The frequent clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers in the South-west region took a new dimension few weeks ago when some Northern groups decided to stop the supply of cows, a major source of meat, to the Southern part of the country.
While the crisis boosted poultry markets as farmers in that agricultural subsector smiled to the banks, not many could however afford the exobitant prices of poultry products.
While there are other alternatives to cow meat including fish and pork meat, the lesson learnt from the blockade is that high dependence on one product or item could be disastrous.
One alternative to cow meat that has been overlooked is rabbit meat. For those who have already keyed into it, rabbit farming has grown from raising few rabbits for family consumption to large commercial operations with hundreds of rabbits. Indeed, its expansion is much simpler than other livestock alternatives because a large range of existing facilities can be modified for rabbits and land requirements are almost unimportant.
A research carried out in 2002 revealed that there are more than 4,300 farms in the country selling not less than 890,000 rabbits daily. Some of the most popular breeds are Angora medium, American chinchilla, California, Dutch small. The most popular, for commercial purposes, are the chinchilla , Angora and New Zealand medium.
Rabbits are classified according to their weight or hair. The weight categories are small (3 to 4 pounds), medium (9 to 12 pounds), and large (14 to 16 pounds). For meat production, medium-weight New Zealand whites are the best, followed by Californians. And typical part-time enterprises consist of 50 to 100 rabbits. A full-time enterprise should have at least 600 females (does) and 60 males (bucks). Each doe produces 25 to 50 live rabbits a year, which will yield 125 to 250 pounds of meat.
Before one starts engaging in rabbits farming, it is important to identify the market. This is because rabbits are not only raised for meat, laboratory use, breeding stock, and Angora wool but also for their skins and youth programs. Similarly, when raising rabbits for meat, it is important to consider the availability of slaughtering facilities, type of packaging required, transportation cost, and potential buyers.
Restaurants, wholesalers, custom meat stores, and individual buyers are the main purchasers of rabbit meat. Traditionally, rabbit prices tend to be lower during summer due to high supply. So, marketing during this time may be more challenging. Rabbits are typically slaughtered as fryers at 5 pounds (about 10 weeks of age). Often considered a delicacy, rabbit meat is white, fine grained, and delicately flavored. It is also high in protein and low in fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories.
Once you have researched your particular market, you can then plan the size of your operation and determine which breed of rabbits to raise. The smallest production unit to consider is a herd of around 20 does serviced by 2 bucks. Whenever possible, ask to see herd health and breeding records and visit the production facilities. The rabbitry should be clean, well managed, and free of any health problems. Purchase rabbits that will produce large, but not huge, litters (8 to 10 kits), raise a high percentage of their offspring to maturity and produce good-quality animals.
An Ibadan-based rabbit breeder, Mr. Michael Dosunmu, while speaking on rabbit farming said, housing should be an enclosed building that has proper ventilation, lighting, heating and cooling systems. He stated further that, “Heating and ventilation are crucial because rabbits do not tolerate extreme temperature. You should maintain the herd on a year-round schedule of 12 hours each of light and darkness to keep the rabbits breeding throughout the year.”
He added that all metal cages help prevent unsanitary conditions that can lead to health problems, stating that the cages should be made of 1-by-2-inch mesh for the sides and top and 0.5-by-1-inch mesh for the floor.
“Hanging the cages from the ceiling in single layers makes management easier for the producer. Mature bucks and does should have individual cages that are at least 30 inches wide, 30 inches deep, and 20 inches high.Each cage should have a feed hopper and a watering system attached to the outside of the cage”, he stated.
Dosunmu also hinted that nest box should be placed in the hutch prior to birth to provide seclusion for the doe and protection for the litter.
His words, “Nest boxes should provide enough room for each doe and her litter but should be small enough to keep the litter close together. Nest boxes can be made of nontreated wood, wire mesh, or sheet metal. During cold weather, bedding such as straw or wood shavings is also recommended.
“This simple nest box can be made from scrap wood to fit right inside the cage. Maintaining a sanitary operation will help you prevent disease. The best waste management systems have porous pits under the cages with layers of sand, gravel, and drainage tile. Earth and concrete floors are acceptable but require more frequent cleaning. You should have concrete walkways between the cages and should remove accumulated manure at least twice a year. Cages and nest boxes should be cleaned and sanitized after each use, and the hair should be burned off the cages.
“New additions to the herd, especially those purchased from a wholesale market, and any sick animals should be kept in separate cages isolated from the rest of the herd until any diseases are determined or until the animal is well.
“Medium-weight breeds (9 to 12 pounds) are able to start breeding at 6 to 7 months of age, with males maturing one month later than females. Because outward signs of heat are not always evident in mature does, you should follow a strict breeding schedule. One buck can service about 10 does but no more than two to three times a week. Place the female in the buck’s cage for breeding. Never bring the buck to the doe’s cage because she will fight to protect her territory. Mating should occur immediately, and the doe should then be returned to her cage.”
Speaking on the most common and affordable rabbits that can be found in this part of the country, Dosumu stated that the most common breed here is the Angora and Chinchilla and that it is always difficult for rabbit farmers to identify the breeds.