Rabbit Producers Co-op Ltd. was formed at a meeting in late May, spearheaded by Luc Laflamme and his wife Linda Filteau, owners of Ecuries Paulyphipas Ranch.
“We had a meeting where about 56 people came out; there was a lot of interest,” said Laflamme, adding the new co-op will stretch across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
He said the group has already secured a contract with a processor in Minnesota, and a new plant set to begin operation in Alberta has offered an exclusive contract to the newly formed co-op.
“They are both looking for 3,000 rabbits a month, so we are talking about 6,000 rabbits each month,” said Laflamme.
The role of the co-op will be to secure larger contracts, garner favourable rates on equipment, and in time, possibly promote rabbit meat as a healthy alternative to more traditional fare, such as pork, chicken and beef, he said.
Although there is demand for rabbit meat, Laflamme said it has been difficult for Manitoba producers to get their products to market.
Lauri Zwarich of the Manitoba Poultry, Rabbits and Pet Stock Association, said she noticed a downturn in Manitoba’s rabbit industry about six years ago.
At that time feed prices began to increase, and higher fuel prices made shipping rabbits to slaughter facilities, or taking them to locations as live food, more expensive, said Zwarich.
Although rabbits can survive on forage, most commercial operations rely on formulated pellet foods, not unlike what a pet rabbit might be fed.
“It would be really great to see the industry up and going again,” she said. “It’s a really neat business, and the meat is one of the healthiest you can eat, very low fat and low cholesterol.”
The rabbit grower noted there is still a market for the meat locally, especially in Winnipeg, but without a federally inspected slaughter facility in the province it’s difficult to move beyond a niche product.
“That’s been the biggest problem over the years, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” said Zwarich, who still keeps 36 commercial does, down from 60 a few years ago.
“We’ve always had to transport ours down to the States, as far away as California, for processing,” she said, adding although she isn’t a member, she hopes the new co-op is successful.
At one time, a plant in Swift Current processed rabbits, but an inconsistent supply made the facility non-viable. Rabbit stocks increase over the summer months, but can drop by about 50 per cent over the winter, Zwarich said.
Some provincial slaughter facilities do process rabbit in Manitoba, but not on a large scale.
Josef Krieger and his younger brother Jonathan are just starting out raising and selling rabbits in Steinbach, but would like to be able to sell to a wider market.
“Right now, we are just doing it locally, a lot of one here and some there,” Josef said.
But he knows if there was a place to slaughter them conveniently he could sell more, noting he has received inquiries from as far away as the Northwest Territories.
Like many, the brothers were drawn to the business because you can start small.
“My grandpa in Germany always had rabbits, and we were always eating rabbits, so this seemed right,” he said.
But don’t expect a gentlemanly Peter Rabbit, or heroic Hazel in your rabbit hutch. Raising rabbits means contending with a host of personalities and social issues.
“If you put too many bucks together they might castrate themselves, and I have been bitten a few times by the rabbits; you just take precautions,” said Laflamme. “But they are not too difficult to raise.”
Zwarich agreed that raising rabbits can present challenges, especially as little research has been done on them compared to other livestock.
“There is a lot of learning that needs to be done, I’m still learning,” she said. “All these animals are individuals; they are really fascinating that way, you almost have to have a black heart to work with them sometimes.”
But despite the challenges, Zwarich said it is possible to make a living raising rabbits.
“You can do it, but you need an awful lot, and the number would be even higher today,” she said, estimating it would take about 500 commercial does to make a primary income.