Do you ever wonder if you have what it takes to raise livestock and profit from it?  For instance, I think I could raise a goat for milk and chickens for eggs, but ask me to kill one for the meat and I’d probably rather turn to panhandling on the streets.  But other alternatives to raising livestock to eat are raising them to use their fibers to sell, or spin those fibers into yarn to sell.  Whenever I see an image on the internet of an Angora Rabbit peeking out from a curtain of its own fur, I think that would be the perfect animal for me to raise, since they are relatively small for livestock and super cute and soft.  But no matter how many articles I read on the topic, I can’t help coming up with some questions of my own.

For instance:

How much of an investment would it take to begin raising angora rabbits for their fur?

How much of a profit can one make from raising one or two or three bunnies, etc.?

Where would I sell the fur? Do I have to market it myself or is there some facility that buys all it can get?

How much time per day or week is involved in combing and gathering the fur from each rabbit?

Will their fur mat if I go a day or two without picking it or brushing?

Do you have to get vaccines for them?

How much do the rabbits cost?

Do you have to have them registered as a particular bloodline like with purebred dogs?

Would they multiply too fast?  Do people ever have rabbits spayed or neutered?

How would they get along with other pets like cats or dogs?

After interviewing Leslie Shelor about her own rabbit breeding experiences, I found the answers to those questions and more.  Leslie is the owner of Greenberry House Yarn, Book and Vintage Gift Shop in Meadows of Dan, Va., where she sells her own homespun yarn from various types of animals.  Currently she buys wool from farmers within a 100-mile radius of her home.  In addition, she raised German Angora rabbits herself and spun their wool for about 10 years.  She ended up selling the rabbits in order to concentrate on some family matters, but she plans to begin raising them again soon.  Her shop website can be found at http://greenberrytest.blogspot.com

Leslie said she started by purchasing three rabbits in 1999 and ended up with a total of 30 by 2009.  As it turned out, many people were ready to snatch them up when she put them up for sale and she made more of a profit from that than from spinning their yarn.  The going rate for German Angoras is around $200.  She said she charged the buyers the cost of the rabbits, plus a portion of the cost of gas for transporting them to their homes and she traveled around delivering bunnies to everyone within the same trip.  She noted that rabbits can also be easily shipped via airline, if you want to sell over a further distance.  The airline will take the rabbit in its carrier, and you don’t even need to fly with it.

So back to our first question: How much of an investment would it take begin raising angora rabbits for their fur?  “I started out with a buck and two does,” Leslie said.  “They were three different colors, so I could have different colors of fibers.  I had a gray one, a darker gray one, and a white one.”

So at $200 each, that is $600 for the livestock and what else?  She said you need an individual hutch for each one, and estimated that you can get the equipment needed for your initial colony of three for less than $300, when you consider the cost of three hutches, water bottles, food bowls, food (she gives each rabbit a cup per day), and hay.  Including some hay in their diet is important for the rabbits’ health, because they can get G.I. tract blockages known as woolblock from ingesting their own fur while grooming themselves.  Ingesting hay adds fiber and helps them stay regular.

Leslie said she used stackable wire cages that fit in a frame, and put them in an outbuilding, but you can keep rabbits in wooden hutches outside all year round as long as they have an area that is sheltered from the wetness and wind.  (The wire hutches would be too exposed without a building around them.)

Next I asked: Where would I sell the fur? Do I have to market it myself or is there some facility that buys all it can get.  Leslie said one option is to sell it to someone such as herself, who, in turn, spins it into yarn and sells it at her shop.  She said she sells wool and yarn made by a dozen people in her area.  Other venues include Fiber Festivals.  Yes, there is a festival for everything and this is no exception.  She mentioned a few quite large and well-known fiber festivals in the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia, within a short distance of her home in Meadows of Dan,Va, but with a quick internet search using the words “Fiber Festival” I was able to find numerous websites that list fiber fairs and festivals across the country and in other countries as well.

Interestingly, the festivals bring together people representing all stages of the fiber making process from hair (or hare) raisers (many puns intended) to spinners and knitters.  And if you are interested in spinning your own wool, she said there are teachers at the festivals who can help you learn.

“You can get a spinning wheel for around $300,” she said, “and they hold their value.  But felting is also becoming a big thing.”  Felting requires no wheel.  It is made simply by adding moisture and rubbing it together until it forms a fabric.  She said $8 per ounce is the going rate for prime Angora fur that is three inches long.

As one who recently spent her winter chasing her long-haired cats around the house with detangling combs, scissors, and electric razors, I just had to ask how rabbits react to the sound of an electric shaver that I presumed she used, and whether rabbits would mat terribly if I didn’t comb their fur out on a daily basis.

Leslie said she uses manual shears (short-bladed scissors) to cut their hair as short as possible every 90 days.  “I’d just put it on my calendar,” she said, “And I’d cut them every ninety days.”  She said some people prefer cut fur and some prefer it plucked, but plucking (when done gently and humanely, and not in the manner of those workers shown in disturbing PETA videos) takes a long time because you pluck off what is loose and then go back to the same rabbit every day or two to pluck more.  As far as worrying about tangles, Leslie said she never brushed her German rabbits, although English Angoras might need to be brushed once per week.

But what if, just what if, your rabbit gets a little untidy and doesn’t have the Charmin to help him “enjoy the go?”  Leslie replied, “I can’t stress enough the need for hay in their diet and shearing every 90 days.”  She also noted that when she sheared them she separated the fur into three boxes with the good stuff (three inches long) in the first, the shorter hairs in the second, and the matted or messy hair in the third.

She also explained that females pull their fur out to make nests for their babies, so they tend to have more guard hairs after breeding.  Normally rabbits can be bred about once every six weeks, but when this happens, it is a good idea to reduce the frequency of breeding.

And that brings us back to another question I had: Would they multiply too fast?  Do people ever have rabbits spayed or neutered?  Leslie explained that since each rabbit is kept in a separate cage, or at the very least, the bucks are kept separate, breeding can be controlled.  As far as mating goes, just the scent of a buck in the cage with a female rabbit will put her into heat and 31 days later she’ll give birth.  It is necessary to keep track so you can put a nest box in the cage a week before birth.

Leslie pointed out that while it is necessary to keep bucks separate from each other in order to avoid fights among males and mating with females, rabbits live naturally in communal societies, so it is a good idea to have the hutches up against one another.  Just like human neighbors, she said, “They like talking over the fence.”

For those who want their rabbits to be able to roam more freely (some people keep them in the house like pets), Leslie said you can have them spayed or neutered.  In fact, spaying older females can be helpful because at 9 or 10 years old they often develop ovarian cancer.  Spaying them can prevent this.  In addition, people often neuter male rabbits to keep them from spraying.

So if you did choose to have a house bunny or two, or just wanted to bring your rabbits in the house for shearing, would there be a problem with them being preyed upon by your indoor cats or dogs?

“My cats were terrified of the rabbits,” Leslie said.  “I raised German ‘Giant’ Angoras and they weigh from 12 to 14 pounds, so they are bigger than a lot of cats.”

This brought to mind a situation I experienced with rabbits preying upon each other: As a child, I (Kathy) once had two rabbits, a male and female, living in a hutch together.  I came out to the hutch one day to find both mother and father chewing on baby rabbits.  There were bloody half-eaten babies lying all over the cage.  So thinking of this, I just had to ask Leslie if it is common for rabbits to eat their babies.

“Sometimes they may eat their babies if they are disturbed,” Leslie agreed, “or they may try to hide them by peeing on them.”  She said rat problems can stress out rabbits, so she learned to keep extra rabbit food in a metal trash can with a lid in order to avoid attracting rats to the area with the rabbits’ hutches.

When I asked Leslie whether one needed to get rabbits vaccinated, she said that in America there are no vaccines available for rabbits, although they do vaccinate them in Australia and Europe.  She noted that they are quarantined before coming to America, so there really aren’t any diseases here that they can get.

There are a few problems one should be prepared for though.  She said they can get ear mites and fur mites from the hay.  She said she would buy Ivermectin made especially for rabbits (not the stuff used on cattle, but a milder solution) and treat the rabbits for ear mites.

In addition, she explained that when the first German Angora rabbits came to America in 1988, they were having heart issues.  “That’s when breeders switched from a corn-based food to a wheat-based food,” she said, “Then the heart problems went away and they began to produce more fiber.  Now we know that, if German Angoras are given sufficient nutrition and exercise, they can live as long as 12-13 years.”

So how much time would one have to spend tending to rabbits?  Leslie said she was able to tend to her 30 rabbits in about an hour per day for feeding, but she did like to let them out one or two at a time to play in the yard.

She has been thinking of getting another starter kit of three rabbits and beginning to raise rabbits again, so I asked my question about rabbit quality.  When you are ready to purchase some rabbits, should they be registered as a particular bloodline as when buying purebred dogs or horses?  And by the way, where would you buy such an unusual bunny anyway?

Apparently those who raise this particular breed are few and far between, another point for the idea of at least raising a portion of your bunnies to sell.  Leslie has found a breeder in Cheshire, Connecticut, who she hopes to purchase them from.  The breeder at Woolybuns Rabbitry has an online blog that is quite amusing and informative at http://woolybuns.typepad.com/woolybuns/atom.xml.

When buying or selling rabbits, Leslie noted that rather than needing a pedigree like dogs have, the main thing is to make sure they are good wool producers.  Breeders keep records of how much wool is produced on each shearing and expect to get at least a pound and a half per each 90 day shearing per rabbit.  According to my calculations that means one could make $192 every 90 days, or $64 per month, per rabbit.  That means $192 per month for three rabbits, $256 for four rabbits, $320 for five, etc.  With 30 rabbits that could be $1,920 per month.  Of course, this is all before subtracting the startup costs and the continual cost of food, minimal medicine, space, additional cages for each additional rabbit and your time.

And speaking of value, Leslie said one thing that makes rabbit fur so valuable is that the spun wool is seven times warmer than sheep’s wool.  She said wearing things made out of rabbit hair is very therapeutic because of its softness, and it is even used to make thermal long underwear.

And here’s one last way to increase your profits.  While rabbit manure makes good fertilizer, Leslie noted that another use for it is raising worms.  You can put the worm bins directly underneath the cages to catch the droppings, and the worms will thrive, ready to be sold to fishermen for use in another part of life’s ever continuing food chain.

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