Rabbit meat is not as commonly eaten in South Africa as it is in Europe and other countries. There are, however, growing niche markets for the product. FarmBiz spoke to two leading meat rabbit farmers, from slightly different sectors within the South African industry, to gain some insight into the industry and its potential.

According to John Falck of Coniglio Rabbit Farm, although the South African rabbit meat industry is young in comparison to international production figures, it is expanding at a rapid rate. This expansion is stimulated by growing market demand and the establishment of necessary infrastructure to supply this demand.

Judy Stuart, a breeder of quality breeding stock for the rabbit industry, agrees that although the rabbit meat industry is still very new in South Africa, it has huge potential. She attributes its slow growth rate to the fact that South Africans have not yet been properly introduced to rabbit meat. Education regarding the benefits and availability of rabbit meat should be taken to the next level.

Why meat rabbits?

Meat rabbit production makes economic sense because the animals are prolific and efficiently convert plant proteins, usually of little or no use to people as food source, into high-value animal protein.

“In comparison to other farmed meat protein products, rabbits require fewer resources, especially land, and can be humanely farmed on a very small footprint,” says Falck.

“Costs to set up a rabbit operation are modest. Very little land and water are required, as well as limited labour. Rabbits are effective converters of roughage and do not need to compete with humans for food,” adds Stuart. “I feel that there are great opportunities in this sector, especially for emerging farmers, and would encourage government agencies to play an active role in the development of this sector.”

Production and slaughter

Rabbit meat production systems can be very profitable even on a small scale. According to Falck, a good starting number for successful production can be from a minimum of 150 breeding units up to 2 100 commercial units. He says a massive unit consisting of 8 000 production units (female rabbits) will be completed early next year in the North West province. Stuart adds that there are also a few breeders who keep rabbits for their own household use.

Falck emphasises that production principles are focused on humane farming methods and that the meat is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.

A standard commercial meat rabbit production system with New Zealand Whites.

When it comes to slaughtering facilities, there is a shortage in South Africa – a situation that is limiting the growth of the industry. According to Stuart, poultry abattoirs can usually obtain a license for rabbits. Abattoirs, however, must be appropriately registered for the type of animals slaughtered. The main difference between poultry abattoirs and facilities for rabbits is that specialised equipment is required to pluck chickens or ducks.

Falck adds that rabbits are very clean animals, and this makes the slaughtering process uncomplicated and more hygienic. There are also no fats and feathers that need to be removed, which further simplifies the process.

 

Breeding

“Specialised rabbit breeds for meat and fur production have evolved over the past hundred years. These breeds are generally larger with good maternal traits and produce and raise large litters. Rabbits, as with beef cattle, have a high proportion of muscle to bone and are fast maturing. In some countries, there are performance testing programmes that measure feed conversion and other production traits for breeding purposes,” explains Stuart.

 “The New Zealand White breed is most commonly used for meat production in South Africa. When commercial meat breeds were developed in the US early in the last century, the New Zealand Red was one of the first. Demand for white fur, which could be dyed any colour, drove breeders to come up with the New Zealand White.

“The Californian is another top commercial breed with white fur. It has black points, but these do not affect the useable part of the fur. Other established breeds suitable for meat production in South Africa are New Zealand Red, Cinnamon, and Chinchilla Giganta. The latter was developed for its beautiful fur, although it is considered to be a slower maturing breed. But I find their growth rates very good. Crossbreeding programmes that follow recognised systems could also be of value.”

Falck adds that meat production breeds that deliver a consistent carcass are preferred. “The focus is on natural breeding and rearing techniques to steer clear of competition related to yields and growth patterns. This is something rabbits do very well all on their own.”

Genetics

“South Africa has been very fortunate to have excellent stock, preserved over the years through the stockmanship of certain breeders. Rabbits multiply quickly, and it is a quick process to upbreed entire herds through centralised management, taking control of the herds and their origins,” says Falck.

“We are presently unable to import genetics. Some of the breeds originally came from the US and as the standards of the country of origin are used at shows, we use those of the American Rabbit Breeders’ Association. The Chinchilla Giganta is judged according to British Rabbit Council standards as it is a British breed,” Stuart adds.

“In South Africa, artificial insemination is not used in rabbit breeding, but it would be possible to use it to preserve or improve stud stock rather than being implemented on the production side. Nothing breeds like a rabbit and the focus at Coniglio is on collective farming methods while keeping it real,” says Falck.

“It would also reduce the number of bucks (male rabbits) required within an operation. There may also be economic and biosecurity advantages. Rabbit semen cannot be frozen and successfully thawed, which is unfortunate as the use of frozen semen has revolutionised many animal breeding programmes. This has meant that superior genetics are easily shared, both internationally and locally.”

Market opportunities

There are local and international markets for the meat of South African meat rabbits. Coniglio is the largest and only meat rabbit producer with access to international export markets. Any exported meat must meet international standards. In addition, there is a smaller local market and a possibility for this sector to grow in the near future.

“Products are exported whole and frozen. If needed, rabbit meat can be portioned and packed as per the client’s requirements,” says Falck. “Ready-to-eat products from a rabbit meat perspective may be available in future. Products for social cooking will attract retail customers to try rabbit for the first time. There is movement in the retail sector, and rabbit products for these markets will be on the shelves before the end of 2018.”

Stuart and other smaller rabbit meat operations mainly supply the local niche market as well as informal markets. It does, however, have the potential to fill a gap in the meat processing industry. Niche markets include individual restaurants, butcheries and private individual customers.

Nutrition and feed

According to Johan Potgieter, marketing manager for Opti Feeds, the growth of the meat rabbit industry can be seen in the increase in feed production for rabbits. According to statistics by the Animal Feed Manufacturers’ Association, the production of rabbit feed in 2017 showed an increase in year-on-year growth of 36,8%. Approximately 3 333 tons of rabbit feed were produced in 2017.

Rabbits, as hind gut fermenters, require a diet high in fibre and low in starch. Feeding a balanced diet is very important to ensure healthy animals.

Rabbit feed is usually formulated to include cereal grains such as barley and wheat, lucerne, vegetable fats and molasses. A source that is high in soluble fibre is also included, for example beets, apple and/or citrus pulp or soya hulls. A source high in lignified fibrous products such as wheat straw, or grape co-products, is also important. Lastly, protein sources such as sunflower, soya bean or rapeseed is incorporated.

Vitamins, minerals and amino acids are added to ensure that the feed is balanced to meet rabbits’ nutritional requirements.

For more information, contact Judy Stuart on 083 555 0082 or judy@futurefarmers.org.za, and John Falck on 071 042 8930 or john@coniglio.co.za. –Ursula Human, FarmBiz