Rabbit production has recently become one of the fastest-growing livestock enterprises, especially with the entry of peri-urban farmers in many cities and towns around the country. These farmers have adequate resources to invest in rabbit production and access to emerging markets.
Rabbits have the advantage of early maturity, fast growth rate, high prolificacy, high feed conversion efficiency and economical utilization of space. They convert 20% of their protein intake into meat, compared to pigs and cattle, which convert between 16% to 18% and 8% to 12%, respectively.
If the potential of the rabbit industry is well understood and explored, it will reduce poverty, improve food and nutritional security, and contribute to economic development. Rabbit meat would offer a cheap and affordable source of protein for many rural households.
The global rabbit meat production is about 1.8 million metric tons per year. Asia leads in this production at 48.8% and then followed by Europe and America at 28.4% and 18.1%, respectively. Africa accounts for only 4.7%. Kenya’s current rabbit meat production is estimated to be 200 metric tons. This is projected to reach 550 metric tons by 2022 under the Big 4 Agenda’s 100% food and nutrition security interventions.
Rabbits have a short reproductive cycle with a gestation period of 30-32 days. A doe can attain 40-60 kittens per year, from 8-12 kittens per birth. Mating may occur almost immediately after weaning of the kids at 35 to 40 days after delivery if the doe is receptive to the buck at this time. Whereas artificial insemination is practised in many parts of the world, natural mating remains a common practice in Kenya.
Types of Rabbit Products
Rabbit meat in the region is sold as whole or half carcasses. This is probably due to the form of sale, estimated as 40% sold by mass distributors and 60% sold through retail sales (16% butchers and 14% local markets, direct sales and personal consumption). There is a need to respond to changing consumer demands for food products that can be quickly and easily prepared. This demand is currently stimulating the development of pre-portioned (loins and thighs) and processed products (ground meat, skewered, and meatballs) in the rabbit sector.
Rabbits are slaughtered at the age of 9 to 13 weeks, depending on the degree of desired maturity and the body weights required by the market, the latter ranging from 2 to more than 2.6 kg. Slaughter age and weight are both crucial variables due to their effect on the quality of the meat. Generally, as slaughter age and weight increases, slaughter yield, carcass meatiness, and the nutritional characteristics of the meat improve. Apart from meat, other rabbit products include skins and bones.
Nutritional Properties of Rabbit Meat
Rabbit meat offers good nutritional properties as compared to other animal source proteins. The average lipid content of the whole carcass is about 3.4 g/100g compared with most types of meat consumed today. Energy levels from the rabbit meat range between 603kj/100gm to 899kj/100g.
However, the loin part of the rabbit carcass is the leanest cut of meat. It contains up to 22.4% protein and average lipid content of 1.8g/100g of meat.
Apart from its high protein content, rabbit meat also contains higher levels of essential amino acids per 100g (those that the body cannot synthesize) compared to other meats (Lysin – 2.12g, sulphur-containing amino acids 1.10g, threonine 2.01g, Valine 1.19g, Isoleucine 1.15g, Leucine 1.73g and Phenylalanine 1.04g).
Rabbit meat is an essential source of bioavailable vitamin B, with contents varying between species and different cuts of meat within the same species. However, preparation may reduce the original content. The consumption of 100g of rabbit meat provides approximately 8% of the riboflavin (vitamin B2), 77% of the niacin (vitamin B3), 12% of the pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), 21% of pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and 300% of the vitamin B12 of the recommended daily intake. Vitamin B12 deficiency, created by the popularity of vegetarianism, is a growing health concern in developed nations.
Rabbit meat is also an essential source of minerals. Red meats are among the richest sources of iron at 1.8g, 2.0g and 3.3 mg/100g in beef, lamb and mutton, respectively. Like other white meats, Rabbit meat contains only modest amounts of iron at 1.3 and 1.1mg/100g in the hind leg and loin, respectively. Iron contained in meat is known as heme iron, which is easily absorbable. Hence, rabbit meat may contribute to meeting a part of our daily iron requirement. A low sodium content characterizes rabbit meat: 37mg/100g in the loin and 49.5 mg/100g in the foreleg making rabbit meat particularly suitable for people suffering from hypertension.
Rabbit meat contains between 234 and 222mg/100g of phosphorus in the foreleg and loin, respectively. The selenium content of rabbit meat varies widely based on the amount added to the rabbits feed, ranging from 9.3 µg/100 g of meat in non-supplemented diets to around 39.5 µg/100 g of meat in feeds enriched with 0.50 mg of selenium/kg of feed. Based on fatty acid composition, rabbit meat is highly suited to human consumption. Unsaturated fatty acids account for approximately 60% of the total fatty acids. The quantity of polyunsaturated fatty acids that accounts for 27% to 33% of total fatty acids is greater than other meats, including poultry. Rabbit meat has fewer cholesterol levels than any other common lean meat portion, including beef, veal, pork, and chicken.
Rabbit meat is a healthy product of high nutritional value. It is tender white meat almost free of cholesterol which can replace chicken. The dietary properties of rabbit meat suggest high recommendation for frequent consumption, especially by children and adolescents, pregnant women, athletes and the elderly.
Author: David Olang
Assistant Director of Livestock Production