Rabbit project planning strategies for developing countries. (1) Practical considerations
S D Lukefahr* and P R Cheeke**
* International Small Livestock Research
Center, Department of Food Science & Animal Industries,
Alabama A & M University, PO Box 264, Normal, Alabama 35762
** Rabbit Research Center, Department of Animal Science, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-6702 (USA)
Increased awareness of the high potential of meat rabbit production to make a positive impact on the lives of the world's majority of subsistence, limited-resource rural and peri-urban inhabitants, has contributed to the recent development of numerous national rabbit programs. While this trend is encouraging, it is most imperative that the rabbit project complements the traditional and/or sociological values of the local population and is properly introduced following careful planning and design considerations. In many instances a rabbit meat market research and/or feasibility assessment may be warranted.
Descriptive production and survey data are urgently needed from developing countries. Extension methodologies relevant to rabbit project development are generally lacking and are paramount to rabbit project success. In addition, applied research conducted in developing countries on all aspects of rabbit production -- breeding and genetics, disease control, economics, housing systems, management, nutrition and reproduction -- is needed to be able to make sound general or locally specific recommendations.
Key words: Rabbits, Family Farms, Tropics, Subtropics, Extension, Development.
In recent years there has been rising global awareness on the virtues of rabbit meat production in developing countries as an alternative means of alleviating world food shortages. This basic understanding is largely attributable to the rabbit's high rate of reproduction and early maturity, rapid growth rate, high genetic selection potential, efficient feed and land space utilization, limited competition with humans for similar foods and high quality nutritious meat, as documented by Cheeke (1980).
According to FAO (1981), by the year 2000 world nourishing needs will be satisfied for one third of the human population by pork, poultry and rabbit meat. This projection well demonstrates the major role of the rabbit in supplying food for human subsistence needs in an overpopulated world.
Lukefahr (1985) estimated the world's domestic rabbit population to be 709 million, which is most comparable to 764 million swine (FAO 1982). At least 82 percent of the world's production of rabbit meat occurs in the developed nations (Lebas et al 1984). Less than 18 percent of total rabbit meat production, therefore, is represented in developing countries. In the classic review paper by Owen (1981) it was emphasized that in developing countries, where critical national meat shortages exist, the potential for rabbit production is greatest. A discrepancy is strongly apparent, therefore, between world geographical distribution of rabbits and nations in dire need of inexpensively produced rabbit meat (Table 1).
|Table 1: Annual production of rabbit meat per person in selected countries*|
* Adapted from Lebas et al
** Total world production of rabbit meat per annum is estimated at 1 million metric tons (Lukefahr 1985).
International rabbit conferences and programs
Major rabbit conferences have recently been held in numerous developing countries, which have addressed the potential and the problems of rabbit project development in Third World countries. For example, in 1978 the Africa Rabbit Husbandry Workshop was conducted in Morogoro, Tanzania, where scientists, veterinarians, educators and project managers from over ten African countries participated (IFS 1978). Major conclusions and recommendations concerning rabbit production were developed on pertinent topics of breeding, feeding, health, housing and equipment, and marketing. In addition, several regional rabbit conferences and courses have been held throughout many parts of Asia (Cheeke 1983; Prawirodigdo 1985), in Latin America and the Caribbean (FAO 1986; Viana 1986; Lukefahr 1988), in the Mediterranean (De Battista 1985), and in the Middle East (Khaled and Roush 1983).
In 1976, in 1980, in 1984 and in 1988 the World Rabbit Science Association organized congresses at which rabbit scientists from around the world convened. The III World Rabbit Congress in 1984 received the patronage of FAO, where the theme 'Rabbit: The Future of World Feeding' was advocated during the congress (Gallardo 1984). The Congress recommended that governments give high priority to the development of logistic rabbit projects in their national development and budget plans.
Governments in certain developing countries have formally established national rabbit programs devoted to benefiting the masses through self-help, small-scale rabbit production. Case examples of rabbit projects supported through national policy in developing countries include: Brazil (Carregal 1980; Viana 1986), Cameroon (Lukefahr and Goldman 1985), the Caribbean (Owen 1976; Huss 1982; Rastogi 1986), China (Cheeke and Patton 1987; Pelant and Jiabi 1989), Egypt (Mostageer et al 1970; Afifi et al 1976), Ghana (Mamattah 1978), Guatemala (Herrarte 1975), India (Damodar and Jatkar 1985), Indonesia (Cheeke 1983), Kenya (Owiro 1981; Wanjaiya and Pope 1985), South Korea (Lukefahr 1979; Kim et al 1983), Mexico (CNC 1976; Campos et al 1980), Mozambique (Gaspari 1984), the Philippines (Sicwaten and Stahl 1982; Bondoc et al 1986), and Zambia (Lungu 1978). Perhaps the most internationally recognized such program is the National Rabbit Project of Ghana. Due chiefly to an effective promotional campaign, there is strong awareness among Ghanaians on the self-reliant virtues of raising rabbits. While national agricultural programs in some developing countries encompass rabbit wool as an economic commodity, this article will focus only on the meat production aspects of rabbit project development.
Traditional acceptance of rabbit meat
According to Mamattah (1978), rabbit raising in Ghana has been socially accepted on the combined basis of the low space requirement, high reproductive rate, no apparent competition with humans for the same foods, minimal zoonotic health hazard and minor capital investment, as well as no social taboos affecting the consumption of rabbit meat. Further, the diminishing bush-meat supply has been a strong impetus to small-scale rabbit farming. This brief treatise, in general, holds true for many developing countries.
In contrast to the above observed favorable sociological impressions, three widely identified major constraints include: association of rabbits as pets, not food producing animals; the fear of escaped stock becoming a widespread agricultural and ecological pest, such as was formerly the case in Australia; and limited marketing opportunities (Owen 1976, 1981; Cheeke 1986; Lukefahr and Goldman 1987). Through proper training, in which the nutritional value of rabbit meat is extolled, farmers can recognize rabbits as a beneficially prolific meat animal species instead of as pet animals. This can be further reinforced by preparing rabbit meat dishes using local recipes. Serving rabbit meat on festive community occasions, perhaps even disguising the meat for other more popular meats, is another proven means of gaining local acceptance. Besides such short-term approaches, providing rabbit meat in the school cafeterias and breeding stock for youth club rabbit projects are long term measures which have been successfully implemented, as observed in Africa and in Latin America. Moreover, since in many cultures major agricultural farming activities are predominately performed by women, the small and manageable size of the rabbit is ideal (FAO 1983). Lukefahr and Goldman (1985) reported on a rabbit program in Cameroon, where in certain rural family-based projects, women and children assumed most of the rabbit feeding and management responsibilities.
The IFS Africa Rabbit Husbandry Workshop advanced several major conclusions and recommendations pertaining to further enhancing the appeal of initiating and expanding rabbit projects in the continent. One conclusion denounced the view that feral rabbits would represent an agricultural hazard to the environment, based upon the intensity and widespread prevalence of predators, including man. Paradoxically, the threat of predation and thievery on farms where rabbits are raised in confinement is of greater actual concern. Elsewhere in the world this generalization may not be true; however, there are no major reported cases to the contrary.
The existence of viable and well established markets is always a real economic incentive towards farmers embarking upon any alternative agricultural enterprise. Far too many otherwise sound rabbit projects have failed due to inadequate marketing opportunities for rabbit meat. This can largely be prevented through prior marketing research and evaluation conducted in the feasibility and/or design stage of the project. Invariably, such factors as low consumer demand, insufficient promotion, unsteady product supply, unreasonable prices, competition between other meats, lack of product diversification and poorly developed marketing channels, may explain limited market success (Owen 1981; Gaspari 1984; Lukefahr and Goldman 1985; Bondoc et al 1986).
In areas where rabbit meat is not widely consumed or marketed it is imperative to initiate a rabbit project on a small-scale, backyard family basis, since the ultimate goal of rabbit raising is to provide more meat at the family level. In time, rabbit sales to neighbors and businesses in the rural community may develop. If such success is met it may be possible to expand community markets to urban areas, involving marketing research and development, provided a sufficient and increasing volume of rabbit meat supplies exist. Once links between rural community and urban markets become firmly established, the development of large-scale commercial rabbit operations may be encouraged. In time, a more sophisticated market infrastructure may involve product diversification (eg: breeding stock, tanned skins and processed meat forms), middlemen specialization, mass-media promotions, competitive pricing and/or possibly overcoming market fragmentation. Through adopting such a logistic step approach to market development, greater assurance of successful marketing can often be realized.
Appropriate scale production and economics
Owen (1976) reported annual commercial-scale meat production goals of 60 offspring reared per doe (involving eight litters) with 2 kg market weights per rabbit fryer by 8-10 weeks of age, respectively. These figures can be projected to a total of 120 kg in rabbit market fryers per doe per annum. Such high levels of production achieved under intensive production systems are primarily found in Europe and in North America. Further, benchmark production data from developed nations are well documented in the scientific literature.
Pertinent rabbit production data from developing countries are urgently needed. Table 2 includes such vital data on meat rabbit production compiled from limited reports from various developing countries. Performances in the table involve data gathered from both rabbit field trials and controlled research experiments.
Countries reporting low performances tended to reflect field-based data, while high performances usually involved data collected under more ideal conditions. Usage of divergent genetic resources (breeds/strains) and provision of varying levels of disease control, feeding and management, etc., may certainly be represented across reported studies. However, for the purposes of general illustration and reference, the tabulated information may be useful.
The first parameter consistently indicates that a basic breeding program involving about four to five litters per doe unit per year may be deemed most appropriate under tropical and subtropical environmental conditions. This is a realistic strategy with consideration to general existing sub-optimal planes of breeding, health, housing, nutrition and overall management. In some instances, farmers prefer to practice more intensive rabbit breeding during favorable seasons, particularly when forage supply is abundant, while breeding less intensively during adverse seasons.
The mean number of live born offspring per litter of 5.96 reflects the lower production than would be expected under more ideal genetic and environmental conditions. The combination of a slow breeding cycle with a small average litter size relates directly to the low values of 25.2 total offspring weaned per doe and 48.6 kg of total fryer rabbit production per annum. Table 2 portrays wide variation, however, among reports for these two annual net production parameters.
|Table 2a: Rabbit performance and market data reported from developing countries|
|West Indies||St. Vincent||3.0||3.0||9.0||5.8|
A partial explanation may be that increased production was reported where high-quality genetic stocks and ideal environmental conditions existed. In terms of age and weight at marketing, the data imply that 3.71 months are required to produce a 1.82 kg fryer rabbit (approximately 2 kg by 4 months of age), essentially twice the amount of time required under modern intensive production systems, as presented above.
Of course, the economic production cost factor may in some cases well justify the lowered productivity due to substantially low capital inputs, as demonstrated in small-scale, subsistence family unit rabbit operations. Production of heavy fryers to 3 kg live weights, likewise, is widely practiced due to relatively low feed costs. Moreover, under the subsistence production system, a favorable market pricing situation of rabbit meat being highly competitive with fresh chicken meat and pork has been reported in Kenya, in Trinidad and in Cameroon (Wanjaiya and Pope 1985; Rastogi 1986; Lukefahr and Goldman 1987).
|Table 2b: Rabbit performance and market data reported from developing countries|
|Cameroon||NW Province||2.5||46.0||Lukefahr and Goldman(1985)|
|Egypt||Shoubra-Al-Khaima||Afifi et al (1976)|
|Egypt||Giza||1.0||Mostageer et al (1970)|
|Sudan||Khartoum||1.3||El Amin (1978)|
|China||Sichuan Province||2.0||98.0||Pelant and Jiabi (1989)|
|India||Hyderabad||2.0||Damodar and Jatkar (1985)|
|Jordan||West Bank||2.0||95.2||Shqueir (1986)|
|Oman||Al Kabourah||Owen (1978)|
|Philipps||Manila||1.8||34.9||Bondoc et al (1986)|
|West Indies||St. Vincent||1.5*||13.5||Owen (1978)|
|West Indies||Trinidad||2.0||Rastogi (1984)|
* Slaughter or live market weight.
Based upon the above figure of 48.6 kg for annual production of rabbit fryers per doe, this amounts to about 0.5 kg of dressed rabbit meat per week (conservatively assuming a 55% dressing percentage which may include the head and dehaired skin weights). In a manageable three to five doe unit operation, 1.5 to 2.5 kg of dressed meat per week would represent a significant supplement to the family's dietary needs.
|Table 3: Five-year budget of rabbit production in Cameroon*.|
|Breeding Stock (3 does and 1 buck)||12,000||34.29|
|Raffia Palm Cages (8 @ 500 CFA per unit)||4,000||11.43|
|Feed** (500 CFA @ 300 fryers produced)||150,000||428.57|
|(2 yrs. average production life)||30,000||85.71|
|New Cages (2 yrs average length of usage)||10,000||28.57|
|Miscellaneous: 10% feed costs, feeders,|
|waterers and medications.||15,000||42.86|
|Total Cost (5 years):||221,000||631.43|
|Income***: Sale of 100 rabbit fryers|
|@ 2,500 CFA each (2 kg live weight)||250,000||714.29|
|Consumption****: Home consumption of 200|
|rabbit fryers @ 2,500 CFA each||500,000||1,428.57|
|Herd Inventory: 3 does, 1 buck||12,000||34.29|
|Total Income (5 years)||762,000||2,177.15|
|III. RETURN ON INVESTMENT AND LABOR|
|Net Benefit over 5 years||541,000||1,545.71|
|Net Benefit/fryer (541,000 CFA/300 fryers)||1,803||5.15|
|Cost/Benefit Ratio (221,000:762,00 CFA)||1:3.45||1:3.45|
|Rate of Return (762,000/16,000 CFA)||47.6:1||47.6:1|
|Labor***** (estimate 1 hr/day for breeding herd of rabbits and|
|10 fryers = 365 hrs/year or 40.6 person-days @ 9 hrs/day)||48,720||139.20|
|Return to Labor (108,200 CFA/40.6 person-days)||2,665||7.61|
|Opportunity Cost(108,200 - 48,720 CFA)||59,480||169.94|
*Adapted from Lukefahr and Goldman (1987).
**Feed costs include consumption by breeding does, buck and replacement stock.
***Average production figures assume 20 weaned fryers per doe per annum. Value of rabbit skins, manure and other by-products are not considered.
****Assume 1/3 rabbits marketed and 2/3 rabbits consumed of 300 total rabbits.
*****The labor estimate includes all major aspects of rabbit keeping: breeding, feeding, management, record keeping, marketing fryers, establishing forage plots, etc., as provided by family members. NB: Assume 350 CFA: $1.00 exchange rate.
Rabbit production under subsistence conditions is usually regarded as a labor intensive enterprise activity. According to Lebas (1983) and Wanjaiya and Pope (1985), annual estimates of 10.7 and 18.0 hours expended on a per doe unit basis, or 0.6 and 2.6 hours per 1 kg of rabbit meat produced, have been reported. These figures are most probably under-estimates of actual labor requirements. A projected five-year budget plan for a three doe operation, which includes family labor inputs, for a typical rabbit farmer in Cameroon is shown in Table 3. The presented information particularly illustrates the low investment costs (relative to rate of return) involved in order to embark upon a small-scale subsistence rabbit enterprise. If breeding stock were to be provided to farmers by the project on an in-kind loan basis (return of 1 to 2 offspring for each breeding rabbit initially provided), such a venture would be made all the more feasible.
On small-scale family farms rabbits should be strongly integrated into traditional farming practices (Lukefahr 1988). This entails recycling of garden and/or food refuse to rabbits as feed and converting rabbit manure into compost for enhancing soil fertility. This integrated approach is an effective means by which animal feed and fertilizer costs can be minimized. Beneficial intermediaries (catalysts) in this integrated, cyclic scheme are earthworms as agents in finely pulverizing rabbit manure and bees as agents in boosting farm crop productivity through pollination.
Alternatively, rabbits can be housed over fish ponds whereby blue- green algae production can be increased to enhance fish yield harvests, while rabbits may be fed on inexpensive forage and/or garden wastes grown along the pond banks. As a result of such applied integration each distinct farm enterprise component may demonstrate increased yields while requiring only marginal capital expenditures. In addition, rabbit manure can be converted into methane gas to meet household fuel needs. Of course, such a farming system is labor intensive. Extension of farming systems research innovations on such small farms is an area which deserves special attention.
Utilization of rabbit pelts, such as tanned skins made into traditional items (drumskins, hats, rugs and toys) and foot and tail charms, should be exploited, as reported by Rougeot (1986). Development of community rabbit skin industries should be assessed to capitalize on such potential economic ventures.
Training and extension activities
The foregoing account highlighted various technical aspects of meat rabbit production. This section will focus on the practical issues of rabbit project development.
The rabbit is a uniquely versatile livestock species in terms of production, patterns of reproduction, behavioral instincts, neonatal development, feeding habits, nutrient requirements, etc. In other words, proper care and management are necessary in order for the benefits of rabbit raising to be well realized. In many cultures, livestock have to scavenge for their own food, shelter and water under open range conditions. This seemingly laissez-faire management system usually supports only limited production. To many farmers, rabbits are not easy to raise; they require meticulous care and labor. Not every farmer possesses the human talents required, or "knack", for successful production. Confinement rearing has been identified as one common traditional hindrance to rabbit farming in many countries. This constraint, however, can usually be eliminated through proper approaches in screening farmers and in training, largely through effective farmer demonstration.
Perhaps the most critical rabbit project component which best ensures a successful program is proper farmer training and extension support. Indeed, many overseas rabbit projects have experienced technical problems or total failure attributable to inadequate education or lack of extension follow-up in appropriate methods of small-scale rabbit raising. Often this dilemma stems from the absence of a rabbit project specialist. The long-term presence (at least 2 to 3 yrs) of a well qualified rabbit production specialist is important in the design and implementation of new projects and in training key farmers and extension workers.
The initial request to introduce a rabbit project into a rural or peri-urban area should come from the area participants themselves. From project inception the intended beneficiaries should envision the self-help rabbit project as their own. Careful selection of farmers to be involved in rabbit training is a factor of paramount importance to progressive project development. A selection committee consisting of the project manager and/or trainer, village leader and successful rabbit farmers, for example, should be formed. Selected farmers should be strongly interested in rearing rabbits and have the adequate material and human resources necessary. Ideally, too, screened farmer trainees should possess previously demonstrated abilities in voluntary community service. This point will be expanded upon later in this section.
The rabbit training course should familiarize trainees in the various applied aspects and multiple benefits of rabbit farming. On-farm demonstration activities -- forage plot establishment, proper feeding, breeding and record keeping, cage construction, simple disease diagnosis, rabbit slaughter and tanning skins -- which complement traditionally sound farming practices and social values should be emphasized. Likewise, involvement of area rabbit farmer leaders and/or demonstration farmers (assuming their existence) is imperative in gaining early acceptance of introduced concepts and practices. Training of extension field staff in this same manner is ideal. Sharing of relevant skills required for successful rabbit production among trainees is an effective educational approach (eg: local carpentry skills in cage construction and culinary skills in preparing rabbit meat dishes). This approach reinforces the adoption rate potential for trainees later implementing certain appropriate practices. Written materials, posters and pictures are useful methods of message delivery. The duration of the rabbit course should be no less than three days in total. Trainees should critically evaluate the applicability and effectiveness of the rabbit short course for determining whether changes in course format are necessary. Provision of basic rabbit production manuals, which are concise, illustrative and easily comprehensible, are an invaluable resource to farmers following training. Several such examples can be found in the references section (Owiro 1981; Sicwaten and Stahl 1982; FAO 1986).
If the project is to be introduced by local request into an area where rabbit farming activities were previously non-existent, or where poor rabbit production practices are widely observed, it is recommended that a very limited number of progressive farmers (less than five) be assisted by the project to establish demonstration rabbit farm units. On-farm training over the course of several months, whereby step-by-step lessons of rabbit raising (cage construction, practical feeding, breeding, record keeping, rabbit slaughter, etc.) are learned first-hand is desirable. The extent of technology transfer should be limited and only gradually introduced. Continual follow-up and supervision ensures smooth adoption of recommended practices.
As the potential rabbit farmer leader/local expert gains vital skills and confidence in rabbit production, through both training and experience, this capable farmer may later be encouraged to train other area farmers who are keenly interested in rabbit farming. This multiplier approach is essential in terms of project development and expansion. Besides providing practical training in a most effective manner, the developed local specialist may provide experienced advice, breeding stock, improved forage seeds or cuttings and may voluntarily be willing to periodically supervise the new rabbit farm operations. Further, to minimize investment costs the farmer leader may provide breeding stock through an in- kind loan basis (eg: one breeding female rabbit in later exchange for two weaned offspring). The return of weaned offspring or breeding rabbits may, in turn, be provided to other new farmers to enhance the rate of farmer-to-farmer multiplication. In certain cases, the above described rabbit farmer leader may be a village extension worker.
Well informed and enthusiastic extension agents can serve an instrumental role in complementing the above described farmer multiplication dynamic process. Village extension workers can organize farmer training and supervision activities, provide relevant technical information, promote programs, assist in the delivery of goods, etc. In some observed cases, however, agents have eagerly influenced farmers to modernize their operations, via inappropriate imported type technology. Farmers have become gradually dependent on expensive and often unnecessary cage wire, concentrate feed and medicines, for example, resulting in the cessation of previously sound and sustainable production systems.
Extensionists should avoid having too close contact with an elite group of rich, progressive and influential farmers. Ideally, farmers with less land, less education and less "influence" who might be the best demonstrators and teachers of others should be preferred. Foremost, those farmers who have a genuine interest and who are able to attain the respect of others are desired participants. Any extension agents involved in rabbit production should themselves have at least a couple of breeding does in their own backyard.
In due time, the project might intend to unite successfully developed, key rabbit farmer leaders from various village areas in establishing a network of such valued combined expertise. Regular meetings may be held to discuss pertinent rabbit project development issues and to reinforce individual leadership abilities through sharing of vital project-related experiences. This project bridging approach may further enhance project development through, for example, formation of farmer cooperatives in the marketing of rabbit meat and by-products, and in bulk purchases of possible needed supplies. Moreover, the rabbit farmer leaders will realize that the status of the rabbit project is in their own hands, in terms of self-sufficiency development.
Long-term training strategies are justified particularly where rabbit production expertise within major governmental programs is deficient. In many known cases, project managers have been trained abroad earning specialized degrees at universities with active rabbit research programs. Part of the training should be to encourage these trainees to dedicate themselves to work for the benefit of the small-scale producer. Unfortunately, these specialists sometimes do not return to the position for which they were trained, or end up in an administrative post with very little contact with the practical rabbit producer. In general, though, following such intensive yet practical formal training, the rabbit specialist is more capable of fostering technically sound field- based training and extension activities targeted for limited- resource farmers.
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(Received 15 September 1990)