By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Farming rabbits is a bit tricky. Despite being raised in domesticated way, they, like elk, bison, white tails or other bred game animals, keep their wild instincts. Being at the bottom of the food chain in nature continues to colour farm-raised rabbits’ perceptions of the world. While easy to manage temperamentally if you know how to handle them, they remain unpredictable in their responses when a stranger, a new sight or new smell enters their domain. “You have to keep a calm disposition when you go among them,” confirms J & M Farms owner Margaret Oosterhof. “Nobody comes in our barn because they sense other smells and sounds than they are used to. So just myself and my husband go in the barn because they are used to us and we don’t want to disturb them. “If you came on a day when they are kindling (giving birth), and they were upset because they smelled or heard something different, they stomp with their feet. So if the babies are in the nest box, they will be stomping the babies.” J & M Farms near Lethbridge has been in the meat rabbit business for the past 16 years. Owners Jim and Margaret Oosterhof have a breeding stock of 450 does and a total of about 6,000 rabbits at any given time. They have other aspects to their agriculture business as well, but their rabbits have become a mainstay and, truth be told, their passion. “Jim always bred pet rabbits,” remembers Margaret. “He has probably done that all his life. We were just looking for an opportunity to do something on our own (as a business), and someone suggested the meat rabbit industry. We kind of looked into it and it sounded good. So we started on a smaller scale, but then it turned out it was good and we just went into it a little bit larger.” Besides the mostly gentle disposition of their charges, Margaret says there is a reason you don’t see too many large scale rabbit farm operations out there. “It’s a lot of work. It’s all hand-on. It’s all labour intensive. You are cleaning cages. Cleaning the manure out by hand. Then you have your feeding and watering. You have to make sure they are healthy and clean. The water (system) is all automatic, but the feeding is still done manually.” Not to mention the ongoing effort to sustain and manage the rabbits’ prolific breeding schedule. “We are always rotating our breeding cycle,” Oosterhof confirms. “It’s continuous. It never quits. We breed every week so we have babies every week and we wean every week. We don’t take a day off. “It is probably 10-12 weeks before a rabbit is ready to go to market. Jim has a good management method he made himself and it works really well. I can walk in the barn an carry on from him because I know how he does it.” With rabbits, contrary to other meat stock animals, it isn’t all about rate of gain either: It’s about steady gain, and maintaining a natural weight to keep the rabbits healthy to sustain ongoing breeding. “We give them a special mix of rabbit pellets,” explains Margaret. “Rabbits don’t gain fast like a chicken because you want them to gain at a more normal (natural) speed. We don’t medicate, and we don’t use any unhealthy kind of stuff with them.” The average rabbit the Oosterhofs send to market weighs only about six pounds. Each rabbit is paid for by the pound, so that does not leave a lot of margin at the end of the day. The Oosterhofs focus on direct marketing to specialty buyers such as organic food stores and restaurants, which make up the bulk of their client list. Margaret is responsible for this side of the business and makes a trip into Calgary once a week to fill the majority of her orders. “We have a butcher plant which butchers them so the meat we are delivering to stores and restaurants are all government inspected. We also deliver live animals to other venues. We get a good price, but it seems the expense just keeps going up so margins seem to get lower and lower all the time for the farmer. “We couldn’t do just the rabbits on our farm. But we have other things we do on the farm and it all works together and balances out,” she says. Despite the hard work and the fickle market for their rabbits, Margaret says she and Jim still enjoy the business and take pride in their herd of long-eared, fuzzy herbivores. “Jim is very talented with animals and he watches very closely. There are lots of things to learn about each animal and each animal is different. When you work with them all the time hopefully you pick up on that because you want to keep doing the best job you can. “We like it. It’s different from chickens, for example. The baby chickens pretty much raise themselves, but you need a rabbit to raise the bunnies. They feed on their mothers’ milk.” For more information on the Oosterhofs’ rabbit business and other ventures visit J & M Farms website at www.jandmfarms.com.