By JOHN O'CONNELL
POCATELLO, Idaho -- The radio in R.D. Palmer's barn never stops playing country music at a low volume. It calms the rows of caged rabbits in case of a sudden noise.
Palmer, 81, started raising rabbits when he was 8 years old to provide meat for his family. He's been producing rabbits commercially for meat, breeding stock and pets for about 25 years.
Within the past five years, Palmer, who resides within the Fort Hall Indian Reservation near Pocatello, believes demand for rabbit has grown as consumers have sought healthier meat alternatives. During that time, prices for fryer rabbits have increased by about 60 cents per pound. Palmer's fryers now sell for $1.50 per pound on a live weight basis when a meat hauler picks them up in nearby Moreland, Idaho, to ship to a California processor. Processors take rabbits between 4 and 6 pounds and they're ready to ship after two to three months.
"There's no better meat," said Palmer, who has 100 does for breeding.
Organizations representing rabbit breeders have been recruiting new producers to increase volumes for hauling routes, touting how rabbits can produce more meat per pound of feed than larger livestock.
The Idaho Meat Rabbit Association represents 100 breeders.
Palmer has been netting about $2 per fryer rabbit -- older roasters sell for 50 cents per pound -- and the best profits come from selling live rabbits as pets or breeding stock. Still, he doubts meat prices have kept pace with the rising cost of his feed pellets.
Palmer, a retired school superintendent, said the income supplements his retirement.
"If you figured out your wage, you're not really making a lot," Palmer acknowledged.
More importantly, the rabbits give him something to do. He raises New Zealand, Californian and Satin rabbits for meat production -- breeds that bulk quickly and have a desirable ball-shaped composition behind the ears -- and Lionhead, Lop, Mini Rex and Dutch rabbits for pets. The busiest season of the year for pet sales, Easter, is approaching.
Steve Vaughan, a Malad rabbit farmer, said does can produce litters about 34 days apart, and he's been averaging 8.4 rabbits per litter.
"I don't make that much, but I make enough to warrant my time," said Vaughan, who keeps 100-200 does.
He estimates an operation would need 300-400 does to justify hiring help. Vaughan, who now sells to California, is considering increasing the scope of his operation so he can haul his own meat, preferably out east where prices are higher.
John Nyberg, a Newberg, Ore., rabbit farmer who got his start from his kids' 4-H rabbits and unwanted animals purchased in 4-H auctions he ran, processes his rabbits at an in-state custom kill plant and sells them directly from his home. They charge $3-$3.50 per animal for processing, and he sells them for $5-$5.50 per pound.
"There's a good market for it. There's not that many people that are in it for the meat purposes, and there's the ethnic groups looking for rabbit," Nyberg said.
Some of his show rabbits can sell for up $250 each.