By – Nephi M. Patton* and Peter R. Cheeke
*N. M. Patton, Rabbit Research Center, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331
Reciprocal Meat Conference Proceedings, Volume 34, 1981
Contribution of the Rabbit Research Center and the Department of Animal Science, Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, Corvallis, OR 97330
Rabbit production is now a minor agricultural enterprise throughout the world. It is most highly developed in Western European countries such as France, Italy and Spain. Rabbits are also raised in large numbers in China, which is the main exporter of rabbit meat. Increasing quantities of Chinese rabbit meat are being imported into the United States.
Rabbits have a number of attributes which may result in their importance increasing in the future. They have the potential to become a major livestock species. This article will briefly review some of these attributes, and present some of the problems which currently prevent this potential from being realized.
Some of the attributes of the rabbit as a livestock species are:
- Rabbits can be fed high forage, low grain diets that are largely noncompetitive with human food requirements.
- Rabbits utilize forage protein very efficiently.
- Rabbits have a high feed conversion efficiency, with feed/gain ratios of 2-2.3 on high grain diets, and 3-3.8 on high forage, grain-free diets.
- They have a high growth rate, similar to that of broiler chickens, reaching market weight (4-4.5 Ibs) at 8 weeks of age.
- Rabbits have the potential of being in a constant state of reproduction; they can be rebred within 24 hours of parturition.
- There is a high degree of genetic diversity for productive traits, so that selection and breeding programs have the potential for a rapid rate of improvement.
- Rabbit meat is a high quality, nutritious product.
- Rabbits are suited to both small scale (backyard, self sufficiency) and to large scale commercial production.
The ability of rabbits to utilize high forage diets efficiently is shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Performance of weanling rabbits fed high alfalfa diets (Pote et al., 1980)
|0||0||31.4 a||84.2 a||2.7||310||20|
|10||10.1||44.0 b||107.5 b||2.4||374||20|
|20||21.7||36.6 ab||105.3 b||2.9||350||10|
|30||36.2||40.1 ab||110.4 b||2.8||349||70|
|40||50.7||36.4 ab||115.8 b||3.2||344||10|
|50||65.2||41.l b||130.9 c||3.2||365||10|
|60||79.7||37.3 ab||134.3 cd||3.6||349||10|
|74||100||38.2 ab||147.6 d||3.9||346||0|
In this study (Pote et al., 1980), the complete replacement of grain with alfalfa did not reduce average daily gain. Gain was best on the low fiber, high energy corn-soy diet with no alfalfa added. Even with a diet containing 74% alfalfa, the feed/gain ratio was less than 4:1. Values for poultry, swine or cattle fed a grain-free high alfalfa diet would probably be much higher, and in the case of growing swine and poultry, performance with a 74% alfalfa diet would be extremely poor.
The ability of rabbits to use high forage diets may be particularly important in tropical developing countries. American Meat Science Association et al. (1981) have shown that rabbits can grow as rapidly and efficiently on diets containing several tropical forages as when they are fed diets containing alfalfa. An additional benefit of the use of high forage diets is that the incidence of enteritis is markedly reduced. Enteritis is a disorder of the digestion tract, causing diarrhea, dehydration, toxemia and death. It is responsible for the death of a high percentage of all fryer rabbits produced. Cheeke and Patton (1980) have suggested that it is caused by carbohydrate overload of the hindgut (cecum and colon). Feeding high grain diets allows undigested starch to enter the hindgut, where it supports the proliferation of pathogens which produce endotoxins. Absorbed endotoxins are responsible for the death of the affected animals. The use of high forage diets reduces the dietary starch level, and likelihood of carbohydrate overload.
Producing rabbit meat from forage is the biggest benefit to using rabbits to produce human food. Although rabbits may grow faster on a high ratio concentrate diet, this increases the proportion of young rabbits that may die of digestive upset, up to 70%. Conversely, growing rabbits on a primarily forage diet not only reduces cost and preserves valuable grain, it results in 0% mortality. Rabbit meat is a high quality nutritious product. Results of a recent study on its composition are shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Nutrient Composition of Rabbit Meata
|Crude Protein (%)||18.5b||Thiamine (mg/100g)||0.11|
|Fat (%)||7.4b||Riboflavin (mg/100g)||0.37|
|Water (%)||71b||Niacin (mg/kg)||21.20|
|Ash (%)||0.64b||Pyridoxine (mg/kg)||0.27|
|Unsaturated fatty acids as a % of total FA’s||63||Pantothenic acid (mg/kg)||0.10|
|Cholesterol (mg/100g)||136c||Vitamin B12 (micrograms/kg)||14.9|
|Folic acid (micrograms/kg)||40.6|
aData taken from Rao, D. R. et al., 1979. Nutritive value of rabbit meat. pp. 53-59 in: The Domestic Rabbit: Potentials, Problems and Current Research. Published by OSU Rabbit Research Center, Corvallis, OR 97331. 34th Meat Conference. bWet weight basis.
cDry weight basis.
dArnino Acids expressed as % of protein.
Some of the problems which currently limit the profitability of rabbit production are high disease losses, and the high labor intensity of rabbit raising. If these problems can be overcome, rabbit production may become more important in the future. Because of their ability to efficiently utilize high forage diets, rabbits have the potential to become a major meat producing livestock species.
Dr. Lewis: Do your processors make many biological products from the rabbits?
Patton: The processors here in Oregon are quite small, however, 70% of our rabbits are shipped to California, where they do make biological products. Pel-freeze, in Arkansas, has a huge biological division. Some of our producers might be up to 1000 rabbits a week, but our major production is going into California where the major market is. We do not have USDA inspection of rabbit meat unless you buy it since it is not mandatory. Pel-freeze is the only slaughter plant in America that has USDA inspection so they can ship all over the country. In Oregon, however, we must ship on the paw into California to be able to get the product to where the people are.
Dr. Lewis: Do you distinguish the price of your rabbit by color of coat?
Patton: Processors pay less money for the colored skin or the colored rabbit. The reason for this is that the price of white fur has just skyrocketed. We are now getting 60¢ a skin for white fur. It used to he sold for 50¢ a pound. Now we are getting $3.60 a pound for white, but the colored fur is considerably less. By-products of the rabbit industry include biologicals and the fur market is increasing rapidly.
Question: Don’t you feel that if that’s the case, then why would this industry not become competitive with the poultry industry!
Patton: I think the price of fur is going to help, but that 62¢ a pound we’re paying for rabbits live includes the coat, so we are not in the same ballgame. One of the things the research center is interested in is automation of rabbit production. We are now handling them by hand. They are bred by hand and are very sensitive to feed. One of the problems with our enteritis syndrome is if you full feed a rabbit continuously, they‘re liable to die. So the things we are studying are methods for feeding a rabbit so you can automate and not be concerned with death loss.
Kinsman: What has been the acceptance of the term, cunie meat?
Patton: Not very well. Most people still refer to it as rabbit meat, even though we have suggested that the name be changed a number of times. You may recall that before the truth in selling laws came in, the rabbit coat was called a CONIE. Cuney might be a take off from that same idea, but people are still calling it rabbit meat.
Kauffrnan: I would like to know your philosophical answers to the animal rights people concerning this issue of rabbit for food?
Patton: I guess I would ask you what your philosophical comments concerning beef for food or chickens for food.
Kauffman: I asked first.
Patton: Well, certainly if you view it from a livestock point of view, it’s the same. If you view it from a pet point of view, then, of course, it’s different. We are desperately trying to promote this from the standpoint of livestock. As I mentioned, that picture we used for promotion actually didn’t do us any good.
Zobrisky: Whatever happened to this company called FUNK Incorporated here in Washington state.
Patton: They have gone out of business. They had some very interesting ideas, but the person who had the ideas didn’t know how to raise rabbits.
Cheeke, P. R. and N. M. Patton. 1980. Carbohydrate overload of the hindgut: a probable cause of enteritis. I. Appl. Rabbit Res. 3(3):20-23.
Harris, D. J., P. R. Cheeke, L. Telek and N. M. Patton. 1981. Utilization of alfalfa meal and tropical forages by weanling rabbits. 1. Appl. Rabbit Res. 4:4-9.
Pote, L. M., P. R. Cheeke and N. M. Patton. 1980. Utilization of diets high in alfalfa meal by weanling rabbits. J. Appl. Rabbit Res. 3(4):5-10.