Manitoba breeder seeks rabbit raisers

Demand for meat | U.S. processor is looking to Manitoba to provide 1,000 rabbits per month

A waitress carrying a plate of rabbit meat isn’t a common sight on the Prairies.

However, a rabbit breeder in Killarney, Man., hopes to convince a few Manitoba farmers to produce rabbit because consumption of its lean, healthy meat is booming in other parts of North America.

In fact, said Luc Laflamme, who produces rabbits near Killarney with his wife, Linda Filteau, rabbit meat processors in North America are scrambling to keep up with demand.

“I’ve got one (U.S. rabbit processor) who called me before Christmas and they’re looking for 6,000 rabbits a month,” said Laflamme, who moved to Manitoba from Quebec several years ago.

Laflamme wants to start a rabbit breeding federation in Manitoba, which would simulate a marketing co-op by linking rabbit producers to processors.

“It will simplify the life of the producer because the producers, a lot of them don’t know where to send their rabbits,” he said.

The federation would buy the rabbits from producers, he added.

“It’s going to be the job of the federation to get those rabbits sold on the market.”

Laflamme said his efforts to start a rabbit federation in Manitoba was partly inspired by his wife.

She had experience raising rabbits in Quebec and began breeding them on their farm to sell as pets after arriving in Manitoba. However, she quickly realized there was a minimal market for pet rabbits in Western Manitoba.

Changing course, Filteau and Laflamme decided to renovate their barn with proper insulation, heat and electrical wiring and go into the rabbit meat business. They now have 100 Flemish Giant does that produce about 300 slaughter-ready rabbits a month.

Breeding rabbits can provide a decent income. One doe can produce 28 live rabbits a year and in February Ontario producers were selling rabbit meat for $1.70 per lb.

A farm with 100 does could easily generate $40,000 per year, said Marion Popkin, president of the Alberta Rabbit Producers Association.

Laflamme’s first job is to recruit rabbit producers to join the federation. He said the Rabbit Breeders Canada website lists 10 rabbit breeders in Manitoba, but added it’s possible that others are in the business but just not listed.

Laflamme said his short-term goal is to satisfy the needs of one U.S. processor.

“In the last six or seven months, I signed an agreement with a processing plant in the States,” he said, which would like 1,000 rabbits from Manitoba per month.

“If we were a team, that (amount) would be very easy to (supply).”

Looking longer term, Laflamme said Manitoba could use as many producers as possible because low cholesterol, low fat rabbit meat is a desirable protein.

Kendra Keels, an industry development manager with Ontario Rabbit, which represents rabbit producers in the province, confirmed that Canadian consumers, especially those in Quebec and Ontario, are biting into more rabbit meat than a few years ago.

“People are looking for something besides chicken, so they’re turning to rabbit,” she said.

“A lot of the high end restaurants are starting to carry rabbit … because it’s easy to work with. It’s so versatile.”

Quebec has the most mature market for rabbit in Canada, with the meat found in mainstream supermarkets. Ontario is the country’s second largest market, where rabbit is sold primarily at specialty stores.

Keels said the surge in demand is keeping her busy.

“Here in our office we get probably five to 10 inquiries a week from people looking to get into rabbits,” she said. “It’s really easy to get in. You can go to somebody and buy some does, buy the cages and boom, you’re in rabbit production.”

Keels didn’t provide statistics on how many rabbit breeders are in Ontario but said existing producers are expanding their operations.

Canada could definitely use more rabbit producers because demand is “huge,” she said.

Laflamme is hoping the gap between supply and demand, along with the economic returns, will encourage a few Manitoba producers to try rabbit breeding.

Laflamme hopes to host a meeting in rural Manitoba this spring to answer questions about rabbit production and his plans for a rabbit breeding federation.

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