Rabbit Futures

From a given amount of alfalfa hay rabbits can produce about 5 times as much meat as beef cattle.  However, grain feeding is not required for either specie to grow moderately productively.  There is not any reason for the Northeastern region of the US to continue wasting precious energy by shipping in rabbit meat and pelts from as far away as China and Australia.  The fact that such  importations are currently economically viable proves that at least a few types of rabbit markets already do exist.  These markets should be filled and expanded upon domestically.  Not straying far from successful rabbit meat and pelt business models would be a wise place to start increasing US rabbit production.  While some scientific findings do seem to change back  and forth over time, human nature tends to remain fairly constant.  People most often eat what is familiar, convenient, tasty and affordable.  Conventional livestock wisdom has it that rabbits are merely another novelty food and/or fiber species that will never achieve enough economic viability to become a meaningful segment of American agriculture.  However, world-wide history has proven European domestic rabbits to be much more than a short-term novelty.  Fad livestock species aren’t popular in the long-run and those enterprises can only continue to profitably operated under the “Greater Fool Theory” where early adopters are usually able to sell breeding animals, but when the gold-wash wares off the pyramid collapses.  Conversely, due to the rabbit’s long-term and proven history as an efficient meat species one could logically believe that it is only a matter of time before economic necessity, and/or masterful marketing, propels rabbit containing products to mainstream American agricultural status.  Rabbit meat’s financial success hinges on brining those products into the high volume/ low mark-up marketing framework that we all enjoy from our tremendously large US meat supply.

Over half of the sausage items consumed in the US are either hot dogs or bologna.  High protein rabbit meat is functionally comparable to veal or skinless poultry, so it could be  unnoticeably incorporated into most emulsion type meat products.

Rabbit production start-up cost consists primarily of physical facilities, seed livestock, feed and labor.  As with poultry, large amounts of land are not needed for rabbit production.  Meat rabbits produce better in the cold then they do in hot weather; the “rust-belt” region around the Great Lakes would be a good location for widespread rabbit production.  Large-scale production facilities housed in abandoned factories would not be rural, but would also not often be in residential areas.  Rabbits are noiseless in any production setting.  Per unit cost of rabbit seed-stock can be expected to be comparable to commercial poultry enterprises.  In a processing rabbit production model culled breeding stock is of equal value to their young terminal-cross progeny.  Currently US rabbit production is a “one trick pony,’ turning out fryers.  Per capita poultry consumption in the US did not increase substantially until after further processing meat plants began using lots of mechanically separated back and neck meat.  Rabbit carcasses can also be both knife and mechanically deboned.  The larger knife boned pieces could go to chunked and formed products while the MSM (mechanically separated meat) is used in emulsion type meat products.  As demand for sausage rabbits goes up the production and processing cost of their meat should go down due to economies of scale.

The rabbit’s natural ability to efficiently use forage protein (rabbits absorb 75 to 80% of what is available) is of major economic significance.  Sausage rabbits are fed-out at a comparatively slow rate on a diet consisting mainly of alfalfa.  Facility and labor cost are greater with sausage rabbits because of the longer time required to reach marketable weights.  However, those costs are more than off-set by less grain usage, less intestinal disease loss, the selling of fully prime pelts and a comparable price paid for culled breeding stock.  Labor efficiencies can be gained by smart large facility setup; where individual employees mainly perform the same repetitive task(s).

Economic feasibility for processors begins with companies being able to produce  rabbit containing items that are very similar to existing products that have proven markets. Fortunately, rabbits offer something new and healthy that can be obtained in the products consumers already like, and at a comparable price.  One could dub this concept mainstream niche marketing: mainstream because the new items have instant recognition and niche because the rabbit products appeal to something some consumers would like to see themselves as (healthy, sustainable etc.).  Large, meaty, white rabbits with fully prime pelts are the most advantageous choice for harvest.  Largeness maximizes both meat yield per animal and pelt size.  Dressed rabbit carcasses yield 75 to 80% meat.  Selecting for the double-muscling trait would further increase meat yield.  Rabbits have a short generation time and large litters so genetic improvements could be made relatively quickly.  Currently, prime pelts are worth nearly as much as rabbit carcasses.  Young fryer rabbits do not produce fully prime pelts.  White pelts can be dyed any color for manufacturing imitation exotic animal fur apparel.

High protein, lean rabbit meat has no off-flavors and abundant salt-soluble protein to encapsulate pork or beef fat particles in emulsion type products.  Or, the salt-soluble proteins can be extracted to bind chunked and formed pre-cooked patties.  Chicken or turkey skins are sometimes used to add flavor and juiciness to pre-cooked poultry items.  These skins could be used the same way in knife boned, kidney plate ground rabbit containing end-items.  Modern market appeal for rabbit meat is low cholesterol and more sustainable agriculture practices.

Feed is the largest single expense in market livestock production.  Sausage type rabbits can be efficiently raised on pellets that primarily contain alfalfa, along with vitamin and mineral supplementation.  In the moist Northeastern United States, low growing alfalfa could be planted along interstate highways.  Even farm grown alfalfa production has the added benefit of efficiently keeping carbon dioxide sequestered under ground.

In summary:  There is not any reason why rabbit meat could not partially replace chicken.  Further prime rabbits pelts are of much more value than chicken feathers.  Chickens are best suited as fryers because they yield more eye-appealing meat cuts.  Rabbits most efficiently convert roughages (which are indigestible to humans) into high quality protein that is perfect for the production of several further processed product types.  We should be feeding more corn to hogs and cattle to enhance their palatability characteristics and less unnecessarily to chickens.

Written by George Wolfer

George Wolfer

Been associated with the meat industry pretty much since starting at a Vocational High school Meat Processing program in 1974. Like to learn and teach interesting and worthwhile livestock production, meat processing and marketing practices.

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