With some knowledgeable input, the correct infrastructure and a contract that leaves the marketing to someone else, prospective meat rabbit farmers can be assured that this niche industry is growing at the same rate as the rabbit population that drives it.
The demand for rabbit meat is huge in Europe and African countries such as Nigeria, leaving the market completely unsatisfied. Due to its health properties – with the World Health Organisation describing rabbit meat as the healthiest available as a result of its high protein and low fat content – the meat has become especially trendy in European restaurants. This trend is contrary to that of ancient Europe where rabbit meat was purely consumed by the poor.
A young industry
Rabbit meat is considered a niche product and as a result the producer can expect a better price than most other industries. According to Pieter Keyser, a local rabbit farmer from Coligny in the North West province, the South African market has not even started to fully experience this industry due to substantial exports to Europe, feeding the unsatisfied market.
As the local industry is still in its growth phase, investors are wary of exploring this unknown market. This applies not only to farmers, but also to retail stores and financiers. According to Keyser, most established rabbit farms have been developed by farmers’ own capital, but the potential in larger-sized farms is much more profitable. “Capital is currently a problem, but financiers are investigating the industry,” he says.
There are approximately 200 meat rabbit farmers in South Africa, but considering the international demand it is a worthwhile opportunity for potential farmers to explore. Keyser is convinced that even with a market share of approximately 2% of the local meat market, rabbit meat in South Africa can potentially become a billion-rand industry. Innovative methods are currently being investigated to offer a profitable product to all markets.
From the farmer’s mouth
Like any type of farming, meat rabbit farming requires a hands-on approach, but input is minimal. A meat rabbit farmer needs to keep his finger on the pulse and manage it very closely to ensure maximum productivity and profitability. According to Keyser, who made the leap from cattle farming a few years ago, the initial infrastructure takes up the largest portion of the budget.
“If you have the correct tools, you can basically use any shed to start your rabbitry. You can also seamlessly diversify to rabbit farming with any other kind of farming.”
Meat rabbit farmers predominantly make use of the New Zealand White breed. Rabbits are notorious for their breeding habits, and with good reason – a female rabbit (doe) can produce up to 66 baby rabbits (kittens) per year, which translates to 160kg of meat. She is pregnant for about 29 days and the kittens are only around seven days old when she is fertilised again. The young reach a weight of 2kg at about nine weeks of age when they are sent to the abattoir. Apart from supplying the animal with food and water, input is minimal.
The rabbit is a herbivore and its systolic digestive system closely resembles that of other monogastric animals (pigs and chickens). The big difference occurs in the proximal colon where a very interesting phenomenon is observed, namely coprophagia.
In short, it is described as a process where the rabbit produces and occupies its own nutrients. The rabbit ingests these soft and nutritious cecotropes in the morning when it is produced and secreted. Cecotropes are critical in maintaining vitamin B levels as well as protein synthesis in the rabbit. Coprophagia is a common phenomenon and is very important to the general health of the rabbit.
Sufficient fibre (14–20%) is also essential in nutrition. Not only does it aid digestion, but also plays an important role in maintaining the rabbit’s teeth. When a rabbit does not chew enough, it can develop a painful condition called malocclusion – which in effect is the overgrowth of teeth. Fibre also protects the rabbit’s intestines. Furthermore, overcrowding of normal bacteria in the caecum can lead to diarrhoea and consequently, death.
Keyser emphasises that rabbits have sensitive digestive systems, but that they are not affected by the same types of diseases that occur in poultry, ostrich and pork which affect slaughter and exports. The right natural food and a good environment will create optimal humane conditions for the animals.
Rabbit droppings are rich in nutrients and can be sold as organic soil fertiliser, increasing the farmer’s income potential.
A support structure
Coniglio Rabbit Meat Farm was established early in 2011 and set out to build a platform to supply rabbit products to markets in South Africa and abroad. The company produces and supplies markets with rabbit meat as a wholesome alternative protein source. The enterprise’s main focus is on farming and support structures, processing and product development, marketing and sales and the value addition of byproducts.
Coniglio consists of various contract farmers across South Africa, which takes the marketing responsibility off the farmers’ hands. Figures indicate that 99% of rabbit farmers in the country are currently taking this route in a collective effort to get export totals to a point where they can drive the market.
Profitability and low intensity – especially in respect of labour – and the fact that there is a market, are some of the factors drawing potential farmers. Coniglio provides farmers with the necessary structures and guidance to get their businesses off the ground. Their contract courses enable producers to farm with rabbits while they learn and grow their farming activities to full contracted quota. It usually takes about eight months after a rabbitry has been established for full production to be reached and some profit to be realised.
Coniglio only buys rabbits back from its own contract farmers for slaughter or meat purposes. This ensures that the farming standards are met and that the most possible A grade meat is produced from only meat-quality rabbits. Coniglio’s system is based on a point of entry and compulsory exit method within a certain period, and is strictly controlled to make sure that there is a place for every rabbit produced. Capacity for slaughter and processing is planned accordingly. – Elmarie Helberg, Farmbiz
For more information, contact Pieter Keyser on 083 480 0971 or [email protected]