Meat rabbits good for the bottom line

Today’s high cost of living sometimes means that a single income source just doesn’t cut it. Sigrid Lemmer turned to part-time meat rabbit production. She talks to Lloyd Phillips.

NZ White breeding does
Three of Sigrid’s NZ White breeding does enjoying a rest. A major problem for her meat rabbit enterprise are puff adders that come into the shelter.
Photo: Lloyd Phillips

As many parents will attest, raising children is no cheap and easy business. Single mother to two young daughters, Carissa (7) and Nerine (5), Sigrid Lemmer needed to earn some extra cash and started a small-scale meat rabbit farming business on her parents’ Merinoskloof Farm in the KZN Midlands.

Sigrid, who has never been afraid of getting her hands dirty doing farm chores, says, “The idea of rabbit farming actually came from my brother, Theo, who is studying at Cedara Agricultural College where they had a rabbit programme as part of their curriculum.”

Before committing to meat rabbit production, Sigrid first phoned a number of lodges, restaurants and other potential buyers in and around the Mooi River-Estcourt area to see if there was a market. She was pleased to hear that there was keen interest for this lean and healthy meat that’s high in omega oils.

Starting out
She wanted to farm the meat rabbits as stress-free as possible.

“The old empty pigsties on my parents’ farm were available, as was water, piping and pig feeders. This significantly reduced my start-up costs,” she says.

Sigrid’s choice of meat rabbit breed is the New Zealand White, based on advice from the Natal Rabbit Club.

In 2009 she bought her good quality nucleus breeding stock, comprising an adult buck, an adult doe and eight youngsters from the club’s stand at the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg.

Meat rabbits good for the bottom line
Farming ladies through and through (from left) Carissa, Sigrid, and Nerine Lemmer.

To expand the genetics, Sigrid later bought another NZ White doe, and more recently a NZ Red doe and a NZ Black doe, as well as a young NZ White buck. Sigrid now has three bloodlines in her rabbitry.

The spacious pig pens give the rabbits free movement as well as social interaction. Sigrid allows each enclosure to establish its own natural social hierarchy.

She explains that this low stress environment is not only ethical, but also contributes to improved breeding, health and general well-being of the rabbits.

“Rabbits are very inquisitive and need plenty of entertainment. I give them old tin cans to play with as well as bits of wood to wear down their perpetually growing incisors,” she says.

“In the fattening pen there is a jungle-gym that the weaners can play on.

“My main problem is puff adders and African rock pythons. Puff adders sneak into an enclosure and all the rabbits run to get a closer look. Then I end up with about five dead rabbits. African rock pythons, unlike puff adders, come to eat the rabbits. So many snakes enter the sties that Sigrid says, ‘‘Sometimes I feel like I’m a python farmer, not a rabbit farmer”.

Sigrid keeps strict control of the genetics to prevent inbreeding. Her current breeding stock is about 30 does and six bucks.

These produce about 30 rabbits a month for slaughter if all goes well. Sigrid won’t increase this number because she runs the rabbitry single-handedly and doesn’t want to over-extend herself.

She doesn’t to over-breed her does because this reduces their productive lifespan.

Old and unproductive does do not produce good eating meat so are a waste of feed and space. Sigrid aims to provide her clients with tender and tasty 90-day-old meat rabbits.

“I keep three does to an enclosure with a maximum of two litters of kittens,” says Sigrid.

“Each litter averages about eight kittens. I leave the kittens with their mother for eight weeks before I move groups of 15 to 30 of similar age to the fattening enclosures. At any one time I have a maximum of three groups being fattened.”

For breeding, Sigrid first divides the breeding does into groups of six of similar age. Does in these groups must also not be related to the buck that will be mating them.

Bucks are housed individually to prevent fighting. Sigrid then selects a doe from a particular group and places it in a selected buck’s enclosure. The doe is left with the buck from morning until evening to ensure successful mating.

Sigrid never puts a buck into a does’ enclosure because the group of does will protect their territory. She rather puts one doe into the buck’s enclosure.

Sigrid only mates the rabbits in spring, summer and autumn on days when the temperature is below 25°C.

A doe must be put to a buck within three days after the others have had their litters because she is most receptive to the buck then, and the buck is very responsive to the pheromones released by the does during the birthing process.

To improve birthing success for all the does in a group, Sigrid first puts the dominant doe in the group to the buck so she gets to birth her litter first in the group’s enclosure after her 31-day gestation period. She will then more easily accept the others’ litters in her enclosure.

As a precaution against does killing each other’s newborns, two days before birthing, Sigrid will separate the relevant does until seven days after birthing.

She explains that does only attack newborns, so when kittens are seven days old this risk decreases dramatically. Sigrid’s final measure to prevent does from killing each other’s kittens is to cull any does that are habitual fighters and/or kitten killers.

“I breed my does from six months old until they are no longer productive, usually around three years old, or if they are producing litters of three or less kittens over a maximum of three consecutive breedings. Litters smaller than three are just not cost-effective. Bucks are used from four months old until they are three to four years old.”

To select replacement breeding bucks and does, Sigrid uses her detailed records to find offspring from highly productive parents.

She prevents inbreeding as she finds it unethical. For replacement bucks, Sigrid chooses those with good temperament as they are not highly strung and remain calm when a doe is put into their enclosure.

A buck must also be a good worker. Sigrid selects larger bucks with larger heads and strong bone structure to carry more meat. When selecting replacement does, Sigrid wants those that come from mothers not prone to fighting or kitten killing, and they must come from mothers whose previous litters grew well.

Feeding and sickness
Sigrid finds commercial rabbit pellets too expensive, so she tracked down a local horse feed manufacturer who provides cheaper mill sweepings.

“Horses and rabbits have a similar digestive system, and the mill sweepings contain no additives. Their ingredients are based on bran, molasses meal and various grains,” she says.

“During the breeding season, the does and the weaners being fattened are fed an ad lib ration. To prevent the bucks from becoming overweight and lazy I give them a set ration based on my knowledge of each particular buck’s nutritional needs.”

Sigrid doesn’t breed her rabbits during winter because she doesn’t have heaters and rabbit kittens are very susceptible to hypothermia.

Also, in the cold, rabbits grow too slowly to be economically viable, using food energy to keep warm instead of using it for average daily gain.

Sigrid always makes sure that she has sufficient stock of rabbit carcasses in her freezer during the winter months so that she’s not losing out on an income during these three months.

In addition to the mill sweepings, Sigrid also feeds her rabbits Eragrostis curvula hay that she gets from her neighbour, Garth Ramsay.

There are also many other palatable plants on Merinoskloof Farm that Sigrid harvests to supplement the rabbits’ concentrate feed. Yet another saving on rabbit feed is foliage from the family’s vegetable garden.

During the winter months, Sigrid controls internal and external parasites so that when the breeding season starts in spring, the slaughtered rabbits will have no medicine residue in their meat. Sigrid doesn’t blanket-treat her rabbits with any other medicines.

Although a rare occurrence, when the occasional rabbit does get sick, she will immediately cull it to prevent the disease from spreading to the other rabbits.

Superficial wounds obtained while socialising with other rabbits are treated with an antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. If this rabbit is intended for slaughter, this will only be done once the antibiotic’s withdrawal period has passed.

“I send my rabbits to be slaughtered at the Kia Ora abattoir in Cato Ridge. I then bring the carcasses home and freeze them before distribution. A typical carcass weight is 1,2kg to 1,3kg,” she says.

“I find the market very variable but it’s still definitely bringing in much needed income. The way I’m farming with rabbits now, I’ll never get rich. But at least I know that they are being raised humanely and also that the meat is free of chemicals for the benefit of my clients and family.

“The lower the stress in a rabbit production environment, the better the meat quality. I find working with rabbits a thoroughly enjoyable and therapeutic experience.”

Contact Sigrid Lemmer on 082 735 3821.