Farmer Julie Engel had no previous farming experience when she was hired in March 2005 by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY. By December, she was raising rabbits on the Center’s diversified farm. For the next three years, Julie worked with the rabbits at Stone Barns but became dissatisfied with the system she originally copied from Daniel Salatin (son of Joel) of Polyface Farm, VA. Over the next few years, she moved five times with the rabbits, including a year-long stint on a sheep dairy in upstate New York and a two-year spell on a diversified vegetable farm in Sun Prairie, WI. The rabbits are now settled in Token Creek, WI.
Julie currently manages about 50 rabbits using a unique system she has developed for farming rabbits outdoors on pasture, which she calls “The Coney Garth method.” Her rabbits rely solely on the pasture for their nutrition in the summer and on hay, vegetable scraps, and sunflower seeds in the winter. “Rabbits actually are very efficient grazers, shearing grass at about two inches and chewing the stem to the end,” Julie explains. “Feeding rabbits a grass-based diet not only reduces feed costs, but by using pasture land already in rotation with other animals this system provides an opportunity for farmers to diversify.” Julie experimented with several fencing systems to try to keep rabbits from escaping and discovered after much trial and error that a physical barrier fence worked better than an electrified one.
While Julie is proud of the success of her system, she’s the first to admit that it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. “I spent a lot of the first seven years hating working with the rabbits,” she explains. “It wasn’t returning a profit and I felt that I had no resources to support me. But the rabbits have given me so many other things, and working with them has been such a creative outlet for me. The uniqueness of the system I have developed, and the challenges I have had to overcome, have taught me so much over the years.”
Julie is hoping that more people will be inspired to try raising rabbits using The Coney Garth method themselves, and she believes that joining the Animal Welfare Approved program is a key to helping spread the word about her approach. “It would be great if more people learnt about the system, tried it, and were able to replicate it,” says Julie. “It sounds pretty difficult and management-intensive, but that’s the point: It will work if you do it right.”