • Examining the monetary benefits (income made) and non-monetary benefits (ex. increase in animal welfare, better pasture health)
  • Comparing alternatives -  we compared this enterprise with our pastured poultry enterprise that has similar labor requirements and investment in infrastructure
  • Making a determination as to whether or not it makes financial sense to operate a pastured rabbit enterprise

Off-site Research. In addition to researching how our own model for pastured rabbit production performs on an economic level, we also researched other pastured rabbit systems in order to widen our pool of information. We planned to visit four farms that have demonstrated consistency and scale in their rabbit operations, however, we were only able to visit three. These four farms include Polyface Farm in VA, Black Willow Pond Farm in Cobleskill NY and Deep Spring Farm in Earlville, NY. We photographed their systems and gathered information on their:

  • Ability to successfully raise rabbits
  • Daily labor requirements for their rabbitry
  • Expenses, sales and profit margins
  • Plans for growth and expansion

Online and Print Research. Since the goal of our project was more than just to test the economic feasibility of pasture raised rabbits, but also to author a complete resource for farmers who wish to start their own rabbitry, our work involved researching and compiling the best information available into one all-encompassing publication.

Pastured Rabbit Housing Development. We built upon John Suscevich’s “Stress Free Chicken Tractor” plans to develop a rabbit tractor that at once:

  • Provides access to pasture
  • Prevents virtually all escape through digging
  • Allows does to kindle safely on pasture
  • Protects from weather extremes
  • Is relatively inexpensive to build
  • Requires minimal labor from a single farmer to move and service

To accommodate the need for year round production, we developed a “Pasture/Wire Hybrid” system that moved growing rabbits indoors, into wire cages for the winter.

As promised, our final project provides all the resources necessary to construct year round housing for a rabbitry, including a complete materials list and budget.

Resource Development. After all of the research was completed and the data from the 2015 and 2016 seasons had been collected from our farm, we compiled everything we learned into our 40 page guide, Pastured Rabbit for Profit.

Research results and discussion:

We were able to complete all of our target research goals and put together the anticipated comprehensive guide. In addition to accomplishing these goals, we’ve also been able to draw some conclusions about which farms might benefit from developing a pastured rabbit operation.

Our research tells us that a pasture-based rabbity offers good economic opportunity for the small scale farmer, given the following criteria are being met or will be met in the near future.

  • Other, larger enterprises exist to help carry overhead costs. In order to carry all of its own overhead costs a rabbitry would have to scale up considerably. However, for farms that are already producing a variety of products and serving a range of outlets, rabbits can be easy to integrate. Likewise, they’re an asset for existing markets and enterprises because they increase product diversity and produce free fertility.
  • The farm is operating year round. An economically sound rabbitry requires efficient production. The numbers in our guide are based on each doe producing 6 litters per year. Therefor, farms with year round staff and sales teams will fare better than those without. However, developing markets for frozen product eliminates the need for year round sales (although it still requires four-season production).
  • You can find good feed at an affordable price. There are a lot of options out there, from conventional to organic, to growing your own. Farmers need to just be sure they are doing the math and adjusting their number accordingly.
  • You have consistent access to a legal processor. This is the true wild card, since it may be totally out of a producer’s control. Farmers who live in states that allow on-farm processing are all set. Others will need to find a quality licensed slaughterhouse near them before opening their rabbitry.
  • Regional markets support appropriate pricing and purchase in high enough volume. Consistent sales at a fair price are at the crux of a successful enterprise.

However, producers who aren’t quite there in these regards should not rule out rabbits all together. Starting a small rabbitry is a great way for a new farmer to get some skin in the game while they build the rest of their business. Low start-up costs along with minimal space requirements and light, portable infrastructure make rabbits an ideal starter enterprise, especially for part time farmers without permanent land tenure.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Our outreach efforts included two conference presentations, a powerpoint, and the development of the 40 page guide, Pastured Rabbit for Profit.

Both presentations were very well attended and reviewed. We received and responded two more than a dozen emails from interested farmers and will continue to respond to all the inquiries we are able to.

The guide is currently available for free PDF download from SARE and our website, www.letterboxfarm.com, along with the 36 slide powerpoint presentation. In addition, we created and printed postcards with the download link that we will use to promote the guide moving forward.

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PasturedRabbitGuide

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“Pastured Rabbit for Profit” is an easily digestible, practical resource for farmers intended to guide readers through the start-up phase of their own pasture-based rabbitry. It includes a full enterprise budget along with housing plans, sample breeding schedules, feed guidelines and other rabbit husbandry basics.

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RabbitPresentation

This PowerPoint presentation is an abbreviated version of the guide with an emphasis on the economics

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Postcards with a link to the free download, hosted on the Letterbox Farm website. 

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.