Steve Sifford grew up on a dairy farm. His wife’s family still raises dairy and beef cattle in Rowan County. Steve bought land in Snow Camp to raise cattle while working as an instructor in Hillsborough. Although Steve has a lifelong love for the cattle business, he wanted to find a new livestock product that could bring high value to the farm without needing much more land. The 40+ acre farm was already at maximum grazing capacity with the cattle and Steve did not have the capital or the desire to purchase more land. He found that rabbits could be raised with little infrastructure and land while bringing in a premium price. Steve received a grant through RAFI’s Agricultural Reinvestment Fund to add the necessary infrastructure for raising rabbits such as building hutches and shade structures.
He choose several does (female rabbits) and one buck to be in hutches, providing steady litters to replenish the herd. These rabbits are in raised hutches made out of cages and a wood frame. The does give birth to their litters in nests made out of straw and their own fur that they pull off their bodies. You don’t see the newborns at first because the mother buries them in the nests. The little ones eventually come out and spend time with the mother in the hutch until they are mature enough to go out onto pasture. When the rabbits are ready, they are put into mobile rabbit cages that are moved every other day onto fresh grass.
The rabbits produce a lot of dry, pelletized manure that Steve has already sold to a neighbor who uses it to fertilize fruit bushes and other plants. Steve thinks that as he scales up, selling the manure will also be a valuable by-product of the rabbit operation. Rabbit manure is stable unlike cow or pig manure that needs to be composted before it’s safe to use on plants.
Rabbits have a very efficient feed to weight ratio somewhere near the gain of fish which is like 1:1 rather than 2:1 or even higher for cattle.They graze on the grasses and supplement with a pelletized feed for their sustenance. Steve wants to experiment with several different varieties to determine which is best for meat quality and feed efficiency. Rabbits are also more resilient to health and disease issues than other livestock animals like goats or sheep. They may need less costly medicines or visits from the veterinarian.
Steve’s daughters are also very involved in raising the livestock. They show cattle and take care of the rabbits. Steve hopes that his daughters will stay interested in farming and they show a distinct interest in raising rabbits and it’s something that younger folks can easily do on the farm with low maintenance and little to no heavy lifting.
Steve hopes to have other rabbit growers get together and form an alliance to encourage each other in scaling up and becoming a successful niche market for livestock in the area. The pregnant does are kept in hutches underneath a shade shelter to bring a constant supply of litters to the operation. Once the litter is old enough, they are released on pasture in mobile rabbit “tractors” made from PVC and wire. The total time from birth to slaughter weight is about 3 months, a relatively quick turnaround for a meat product.
Steve sees a lot of promise in the rabbit business. Pasture raised rabbit meat is quickly gaining ground in the niche meat market. The meat can be sold for a premium price and the quick turnaround means that Steve does not have to wait a half a year to a year to see his return on investment like he may have to do for beef cattle. He is successful in selling rabbit meat at the farmers market and directly to restaurants. Because rabbit is a less common main course on the dinner table currently, Steve found that sharing recipes with consumers and tips on preparing rabbit helps him sell his product. One challenge that Steve faces is the availability of processing facilities that will slaughter and package rabbits. There is only one facility in the western region of North Carolina in Marion. Steve has to deliver his rabbits to the Marion facility whenever they are at the ideal processing weight. The trip to the Marion facility usually takes a full day out of Steve’s schedule. He is considering developing relationships with consumers and restaurants in Asheville since it is much closer to where the rabbits can be processed.
Steve plans to expand to set up 16 more cages and an automatic watering system. This will allow him to greatly scale up his rabbit operation. Rabbitry is catching on quick in small scale farming. The intensive use of land, efficient use of feed, ease of labor and quick turnaround are creating an exciting prospective operation for Steve and his family farm that will be cost effective in allowing Steve to provide a high quality meat product to local consumers.
Learn more about RAFI’s Agricultural Reinvestment Fund and our past grants here: www.rafiusa.org/grants
Steve Sifford checks on his rabbit tractors.