North Carolina Producer Exploring Integrated Management System for Rabbits
LINCOLNTON, North Carolina – A North Carolina farmer, who’s captured a local niche market of raising and selling heritage rabbit breeds for meat, is striving for greater sustainability with a plan to develop an integrated management feeding system for her rabbits using solely pasture, on-farm produce and local products.
Michelle Bernard said that the goal of the model is to provide producers an alternative management program to conventional production practices. She received a Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) Producer Grant to test the economic feasibility and production success of the system.
“I want to focus on quality,” she said. “You can see the difference in the carcass quality with a rabbit fed on pasture compared to one fed on commercial grain, and my customers tell me it tastes better. They like the humane aspect of the rabbit rearing, as well.”
Bernard has had success incorporating forages into the rabbits’ diets, supplemented by vegetable waste, such as peanut tops and sweet potato vines either from her garden or from local farmers.
“The rabbits grow more slowly on pasture (usually 16-20 weeks), but feed costs are no where near what they would be if I was just feeding them pellets. In addition, I’m eliminating my vegetable waste by feeding it back to the rabbits, and such crops as peanut tops are good for them because they are high in protein,” she said. “Everything I feed the rabbits is pesticide and herbicide-free. This is important for the rabbits because they are sensitive to chemicals.”
Under the SSARE project, Bernard will test the feasibility of such forages as buckwheat, cowpea, millet,Lablab purpureus, lespedeza, velvet beans and sorghum-sudangrass to see what grows best under North Carolina environmental conditions.
“I’m looking at ‘old-fashioned’ forage crops, things that were fed before soy became so prominent,” she said.
In addition to the free-range pasture system, Bernard plans to incorporate the rabbits into a vegetable production system.
“I initially raised rabbits on my farm to use their manure for my vegetables and I found just how amazing rabbit manure really is. So I’m taking that practice and applying it to my integrated farming model,” she said. “I use the manure on my vegetables and feed the produce back to the rabbits, while also grazing them on forages, which act as a cover crop putting organic matter back into the soil.”
A free-range system is also ideal for Bernard, who raises Silver Fox and American Chinchilla rabbits – two heritage breeds listed as threatened and critical, respectively, by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Her farm, Spellcast Farm, is an Animal Welfare Approved farm; other animals raised on pasture include Ancona ducks and Jersey cattle.
Bernard is taking her research slowly, knowing that she has to work out the economics, as well as identify a forage production system that fellow farmers can try on their farms. But she’s convinced it’s worth the effort, given the high demand for her rabbits.
“I bring them to the local farmers market, and they go like hotcakes. Customers are on a waiting list,” said Bernard, who gets anywhere from $9 to $9.50 a pound for the meat. “There is a huge demand for rabbits in my area, and if you are looking for a sustainable livestock breed for your farm, I think rabbits are the best choice.”
The SSARE project, “Pastured Rabbit Integrated Farming Project” (FS13-264), will be funded for two years. To learn more about the project as it progresses, visit the national SARE projects database.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.