Once a meal of necessity, common among rural and depression-stricken families, rabbit is now back at premium restaurants. Grass-fed, pasture raised rabbits grace menus at high-end, trendy restaurants like Gracie’s, Local 121 and Cook & Brown Public House in Providence, RI. You can also find rabbit at the Thames Street Kitchen and the Castle Hill Inn in Newport, RI and the Oyster Club in Mystic, CT.
Patrick Beck is owner of New England Grass Fed. A former landscape architect and grass-fed beef salesperson, Beck has wanted to raise meat rabbits since he was 14. He started a business raising and selling rabbits two years ago. During the summer of 2012, Beck was selling six to twenty rabbits per week to RI and CT chefs.
Beck’s Silver Fox rabbits are naturally pasture-raised and are not fed antibiotics or artificial hormones.
In order to grow the business and make money, Beck knew he would have to transition into mass-production, factory-farming techniques or work with contract growers.
With a company motto of “Respecting the Protein,” Beck could not switch to factory farming, stacked cages and mass production. Gradually, he has developed a network of families who raise up to six pens of rabbits in their yards or at their farms.
Pens and Space Needs
New England Grass Fed rabbits spend their whole lives on pasture as nature intended. Portable pens, loosely modeled after chicken tractors, are moved daily to fresh grass or forage. Pens have 2×4” mesh on the bottoms and 1” chicken wire for the triangular sides. Plywood roof covers offer shade and open wide for better ventilation.
Pens rest on the ground, not up in the air, helping pasture-raised rabbits have healthy feet compared to elevated caged rabbits that often develop foot sores.
It is important to use a 30-day rotation, and with 3×10 pens, the average rabbit farmer needs just less than 1,000 square feet per pen. Shaded sites protect the rabbits from summer heat but will yield less grass, so Beck recommends supplemental feeding with other greens.
Household garden leftovers like kale, chard, broccoli, lettuce and carrot tops quickly disappear. Many growers have children who learn to collect rabbit ‘candy.’ These treats include goldenrod, plantain, mullein, rose clippings, cornhusks, apple branches and Queen Anne’s lace.
Beck prefers a heritage breed called Silver Fox rabbits first developed in 1920 as a cross between Champagne d’Argent and a self-colored Checkered Giant.
Beck’s supplier is Will Morrow of Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Beck chose Silver Fox for their vigor and health. They have thinner bones than many common breeds, yielding more meat per animal but they often have fewer babies, or kits. Their superior mothering, nursing ability and nurturing instincts mean kits are more likely to thrive to maturity. Silver Fox rabbits have large, fur-covered feet so they are not bothered by winter cold.
Dark or black rabbits ‘shake’ when it gets hot. On hot summer days, host farmers place ice blocks or frozen water bottles in the pens for the rabbits to rest against to stay cool.
Rabbits have a short cycle compared to many protein sources. A female rabbit or doe gestates for 30 days then nurses her kits for about six weeks. The weaned kits move to a grow-out pen. While some breeders start the cycle again right away, Beck allows his does two weeks rest before breeding. Each breeding doe will have about four litters per year, totaling about 25 kits. Rabbits can live up to eight years. Breeding rabbits need to be eight months old or to at least eight pounds before their first cycle.
When rabbits are sixteen weeks old and weigh about 5.5 to 6 pounds, they are ready for harvesting. A dressed rabbit yields about three pounds of meat.
Homestead, Backyard Production
Raising rabbits is a great way for a ‘live-off the land’ or diversified farmer to raise protein inexpensively for their own use or for sale. Family members learn where their protein comes from. Operations have low entry costs as pens, food dishes and water bottles can utilize recycled materials. Save on mowing by feeding rabbits grass, garden extras and weeds. Beck said, “This is a great enterprise for enrichment, but not for making one rich.”
Why Grass Fed?
Grass-fed meat is heart-healthy with high levels of nutritious unsaturated fats, low levels of “bad’” fats and can be grown without the antibiotics that so many corn-fed animals receive. Compared to traditionally raised meats, grass-fed meats have between two and four times more Omega 3, three to five times more CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) as well as four times more Vitamin A, Beta Carotene and Vitamin E.
Beck plans to develop a program with RI 4-H students to raise grass-fed rabbits. He will buy back harvest-weight rabbits. Students will be able to join Beck in restaurant kitchens and learn how chefs prepare rabbit-based meals.
New England Grass Fed rabbits are processed at the USDA-approved, Westerly Meat Packing Company. New England Grass Fed sells meats to the public at the South Kingstown and Wickford Farmers Markets.
Beck is working to grow his sales and expand contract growing into adjacent states.
Great Family Pets
Raising rabbits is a great outdoor pet solution for families with allergies or asthma. While the families working with New England Grass Fed understand that most of the rabbits they are raising will not celebrate a birthday, these families have at least one breeder rabbit that will stay with them for years.
The young rabbit farmers reminded everyone to wash hands after petting the rabbits (before eating).
New England Grass Fed also grows top-quality 100% grass-fed beef on contract pasture (like sending the kids to boarding school). Beck markets free-range organic pork from The Mission Farm in South Kingstown, RI and lamb from Bally Duff Farm in Chepachet, RI. For more information, see “From pasture to local restaurant plates” by Nicole Friedman in the Providence Business News.
You can learn more about New England Grass Fed, click here, email Patrick Beck or calling (401) 230-4027.
A similar story ran in the September 17, 2012 New England issue of “Country Folks.”