Pastured Rabbit Integrated Farming Project

Final Report for FS13-264

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Michelle Bernard
Spellcast Farm
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Project Information

Abstract:

I am so incredibly thrilled with the progress I have made on this project.  Now I have the “problem” of having too many rabbits available and need to cut back on my breeding program which means we now get to eat more rabbit.  I am currently exploring the pet food market as a means to sell older rabbits and starting to market boneless rabbit and rabbit sausage.  Using rabbits as a part of an integrated farming system is a perfect means for many farmers to convert to full-circle farming and become more sustainable.

Introduction

When I wrote the grant for this project, I stated that this was not a pastured rabbit project, but an integrated farming model.  After having raised meat rabbits for over two years now I firmly believe that our methods are solid and can be utilized by any farmer wanting to raise both meat (or fiber) rabbits along side market vegetables.  I do not think there is much future in truly pastured rabbits; they can be pasture fed, but not kept grazing on grass.  Really, the only way that this can be done is if you have many, many acres of completely flat land.  Harvesting pasture (weeds, spent vegetables, etc.) and feeding them to the rabbits is perfectly viable.

Project Objectives:

Since the onset of this project, I have more than doubled my breeding program.  I am able to keep up with the demand for our rabbits.  Our customers remain very satisfied with the product.  I was not able to cut down on the grow-out period for our rabbits.  They are not fed any commercial rabbit pellets.  Instead they consume locally-grown whole grains, hay and harvested pasture grass, weeds and spent vegetables.  This enables me to market my rabbits as corn, soy and to our knowledge, GMO-free.

Research

Materials and methods:

Our rabbits grow out in eight by four, deep bedded pens with wire installed under the bedding to prevent dig-outs.  They are approximately five months old when harvested, which is on track with heritage-breed poultry.  Our rabbits are primarily Silver Fox, a heritage breed of rabbit known for a quality carcass and taste.  Once I harvest a pen of rabbits, we clean out the bedding and add it to a compost pile which, when aged, gets added to our raised beds to grow market vegetables in.  Previously, we had to travel to other farms to get compost to use in our beds, but now it’s all on farm.  Our rabbits consume a diet of locally-grown grass or alfalfa (shipped in from either Ohio or Canada) hay and locally-grown whole grains (oats, barley and wheat) as well as pasture grass (harvested with a scythe), weeds and spent vegetables.

The rabbits’ quality of life seems good.  They are social animals and enjoy the extra space to run and play in.  They are excited about their food which we deliver to them twice a day.  Because they do not have food in front of them 24/7 I am able to quickly deal with any illnesses they may suffer.  Previously, cocciosis was a problem, and to some extent, it can still be a problem, but I have learned to identify an ill rabbit early and either treat it, remove it from the pen or euthanize it.

Rabbits have been the most difficult species this farm has raised, but now, I feel like I able to maintain the breeding population and meat animals at its current level.  If the need arises, I can quickly up our numbers.

Research results and discussion:

Rabbit meat is not as well-accepted as chicken (beef or pork) and I have worked hard to change that attitude.  I do not know if that will ever change, however, I continue to plan to market our rabbit as sustainable and maintain the farm web site with recipes and information on cooking rabbit.  Since the beginning of this project, I have been enrolled at a local community college completing a degree in photography.  I am currently working on a collection of images of heritage food and will be working on imagery of rabbit dishes to add to the farm web site.  Pictures help sell product and showing a tasty dish made with our rabbit will help with the marketing.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

At least once a month, I receive correspondence from other farmers requesting information on how to raise rabbits the way we do. I posted a video on Vimeo detailing our our rabbits are raised. http://vimeo.com/search?q=Spellcast+Farm
Scroll down and select the Spellcast Farm Rabbits video.

We were not on the 2014 farm tour because we moved the farm.  I do maintain a Facebook page and on-line journal detailing our efforts.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

I have more than doubled both my breeding program and meat animal output.  All of the breeding animals are at least second generation born on this farm and as such, their digestive systems are capable to handling a complete forage-based diet.  The quality of the carcass of a rabbit produced on this farm is high and well respected by local restaurants and customers.  We now have the problem of having more rabbit than there is demand for and because of this, I am now exploring pet food avenues which I expect will become very lucrative in 2015.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Throughout this project and for the future, I will remain available to consult with any farmer (or homesteader) wishing to raise rabbits in this manner.  I now offer breeding stock for sale to these individuals.  Spellcast Farm will participate in local farm tours and will have an open house in early 2015.  I will continue to maintain an on-line presence detailing our or rabbits are raised.

Future Recommendations

I hope that more farmers will elect to add rabbits to their farms and utilize them in the manner which I do.  Rabbits are one of (if not the!) most sustainable animal to raise.  They integrate perfectly with market vegetable production; the quality of their meat is high and extremely healthy, especially if they are raised on a forage-based (non-commercial) feed as we raise ours.

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.