The area required for an economic unit is fairly small. A plot or even a comparatively large town property (regulations permitting) is suitable. Rabbits compare favourably with other animals as converters of vegetable feed to meat. To produce 1 kg live mass meat, the rabbit only requires 3,5 kg vegetable feed. The reproduction potential of the doe is remarkable if one considers, in a commercial herd, a progeny of 40 can be marketed out of a single doe, with one 3 kg animal producing up to 40 kg of meat in a year.
Certain breeds are bred for both their meat and pelts, such as the Chinchilla Giganta and Rex Rabbits, whilst the New Zealand White and The Californian are used for meat production. Angora Rabbits (see “Specialty fibre production”) are farmed for their wool. The SA Phendula breed was developed in South Africa to suit our hot and dry conditions.The Phendula (which means “the answer”) is bred for meat and it carries a good coloured pelt.
Another product from rabbits is their manure, which has the highest levels of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphoric Acid, and Potassium) of all farm animal manures. It can be placed directly onto seed beds and does not damage the roots of young plants.
Locally, rabbit health Research and Development has had little commercial incentive to advance, and what knowledge has existed was seldom accessible when and where needed. Overseas expertise applicable to mass production could be accessed, but issues of licensing and cost worked against this.
Is there a change in the air? There has been increased interest in rabbit farming since the previous printed edition of the Agri Handbook (2013/14). Yes, there are changes in that we now have a commercial interest that is growing and market research and development have had an extensive impact on both the local and export market (see under Role Players).
The National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) is busy putting together a Code of Practice suitable for the commercial rabbit production industry. Working with leading industry role players and experts, and with the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), it is hoped that this document will be available soon to all breeders and potential breeders of commercial rabbits. For more information please contact the NSPCA on 011 907 3590.
Local business environment
- The rabbit industry is still underdeveloped and underutilised despite its potential in contributing towards food security, job creation, and poverty alleviation.
- Notwithstanding the challenges faced by producers and exporters in the industry, a drastic increase in the volume and value of rabbit meat exports has been recorded in the recent past. Between 2016 and 2020, the value of rabbit meat exports exponentially increased from R0.249 million to R2.306 million. Twenty-eight (28) tons of rabbit meat were exported in 2020 as compared to only four (4) tons exported in 2016.
- Unlike in all the previous years during which rabbit meat was destined for countries within Southern Africa, including Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique and Angola, in 2020, all the meat was exported outside of Africa. Sixty per cent (60 %) of rabbit was exported to Hong Kong while the other 40% went to Qatar (Trade Map, 2021).
- In South Africa itself, rabbit meat occupies a negligible percentage in total meat consumption (less than 1%).
The above information is taken from the report “The untapped potential of niche commodity value chains; A perspective of the rabbit industry” (May 2021) by the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), which looks at the international trade in rabbit meat and live rabbits.
Farming with rabbits
The late rabbit expert, Karoline Steenekamp, would speak of receiving calls from people saying they had 30,50 or 100 rabbits ready for slaughter – where should they sell them? “If they didn’t have a market they should NOT have been bred in the first place,” she would fume. It is essential in any business operation to establish a market before going ahead with production. To fail to do so will result in costly failure.
- The market for pelts fluctuates, and breeders may have to find their own markets.
- Breeding for pelts also means extra expense as animals must be kept until after the primary hair coat has been shed.
- Pelt processing by the producer himself could also involve great expense.
- The market for high quality pelts has increased in the UK and Europe. The fashion industry in on the look out to match batches of top pelts.
- A carefully worked out breeding programme can achieve top production and the economic productive life of a doe is from about 24 to 36 months.
- At 11-12 weeks rabbits are usually ready for the market with a mass of 2,3 to 2,5 kg.
- The law requires slaughtering at an approved abattoir, either the producer’s own or an existing one.
- An eleven week-old rabbit should dress at about 54% of the original size and weight (after the bones, head, fur etc have been removed)
- In South Africa, commercial rabbit farming has always somewhat neglected, but due to concerted effort by some clubs and a commercial consortium, rabbit meat production is now a viable agricultural product.
There is no single husbandry method that can be universally recommended for successful rabbit farming: the selection of any appropriate mix of practices and methods must consider a range of criterion, including three basic determinants:
- The nature of the rabbit, its needs and stresses
- What products are being farmed for
- Availability of requisite inputs.
Nature of the rabbit
- High reproductive ability, concomitant to high mortality.
- Good dress-out ratio.
- Flesh low in body fat.
- Practically no cholesterol in the meat and a very high protein content
- Quick maturing.
- “Highly-strung”, small, nocturnal mammal, intensely predated upon by rats, raptors, mongooses, dogs, cats and snakes. Fearful of sudden movements and sounds, and prone to panic.
- Good converter of vegetable roughage due to bacterial action in the hindgut, therefore requiring freely available fresh water, and sensitive to sudden changes in diet.
- Relatively large intestinal tract necessitating high throughput of clean roughage and sufficient mobility to stretch its gut and expel gas build-ups.
- Vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature and its extremes, particularly heat, and to drafts and damp.
- Susceptible to a number of infectious diseases and parasites, particularly if stressed. (Importation of rabbits and rabbit genetics is strictly banned due to the fact that South Africa is free of two highly contagious killer diseases, being myxomatosis and Viral Hemorrhagic Disease, which would cause major destruction to our wild rabbits and hare populations as well as domestic rabbits).
- Males are progressively territorially aggressive as they mature. This takes the form of urinating on neighbours and attacking other males with tooth and claw.
- The entire animal can be converted to product.
- Meat, fur, wool (plus all value added conversions and processed derivatives).
- Farming for meat and fur means slaughtering, farming for wool does not. But the production and marketing of wool and wool products demands a set of skills, management techniques, and markets that differ markedly from those centring around rearing animals for slaughter, which need to be dealt with specifically.
- Farming for quality furs (and certain meat products) requires that animals be housed for 2 and more times longer than one would for carcasses destined for “fryer” markets. This impacts on required housing infrastructure, and requires a cost-effective tanning method or facility.
- South African consumer resistance to rabbit carcasses (association with pets or taboos) can generally be obviated by presenting portions, pies, pâtés etc. Market research and development recently undertaken has made rabbit meat more acceptable to many local consumers, and this market development is ongoing. Rabbit meat production is certainly growing in popularity.
Availability of requisite inputs
Choose the right rabbit:
- Buy healthy rabbits with bright eyes, dry noses and clean ears and feet. The rabbit’s fur should be smooth and clean and its teeth in line.
- It is best to buy breeding stock at about six months, and to replace them every three years.
- Select your rabbits from parents which have a good breeding record. A female that does not perform well will also have poor offspring.
- It is preferable to buy stock from well established breeders who mark their stock either with tattoo numbers or leg rings. The breeder should also be able to supply information on both the sire and the dam of your stock as well as birth dates.
- Do not buy a mature female because you cannot always know how old she is. She might for instance have reached the end of her productive life and will be of no use (for breeding). Long toenails indicate that the rabbit is older.
- Rabbits can be kept in very simple housing. Whether a single rabbit is kept as a pet, or a herd of rabbits is farmed on a larger scale, they can be housed in cages of wire mesh or recycled scrap material such as wood.
- In commercial rabbit enterprises, professional hutches can be made for quality and durability.
- The size of individual cages is an area of debate. Commercial rabbit farming suggests that each cage be at least 50cm x 90cm x 40 cm for a 4 kg rabbit.
- Rabbits prefer cooler temperatures, and are comfortable at 16oC. They should be shielded from direct sunlight, wind and rain.
- The cage should have a wire mesh floor with holes large enough for the droppings to fall through (the holes in the mesh should not be big and allow their feet to get stuck).(1 inch x ½ inch is ideal) The droppings can be used as a fertiliser in vegetable patches or flower gardens.
- The cage should not have a ground floor because the rabbits will dig a way out, and they would be susceptible in infections such as mange and mites.
- If a wooden frame is used, the wire mesh should be placed on the inside of the frame to prevent the rabbits from gnawing through it. The mother, however, needs a nesting box to keep her babies warm. This box should be about 38 x 25 x 25 cm.
- Clean the cage regularly and keep it dry to prevent disease.
- Protect the cage from sun, wind and rain. It is not necessary to put the cages inside buildings such as sheds to protect the rabbits against cold as they can tolerate cold better than heat.
- Rabbits need plenty of fresh air. Their cages therefore have to be well ventilated.
- The cages should be put in a quiet place where dogs, cats and rats cannot get to them.
- Feed your rabbits lucerne, grass, green maize, leaves, carrots, weeds and leaves of fruit some trees (rabbits will eat almost anything that grows in the soil).
- Most rabbit breeders use commercially produced rabbit pellets too. These contain most of the nutrients and vitamins needed to keep rabbits healthy. They also make for less waste and mess than feeding big vegetable leaves.
- Good quality hay is also essential in addition to pellets, followed by treats of various vegetables or fruit.
- Feed the rabbits early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most of the food should preferably be given late in the afternoon.
- You can grow your own green material for rabbit food.
- Never feed your rabbits potato, tomato and rhubarb leaves. These are poisonous to rabbits.
- Never leave them without water: rabbits must have access to clean water at all times.
- Be careful not to introduce sudden changes in the rabbit’s diet.
- Do not feed rabbits greens that have become heated, food that has been sprayed with pesticides, spoiled food or mouldy hay.
- Female rabbits are ready to breed when they are 5 to 6 months old and males when they are 5 to 7 months old.
- Keep the male rabbit in a separate cage.
- Always put the female into the male’s cage. If the mating was successful the male will roll over.
- If the female is not ready for mating, she will try to run away.
- If mating does not take place, the female can be put into the male’s cage for the next 5 to 6 days.
- The female is more productive during springtime, summer and early autumn.
- Breeding during the winter months is not recommended as it is too cold. Pregnancy lasts about 1 month.
- A rabbit litters about 30 days after mating.
- About 25 – 27 days after mating, soft dry grass can be placed in a clean, dry nesting box for the female. The female will inspect the box, add some of her own fur to the grass, and will make the nest on her own.
- Stay away from the cage at this stage until the babies have been born.
- The babies are usually born during the early morning hours.
- Inspect the babies carefully to see if they are alive and well.
- Remove dead babies immediately.
- The babies should lie close together in the nesting box.
- Make sure that the babies are suckling and well nourished.
- The female cannot always feed all the babies if there are too many. Some of the babies can then be given to another female who only has a few babies. The babies should be of the same age.
- The baby rabbits can be weaned from the age of 30 to 35 days.
- At this stage they can be taken away from their mother. Put the young females and males in separate cages.
- Depending on the feeding and management level, the female can be mated again from 2 to 3 days up to 1 month after having given birth.
- Young rabbits are usually big enough to be eaten or sold at the age of 3 to 4 months. If you keep them for a longer period they will eat much more and the males will begin to fight.
Sources: Karoline Steenekamp and Tjaart Steenekamp, and Rabbits: keeping rabbits, a booklet published by the National Department of Agriculture (see publications and websites in this chapter).
Websites and publications
- See websites listed earlier on this page.
- Kejafa Knowledge Works supplies the publication Raising Rabbits, a 256-page publication complete with photographs. Visit www.kejafa.com.
- The South African Rabbit Breeds Standard of Excellence, written and compiled by Karoline Steenekamp.
- Rabbit Breeding in South Africa by Marion Keller. It is out of print but you may be able to find it in a second-hand bookshop or on internet sites like www.amazon.com and www.bidorbuy.co.za.
- The following Info Paks are available from the DALRRD under the “Resource Centre” option at www.dalrrd.gov.za: “Rabbits: Keeping Rabbits” and “Rabbit recipes”.
- Red Meat Marketing, one of the series of Agricultural Extension Training Papers under “Resource centre” and “General publications” at www.dalrrd.gov.za includes a look at rabbits as an alternative source of protein.
- The government of the Republic of Botswana has notes on rabbits. Read these at www.gov.bw/en/Ministries–Authorities/Ministries/MinistryofAgriculture-MOA/Tools–Services/Livestock/Commercial-Rabbit-Production/
- Find the videos on YouTube like “Raising Meat Rabbits” and “Rabbit farming changing lives”.
- Find the notes on rabbit farming at www.roysfarm.com/rabbit-farming.
- Find photographs of the different types of rabbit at www.dwarfrabbits.co.za.
- The British Rabbit Council, www.thebrc.org
- American Rabbit Breeders Association, www.arba.net
- Some readers may find the House Rabbit Society (in the USA) an interesting read, http://rabbit.org.
- Eksteen H. 2023, April/May. “Goodluck Homestead: In search of alternative meat”. Grond tot Mond. Available at https://viewer.joomag.com/grond-tot-mond-apr-mei-2023-uitgawe-15/0417637001681203874
- Reporter. 2022, November 18. “Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease confirmed in parts of SA”. SA News. Available at www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/rabbit-hemorrhagic-disease-confirmed-parts-sa
- Ramalepe P. 2021, August 21. “Rabbit farming is a growing industry in SA. Here’s what it will cost to start your own”. Business Insider South Africa. Available at www.businessinsider.co.za/how-to-start-your-own-rabbit-farm-2021-8
- GAIA. 2020, July 27. “More space to improve the welfare of breeding rabbits”. Eurogroup For Animals. Available at www.eurogroupforanimals.org/news/more-space-improve-welfare-breeding-rabbits
- Ngwenya F. 2021, June 1. “How to crack it in rabbit farming like Lesego”. Food for Mzansi. Available at www.foodformzansi.co.za/side-hustle-how-lab-technician-thrives-in-rabbit-farming/
- Coleman A. 2020, December 11. “More rabbit meat producers needed in South Africa”. Farmer’s Weekly, page 25.
- Hart C. 2020, April 9. “Got no money? Here’s how to pull a rabbit out of a hat”. Business Day. Available at www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2020-04-09-got-no-money-heres-how-to-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat/
- Botha L. 2019, November 4. “Rabbit farmers left in dire straits after Coniglio liquidation”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-news/south-africa/rabbit-farmers-left-in-dire-straits-after-coniglio-liquidation/
- Dlamini S. 2019, October 20. “KwaDukuza rabbit farmer exports 90 percent of his product”. The North Coast Courier. Available at https://northcoastcourier.co.za/141267/grilled-rabbit-soon-coming-restaurant-near/
- Caboz J. 2019, August 19. “Exporting rabbit meat could mean big bucks for small SA farmers. Here’s advice on how to get started”. Business Insider. Available at www.businessinsider.co.za/exporting-rabbit-meat-could-mean-big-bucks-for-small-sa-farmers-heres-advice-on-how-to-get-started-2019-8
- Kriel, G. 2018, July 3. “Practical tips for starting a rabbit farm”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-business/agribusinesses/practical-tips-starting-rabbit-farm/
- Du Preez, J. 2017, October 13. “Rabbit meat: expanding a niche market in South Africa”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-business/agribusinesses/rabbit-farming-enter-money-making-market/
- Find the article “Rabbit farming: a growing enterprise in South Africa” by Jaco Smit (Opti Feeds) at www.optifeeds.co.za.
- CASIDRA in the Western Cape has also done an article about farming with rabbits. Find “Rabbit farming” at www.casidra.co.za.
- Of interest is an article on http://afkinsider.com, “Rabbit Rearing In Uganda: Learning From Past Mistakes”
- Staff reporter. 2017, August 27. “Meat rabbit farming: A niche waiting to be explored”. AgriOrbit. Available at https://agriorbit.com/meat-rabbits-feeding-a-growing-population/
Our thanks to the late Karoline Steenekamp for her generous assistance with this page.
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