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The mexican "family packages" programme
The situation in 1993
A development programme using rabbits

The objective of this chapter is to present a case-study to show how rabbit production can help close the protein gap and raise the incomes of rural and suburban people in a great many countries. No attempt will be made to provide formulas for success - the various technical choices to be made will depend on the environment into which the rabbit is introduced. Instead the case history is used to demonstrate the questions that need to be asked in designing a programme like this and to determine the support structure needed for successful development in a traditional rural environment.

Generally speaking, the first task is to examine the external components of this kind of production system. There is a historical component, an environmental component, an animal component, a human component, and the socio-economic components (agriculture and stock-raising in the country, agrarian structure and industrial rabbit production). The interrelations among these various components should also be studied. They will reveal the advantages and constraints represented by rabbit production in reaching the objective: using local resources to supply animal proteins to rural families.

Next, the support structures and services available for development projects need to be investigated.

All these factors in combination comprise a community-level production system. Can the initial objective be attained? What are the potential bottlenecks? The components of a "model" programme tailored to the local circumstances should provide the answers to these questions.

The mexican "family packages" programme

Mexico has been chosen for the case-study analysis because it is unquestionably the country which has approached the problem most fully and systematically.

The example used is the Paquetes familiares (family packages) programme developed in Mexico by the Dirección General de Avicultura y Especies Menores (DGAEM). This rural development activity uses several backyard animals, including rabbits. The aim is to develop the production of poultry (chickens, turkeys, ducks), rabbits and bees, using local resources to produce quality animal proteins and honey, mainly for home consumption. The eventual marketing of products and by-products will raise community incomes.

Assisted by several rabbit production centres, the Mexican programme has a threefold mission:


· to inform producers, teach them all they need to know about rabbits, make them aware of the potential of rabbits, and draw the attention of the media to these actions;

· to train future breeders and experts/extension workers by teaching them the fundamental technical operations, making it clear that rabbits are not reared the same way as chickens;

· to produce the breeding animals Mexico needs for both industrial and backyard rabbit production.

In support of this programme, DGAEM conducts a number of experiments at its centres to test production techniques, installations, equipment and feed formulas in local conditions. The production techniques developed in these centres are then introduced into the target rural communities.

Historical background. The wild rabbit found in Mexico belongs to the genus Silvilagus Gray. There are several species - Silvilagus andubonii, found throughout most of Mexico; Silvilagus brasilensis, in the southeastern part of the country; Silvilagus floridanus, in central Mexico; Silvilagus bachmani, in Baja California; and, last, the Zacatuche, in the volcanic zone.

The wealth of names reveals how important this animal was in the past. Among the Aztecs, Tochtli (rabbit) is the eighth of the 20 signs central to the Aztec calendar. This monumental stone is far more than a simple calendar: it is a compendium of their cosmological view of the world. Tochtli had relations with Xipetote, the goddess of agriculture and good harvests. He was also the symbol of fertility. In the cosmogony he descends from Mextli, who represented the moon. The peoples of Central America saw a rabbit in the dark parts of the sky around the moon. Ometochtli (two rabbits) is the god of "pulque", the god of intoxicating drinks.

Despite this sometimes alarming symbolism, Fray Bartolome de las Casas in his book Los Indios de México y Nueva España reports that pre-Colombian peoples used rabbit skins for clothing and appreciated how well they kept out the cold. Rabbit meat was also eaten. Cortez's soldiers saw rabbit meat in the great markets (the famous tianguis), especially in the Aztec capital. The Spaniards later imported domestic rabbits of the species Oryctolagus cuniculus (Linnaeus, 1758) for the backyards of their haciendas.

Eating habits have regressed. Nowadays rabbit meat is unknown to most Mexicans. The individual intake is less than 100 g per person per year. In 1975, of the 127 people's markets in the Federal District only three had stands offering rabbit for sale. It is found on some weekdays in some supermarkets. Consumption is therefore limited to a small fringe of the urban population, especially in the Mexico City area (often people of European origin). Most Mexican people have never tasted rabbit meat. This unfamiliarity can make them suspicious or even hostile towards it.

The environment. Oryctolagus cuniculus is well adapted to the agroclimatic complex of its area of origin (the entire western Mediterranean). In the natural environment encountered in Mexico some areas are more favourable than others. Mexico is a tropical country lying north and south of the Tropic of Cancer. Its relatively large size (1970 000 km2), impressive relief and mountain plateaus and the distance from north to south (about 2 000 km) explain the variety of climates and landscapes. The different combinations of latitude and altitude allow one to pass from a cool, temperate climate to a wet tropical one within a distance of a few hundred kilometres.

There are several large systems. In the centre a plateau area, the Altiplano, stands 1000 to 2 500 m above sea level. The climate is pleasant and healthy. Temperatures range from 15° to 25°C, and the difference between day and night temperatures is considerable. A dry season alternates with a wet one of the same length. Northwards, the dry season lengthens. The plateaus change, sometimes into true desert (the Great Sonora, Baja California) and sometimes into great, closed depressions dotted by oases. Further south the humid season is longer. The two mountain chains (the Sierra Madre) surrounding the plateaus converge to form a complex, low mountain system.

To the east the plateau slopes down to the Atlantic in a series of steps well watered by the humid winds, especially in the south. The further one goes the wetter it gets. The plains become semi-aquatic in the state of Tabasco. The next region is Yucatán, a calcareous peninsula with shrubby vegetation.

The Pacific side to the west is a much steeper formation of crystalline rock. Well watered to the south, it is semi-desert in the north.

In this mosaic of agroclimatic zones that make up Mexico the rabbit prefers the temperate or cool zones of medium rainfall -the high plateau and the Atlantic or Pacific slopes. As rabbits need a certain amount of water and forage their adaptation to the desert and semi-desert zones would pose some problems. Rabbits also dislike heat more than cold. So the lowest, hottest areas have to be avoided.

However, trials in Colima, which has a hot, wet climate, show that the species has considerable potential for adaptation. Studies now under way should enable potential production areas to be better specified in the future and, possibly, the selection of genetic types adapted to these tropical zones. These factors emphasize the importance of local genetic types, where found.

While not every agroclimatic zone in Mexico is favourable for rabbits, some can be exploited in creative fashion. The "family packages" used by the DGAEM programme usually contain the species or combination of species that will achieve the target objective. These associations (turkey-rabbit, chicken-duck or turkey-bee, etc.) would be even more effective if reinforced with small ruminants such as goats or sheep or a monogastric species such as the pig. There are one or more combinations of domestic animals for each agroclimatic zone, the goal being to make the rural community self-sufficient in animal proteins by maximizing the local natural resources.

The animal component. Worldwide, rabbit production is fairly extensive. Rabbits are found in almost every climate. The use of local breeds, where found, should be promoted. The direct introduction of selected animals into production systems should be discouraged. These animals probably do not possess the necessary adaptability and also the strains almost all derive from just two breeds: the New Zealand White and the Californian. When imports are unavoidable, the rabbits should not be introduced directly into the rural environment, but rather studied for one or two generations in experimental stations where their reactions to their new environment can be observed.

The human component. The extraordinary population explosion in Mexico over the last few decades is both an advantage for the future and a serious problem. The population was 13 million in 1900. It doubled in 50 years and stood at 26 million in 1950. Twenty-two years later it had again doubled. Today the 80 million mark has been passed and a figure of 111 million will doubtless be reached by 2010.

Demographic pressure is stronger in the rural areas. The outcome is a general rural exodus, amplified by a large emigration flow to the United States. Between 1960 and 1970 the active farm population shrank by 15 percent in relative terms. At the same time it also increased in absolute terms. The problem of undernourishment in these areas therefore continues to grow more acute.

Socio-economic background. A look at Mexican agriculture is necessary to see the program in its proper context. A historical footnote on agrarian reform is followed by a brief description of industrial rabbit production.

Agrarian reform. Agrarian reform began about 1910 during the Mexican Revolution, with the establishment of the ejidos (collective farms). Ejidos were either old rural communities whose former lands were restored to them, or haciendas (large estates dating from colonial times) confiscated and turned over to the farm laborers and tenant farmers working them and run as cooperatives. The process is not complete even today as there are still landless farmers in many areas. Of the arable lands 25 percent are still in the hands of landowners with more than 1 000 hectares. Despite the existence of laws protecting productive properties, the risk of expropriation holds investments to a very low level on these estates.

Each ejido member also received a collection of plots, but these proved to be too small. The farmer can grow enough maize and beans to feed his family, but that is all. Only one of his sons can succeed him; the others have to go elsewhere. Numerous efforts have been made by the government to finance the ejidos with non-agricultural capital but most of these have failed.

Mexican agriculture. The traditional Mexican diet consists of tortillas (thin, flat, unleavened maize cakes), red beans and pimientos. Long a grain exporter, Mexico has become an importer in recent years.

The growing consumption of animal products, especially in the cities, conceals the stagnation or even regression in meat consumption in rural areas. Agricultural output lags behind population growth. This is in part a result of the existence of a vast sector that is underproductive: 3.5 percent of the land supplies 54 percent of all agricultural production, while at the other extreme 50 percent of the cultivated land supplies only 4 percent of total output. Despite this Mexico still has great reserves: 3.3 million hectares could be added to the 24 million hectares of agricultural land.

The government seems determined to develop this potential by the reasonable exploitation of its oil profits. It is aiming at national food self-sufficiency before the end of this decade, and the Sistema Alimentario Mexicano was launched for this purpose. This is an ambitious goal. The unemployment figure resulting from this and the population growth should be noted here. Underemployment is chronic in the countryside. The Mexican peasant works an average of four months a year and the rest of the time cannot find any employment. Some try to improve their lot by doing several seasonal jobs.

Industrial rabbit production. Industrial rabbit production differs from the rural variety mainly in its objectives, which are to reap a profit by producing animal proteins for urban markets.

In the early 1970s some thought rabbits had a great role to play as suppliers of animal proteins for the steadily growing urban population swelled by the drift from the land. Entrepreneurs with capital to spare invested in rabbit production. They started by importing breeding animals and then marketed them. The market developed rapidly and many rabbitries sprang up.

At this point a number of negative factors began to emerge. The extremes of the climate had a depressing effect on intensive production. For better environmental control, costly buildings had to be constructed. Breeder expertise was scanty. There were serious problems with the feed because of the poor quality of the raw materials and the small amounts manufactured. Growing production costs were masked by the profits from the market for breeding animals. However, this market dried up in the end, so advertising campaigns were then mounted to stimulate the demand for rabbit meat.

Unfortunately there were no marketing structures. Supply and demand were never able to balance. The resulting instant overproduction caused a price slump. As production costs were high, many units closed down. Production dropped and demand was never met. The crisis dealt a lethal blow to the recently formed producers' organizations. They disappeared before they had had a chance to organize the market or reduce the number of negative factors. Neither of the two objectives was met, but industrial rabbit production did not disappear and continued throughout the 1980s. Colin (1993) believes there are several dozen rabbitries with 200 to 3 000 does, and many more with about 30 does. The sector is thought to produce about 2 500 tons of carcasses every year. Marketing systems favor home consumption and local markets. Mexicans sometimes eat rabbit in restaurants. Promotional efforts are frequent.

Advantages and drawbacks of rabbit production in rural Mexico

The objective. Rabbit protein production corresponds to different needs. In the earlier example, the object was to increase producer income and it led to the development of techniques to maximize output while trying to hold down costs. These two goals are hard to reconcile. Some producers choose to hold down costs, especially investments, and try to maximize output regardless. Rabbit production thus fulfilled a luxury market: the eating habits of the tourists swarming through parts of Mexico every year encouraged restaurants to broaden the menu.

But the need in the countryside is a vital one: the diet is heavily deficient in animal protein.

The level of need and what attempts are being made to satisfy it is the next question. There are four levels: the farm family, the village, the city and the nation. Needs at individual and village community levels are easy to meet. Home consumption by farm families offers all the advantages of short producer/consumer marketing circuits: bottlenecks in processing and marketing disappear.

At the urban level, one feasible solution would be industrial production on the outskirts of towns. Several problems arise: technical management of large-scale units must be mastered. Obviously, since technical problems easily outstrip the size of production units, the size barrier is soon reached. Rabbit marketing also needs to be organized: the people it is planned to supply must actually buy the product through existing channels. At the national level, there may be other justifications, such as foreign exchange from rabbit exports, as in Romania, Hungary and China.

Rabbit production in rural Mexico. The first advantages of raising rabbits in small rural units are the intrinsic qualities of the species: its prolificacy, the quality of its meat and its faculty of adapting to varied environments. This last trait should be fully exploited in small units where mistakes will not entail the same drastic consequences as in large units with several hundred does.

The rabbit is a small animal. It requires few inputs (purchase of initial stock, buildings, etc.) and it is the right size for home consumption. It can be reared by workers lacking great physical strength: women, children and old people. It therefore allows these categories to be part of the family labor force.

Fibrous feed is an important part of the rabbit's diet, so it does not compete directly with humans for its food. This feature makes it highly complementary to other backyard animals (chickens, ducks, turkeys) or small ruminants (sheep, goats). It will make use of forages not otherwise used, kitchen and other wastes and so on. In addition to its meat it supplies certain useful by-products such as skins and excrement. Processing the skins could provide a little employment for rural labor. Tourism should provide an outlet for these products. In the Mexican climate, earthworms can be used to convert manure into fertilizer. This is a fairly important resource in areas where chemical fertilizers are virtually unknown.

However, there are disadvantages. Despite their adaptability, rabbits need a minimum of water and green or preserved forage and do not withstand humid heat very well.

Where rabbits are reared in cages their forage must be gathered and distributed. Rabbits cannot seek their own food like other domestic animals.

Rabbit is not a customary item in the Mexican diet. With some exceptions Mexicans are not acquainted with this meat and are often reluctant to try it.

Technical personnel trained in rabbit production are lacking. Even if the owner of a small unit can manage with labor that is not skilled, a certain minimum number of technical operations need to be mastered. A rabbit is not reared like a chicken, so rural producers have to be trained. They also need to be assisted with the technical problems that can crop up periodically: health and reproduction problems and so on.

Making good use of the advantages offered by the rabbit implies knowing more about the animal: its requirements vis-a-vis the environment, rearing techniques and the products it supplies. Another prerequisite is the availability of motivated labor.

The DGAEM: an action agency

This agency has been working with rabbits since 1969, but also works with many other species: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, bees and pigs. The family packages program was developed in cooperation with other development organizations. The rabbit component of the program covers information, training in technical expertise and extension, the production of breeding animals and technical assistance to breeders. DGAEM has its headquarters in Mexico City and numerous production centers throughout the country. The Irapuato National Rabbit Breeding Centre (State of Guanajuato) was set up in 1972. This is the only centre specializing in rabbit breeding; the other centers breed other animals as well as rabbits.

At the national level, information is prepared by a special department of the DGAEM. It issues brochures, reviews and other publications as well as audiovisual aids and any other appropriate teaching material to inform and interest farmers. It also assists other national and regional development agencies using the livestock species in which DGAEM specializes. It participates in agricultural and livestock fairs and keeps in contact with agencies abroad involved in the same work. A leaflet designed and drawn up by this department is published here to illustrate the work it does (Figure 51).

Promotion at the rural community level is the responsibility of a technician who usually works for another organization but has been trained in one of the DGAEM centers. This promoter is the key element in the field program. The first step is to present the program to municipal or, ejido authorities, explaining clearly the origin, development and aims of the program and the benefits it offers the population. The promoter then organizes public meetings, visits families in the community and hands out the information documents provided by DGAEM, trying to enlist the cooperation of local primary or vocational school teachers. Experience has shown that children are very good at persuading their parents to accept a family package.

The promoter makes a list of interested families and with them examines how the family packages can be paid for. There are two ways of paying, in cash or in kind, with deferment for one year. For a package of one male and five does the farmer can pay back the same number of animals or seven dried skins. A community representative collaborates with the promoter and acts as guide on visits to the production units.

In addition to their technical training these agents have been taught communication techniques. A few simple ideas help them in their work. Every message seeks to produce a change so its purpose must appear clearly. The manner in which the person receiving the message interprets it depends on their skill in communicating, their level of knowledge and sociocultural environment. So the information should be as accessible as possible to the person for whom it is intended. The one issuing the message should make its purpose stand out clearly, choosing the most appropriate medium, from the leaflets/tapes, slides, films, posters, cinema and television available, each of which has its own advantages and should be carefully combined.

FIGURE 51 Example of leaflet circulated in Mexico for the promotion of rabbit production

Feedback is not overlooked. Public reaction is important as it enables some details to be corrected and shows whether the objectives are being met. The number of families in a community who have asked for family packages is a good yardstick of success. The evaluation process continues throughout the program.

Training and extension in the family packages program works on two levels: training the promoters who in turn train the producers. This is essential as DGAEM cannot afford direct training for all breeders receiving family packages.

Promoters are trained at the DGAEM centers in all livestock species handled by the program. There are over 25 of these centers in the country. Courses are about 60 percent practice and 40 percent theory. The Irapuato course, for instance, lasts three weeks. This centre can take up to 50 students, including 30 boarders. The general course alternates with more specialized courses on production techniques and the use and tanning of skins. Similar courses are also offered at other DGAEM centers. DGAEM also organizes regular seminars on rabbit production techniques for the public. For action to be as effective as possible, the following rules are followed:


· standardization of the content of the various courses taking place throughout the country;

· no direct training of schoolchildren and farmers but focus of efforts on the teacher or development agent acting in the community, making use of the snowball effect;

· the teachers taking these courses are kept informed on rabbit production progress in Mexico and abroad;

· the establishment of a documentation centre;

· the periodical updating of technical booklets so that new knowledge can spread as quickly as possible.

Farmers receiving the family packages are trained by the promoter who is helped by the DGAEM, which supplies the necessary teaching materials. The promoter also offers direct assistance to families whenever the need arises. Particular attention must be given to the crucial stages of the program:


· construction of cages and shelters;
· arrival of animals;
· feeding;
· mating;
· birth and weaning of young rabbits;
· fattening and slaughter;
· consumption of meat by producer's family;
· utilization of by-products.

Every month the promoter sends comments to the DGAEM centre which supplied the animals. The centre can then help if difficulties arise, such as a serious health problem. During the first year of operations an expert from the centre visits family package recipients once a month.

The production of breeding animals intended for the family packages program is only one of the many functions of the DGAEM centers. DGAEM has set up a multilevel network. The Irapuato National Rabbit Centre has 1500 breeding rabbits of various genetic types. It provides a certain number of lines to other DGAEM centers which breed them to supply the rabbits in their family packages. Irapuato also looks after the distribution of family packages in its own area.

This scheme has the merit of being simple and effective. The distribution centers can get by with small stocks of each genetic type. They can obtain fresh stud stock periodically from Irapuato. One day, artificial insemination may make it possible to avoid transporting breeding animals over long distances.

It might seem strange to breed all the basic stock in the same place, given the diversity of climate areas. DGAEM is aware of this risk. However, the danger, if it exists, is serious only in the medium or long term. The various multiplication centers can test the reactions of the animals in their climatic environment and these animals could, if the need arose, constitute a core stock to begin setting up regional lines.

A center the size of Irapuato has technical problems which are hard to overcome. Any country wishing to establish such a network should first acquire experience with medium-sized units before designing the central unit. Original solutions have enabled such problems to be very largely overcome in Mexico.

The Irapuato centre is first of all a production centre for breeding animals. It supplies pure-bred animals for other centers for multiplication and pure- or cross-bred animals, as needed, for the family packages.

Irapuato is also an experimental centre. One of its tasks is to constitute Mexican rabbit lines. To do this it has had to identify the animals (tattoo breeding animals, tag animals temporarily at weaning), organize performance checks (record litter size at birth, at weaning and at 70 days, as well as individual weight at weaning, at 70 days and at first mating) and process and utilize all these data. Production quality is a constant concern of the people in charge of the centre. This requires a meticulous review of all technical constraints and skilful organization of centre operations.

Staff activities are programmed on a weekly basis: weaning on Mondays, selection of future breeding animals on Tuesdays, palpating on Wednesdays, etc. Certain operations are done every day (feeding, inspection of nests). Such specialization is more efficient.

To facilitate the organization of the work, each doe is assigned a card. A system of color-coded clips and pigeonholes in which to place these cards makes possible the simultaneous management of all females at the same physiological stage. Each buck and each litter have cards listing their productivity in weight and numbers. These cards are not only useful for the immediate management of the animals, they also help to choose the breeding animals to be culled and the stock to be used for replacement.

Production evaluations are made monthly in each building in the centre. These data are processed in the centre and sent to DGAEM headquarters in Mexico City. Each centre around the country sends in a monthly production balance sheet. The analysis of these monthly reports is extremely important for dealing with the technical problems arising in units of this size. Problems can be pinpointed rapidly, the causes analyzed and attempts made to remedy them.

Irapuato is located on the Altiplano at 1700 m above sea level. The altitude tempers the effects of the tropical climate. Temperatures are relatively high. Diurnal variations are considerable, from 16° to 30°C in summer and from 8° to 25°C in winter. The dry season, October to May, is about the same length as the wet season. Rainfall often takes the form of storms that cause major swings in humidity, which can shoot up from 40 to 95 percent. The buildings have been designed and improved to offset these climatic swings as much as possible.

A conventional pellet feed is given to breeding and fattening animals. Its use has led to a better understanding of some of the shortcomings mentioned in the section on industrial rabbit production. This feed is brittle and tends to crumble. Its fiber and nitrogen contents are far too variable.

The causes of these defects are many: uneven quality of raw materials, small quantities produced, which stops the feedstuffs manufacturers from making needed investments and so on. The problem of pellet feed quality is one of the major barriers to technical success in large units such as the Irapuato centre. The animals could be fed green forage, but this solution has not been considered because it is labor-intensive. There is also no guarantee of the quality and reliable supply of forage.

In units the size of Irapuato poor control of animal health would soon lead to catastrophe. With some exceptions, individual treatment is seldom satisfactory in large-scale production and is very costly. The answer is prevention, with the focus on the group, not the individual animal. Constant attention is therefore given to preventive hygiene:


· regular cleaning and disinfecting of equipment and buildings;

· daily removal of dead animals, quarantine of sick animals, rapid examination of breeding animals at each mating;

· avoiding stress and contamination by personnel or inopportune visitors;

· control of other live vectors of contamination;

· regular analyses of feed composition and bacteriological quality of the water.

There are several types of rabbit in Irapuato. Three are crossed to make up the family packages. These rabbits were imported during the 1970s and their performances are highly satisfactory. They have adapted well to local production conditions. Mass selection is practiced. The least-productive animals are culled and future breeding animals chosen from the litters of the best females.

In the New Zealand White and Chinchilla strains the standard criterion is the number of weaned rabbits per month of production. All the does in a building are entered on a double-entry worksheet (Figure 52). After each weaning the keeper changes the position of the doe on the card. Does on the left-hand side of the sheet are to be culled as soon as possible; those on the right-hand side will produce the young replacement females and on the far right the replacement males. Culling and selection will be determined on the average level of production, to keep a constant total in the herd. The offspring of does in the central section will be for distribution to other centers and for family packages. The Californian strain is selected in the same way. The main criterion is growth rate between weaning and 70 days.

Reproduction is not intensive (mating 17 days after kindling; weaning at 42 days). Various experiments at Irapuato have shown that this system best reconciled quantity and quality under variable environmental conditions and where factors of production were not fully under control.

The organization of mating under one roof makes some selection possible while avoiding a too rapid increase in the average coefficient of inbreeding. To achieve these two conflicting goals each building is divided into breeding groups and mating are scheduled between these groups. This frees the keeper from having to check to see if the animals to be mated are related.

In the family packages a cross-bred female is included, say a Chinchilla × New Zealand White genotype. She will be supplied to the producer with a Californian male (Figure 53). This cross offers the advantage of heterosis. With several genetic types, numerous combinations are possible. Some are now being evaluated at Irapuato and in the family packages program. The multiplication centers do not keep much stock of each genetic type. They receive Chinchilla and Californian males regularly from Irapuato. Basically these centers multiply New Zealand White females.

Liaison with other development organizations is necessary because DGAEM cannot provide technical support for each family package distributed. The promoters and extension agents who are indispensable in linking DGAEM to the rural communities belong to other organizations for this reason.

A program such as family packages is just one component of an overall rural development strategy, itself a component of the national development plan. A global program has to consider all the rural social questions of housing, health and hygiene, cultural activities and education. The promoter needs to integrate these components. To be effective, action must focus not at the family level but at the village community level. The fact that there are so many activities demands close coordination among the various bodies. While a simple administrative body may be inconceivable, a flexible support and coordination unit within an overall program including family packages seems essential.

Promoters thus require multiple training. In addition to strictly technical matters they must be conversant with other, non-agricultural fields such as hygiene and pollution control. Moreover, if they are to get their message across, they must have some rudiments of the social sciences.

DGAEM officials are well aware of these two essentials - coordination with other development organizations and technical training for promoters-but there are many problems that have not yet been solved in practice. The failure of the family packages program in some communities has been the result of inadequate training for promotion and poor coordination with the DGAEM centre supplying the animals.

FIGURE 52 Example of worksheet used for selecting does according to numerical productivity

When the promoter has finished the publicity campaign he or she visits each interested family, noting their resources and the time they have available. The final list of applicants is then drawn up and sent to the director of the nearest DGAEM centre.

Now it is time to start making the cages to house the rabbits. Each adult breeding animal must have its own. During the post weaning fattening stage, however, several animals can occupy the same cage. So a group of one male and five females needs about ten cages. The materials and techniques used vary according to what is available. The community's own resources will be utilized to the utmost.

Each cage has a drinker and feeder or feed rack. The nest box is not always used when the floor of the cage is covered with straw litter, but is always recommended. In cold regions it is completely closed; in warmer areas it is left half open. In the hottest regions a simple wooden crate will suffice. It is lined with straw or wood shavings. To prevent the urine from collecting at the bottom several small holes are drilled in the floor of the nesting box.

Cages are always placed under some partial shelter from rain, wind, cold, direct sunshine and other extremes. Shelter design and placement must consider the total microclimate, especially the direction of the prevailing winds. Where predators are a threat, adequate protection will be needed to keep them away from the cages.

FIGURE 53 Example of cross-breeding based on three genetic types at Irapuato

When the cages are ready the promoter agrees on an arrival date for the animals with the DGAEM centre director. The animals are transported in a closed vehicle which protects them from sun and rain, in well-ventilated cages. They are given water every eight hours.

The first few days are the tricky period of adaptation. The promoter pays careful attention to the rabbits' behavior. Three hours after their arrival they are given fresh water. For the following three days they are given only dry feed. After that they may be given green forage.

For their feed, maximum use is made of local forage resources and kitchen waste, or feed wastes of other animals, minimizing the competition with people for food. As part of the integrated rural development program, families may be encouraged to plant kitchen gardens before the animals arrive. In some areas the promoter gives families kale seeds to plant. The aim is to find the cheapest feed while maintaining the animals at a certain production level. After a few weeks of adaptation, animals over the age of four and a half months are gradually bred, presenting one female to the male each week.

Palpating is a delicate technical operation so it is seldom performed. Nest boxes are systematically set up 25 days after mating. Ten days later, if the female has not kindled she is mated again. The rate of reproduction should be in keeping with available forage supplies. In some areas the females are not mated during the dry season.

Weaning takes place between 35 and 60 days. The aim is to obtain four litters per female a year, or 24 young, at an average rate of six per litter. The animals are slaughtered when they exceed a live weight of 2 to 2.5 kg. However, the producer does not slaughter an animal until it is needed. Fattening animals constitute a live larder from which the producer takes now and then, according to the family needs.

Regarding health care, almost all treatments are discouraged. A few simple rules of preventive hygiene are usually enough:


· give varied feed daily;

· ensure the structure adequately protects the rabbits from environmental stresses and predators;

· provide clean water;

· prevent the proliferation of flies and insects;

· regularly clean the installations;

· examine the animals every day so as to detect quickly abnormal behavior;

· quarantine sick animals;

· keep recently acquired animals in quarantine;

· keep visits to a minimum.

The promoter uses commercial products to treat benign infections such as ear mange or injuries to the foot pads. In more serious cases the animals are let out into a closed pen measuring a few square meters and provided with a rough shelter. This is the best and least costly way of looking after them. If this does not produce results the sick animals must be culled. When a serious health problem affects the community as a whole, the promoter calls in a DGAEM expert.

When it is time to slaughter and eat the first rabbits, the promoter's teaching role becomes critical. The families have to learn to kill a rabbit cleanly, bleed it, cut it up and gut it. There is no better way than to give a demonstration right in the rabbitry. The promoter shows them how to clean the carcass and set the skin out to dry so that it can be used later.

To induce the family - and especially the children - to eat the rabbit, just a little imagination and the slightest persuasion are usually all that is necessary: imagination to prepare the rabbit according to a local recipe; persuasion to get one member of the family to agree to take the first bite. At the community level, a rabbit-tasting session could be arranged when the first young rabbits have reached slaughter age. DGAEM has published several booklets offering Mexican-style rabbit recipes.

There are many ways to use the by-products depending on the community context and the promoter will try to get the community to make the best and fullest use of them. Rabbit skins can provide the raw material for a small handcraft industry. Tanning will be done in a community workshop. DGAEM centers are equipped to teach these techniques. Many articles can be produced from the skins. The tanning workshop in the Irapuato centre, for example, makes bags, children's clothes and bed covers. Other parts of the rabbit can also be used, for example the paws and tails for key rings.

The promoter ensures in advance that there are marketing outlets for these products, perhaps in one of the many tourist centers dotted about Mexico. Surplus meat can be sold to local restaurants. Earthworms can convert excrement into fertilizer where the climate is suitable, and this can be spread on the family's kitchen garden.

The promoter must carefully follow up the development of the program in the community. After the various preparatory stages have been completed it is the production stage that convinces the producer of the program's benefits. The number of kilograms of meat produced per family is an important standard. This is the point that will attract the interest of other families and nearby communities.

The next phase is home consumption -the number of kilograms of carcass eaten by the family, especially the children, should be the basic standard of evaluation. Income generated by by-products and the sale of any surplus meat is another important item.

In supervising the program the promoter notes the dates of visits to each family, progress made in the unit and the advice given. The information is summed up on an evaluation form and sent monthly to the DGAEM centre. On it the output of the family packages, the side benefits and also the problems are noted. This feedback is an essential part of the family packages program, but in practice it is often difficult to obtain.

The situation in 1993

The program just described has developed since the 1970s and productivity has shot up. Interest in rabbits declined in the early 1980s, output dropped and many problems appeared, primarily feed. Training and development activities were halted and the resources earmarked for the program severely curtailed. The DGAEM disappeared and the Irapuato Centre staff were slashed by 75 percent. Centers such as Irapuato became state and not federal responsibilities.

The crowning touch in this decade of crisis for rabbit production was the appearance of viral haemorrhagic disease in late 1988. An exceptional control mechanism was soon in place. Vaccination was forbidden. Major information campaigns were broadcast on radio and television. The sources of infection were identified and all animals in contaminated production units culled. A figure of over 120 000 rabbits has been quoted. The rabbit breeders received damages and the units were restocked a few months later. The experts were amazed at the size of rabbit production in urban areas, particularly Mexico City (Finzi, 1991). This original strategy is thought to have cost US$22 million (Colin, 1994), but it seems to have worked. The information campaign did have a depressive effect on rabbit meat consumption, however.

This exemplary mobilization is an indication of Mexican interest in rabbits. The 1991 mission of Professor J. Galvez Morros culminated in a decision by Mexico to mount a new rabbit project with two components: to renovate the regional rabbit development centers and to reactivate training and development activities. The plan is to renew four centres: Irapuato with 1 500 does, Ixtacuixtla with 300, Aguascalientes with 200 and Xochimilco with 100. While the buildings can still be used, all equipment needs to be replaced.

The National Rabbit Centre has a triple mission: genetic improvement for supply to other centers; experimentation; and documentation. It is under the authority of the National Confederation of Livestock Producers.

State and private training and development efforts will be pooled. A survey will identify areas where the family packages program is still functioning. Not enough competent technicians are available for training, and the rabbit development centers will therefore need to go into operation at the earliest possible date. The survey will also pinpoint what training is needed by rabbit breeders. For the development component, each state will run its own program based on the DGAEM family packages program. The feeding problem is as acute today as ever.

Colin (1994), in a recent summary of the state of rabbit production in Mexico, estimates a yearly output of 15 000 tonnes, 12 500 of which from family rabbitries. Mexico is a good illustration of the rabbit's great potential adaptability and also of the need for training. It is possible to develop family-scale rabbit breeding in a country where there is no firm tradition of rabbit meat consumption. Mexico is thus a model for many countries in the south that would like to see sustainable development of rabbit production.

A development programme using rabbits

A brief review of other rabbit development programs in the southern countries concludes this chapter.

Benin is of particular interest (Kpodekon, 1988; Kpodekon, 1992; Kpodekon and Coudert, 1993). There is a lively tradition of rabbit husbandry in this West African country, the northern part of which has a tropical climate with a dry season running from November to April and a rainy season from May to October. Southern Benin has a sub-equatorial climate with two alternating dry and rainy seasons. Small family rabbitries averaging four does based on local resources are the usual pattern. Benin has set up a rabbit research and information centre (CECURI) to vitalize the sector. This centre, located on a university campus, has an experimental rabbit production unit. Its twin objectives are to promote expertise through research and development and extend rational rural rabbit production. The promoters of this centre insist on the need for local solutions to feeding, genetic and material problems. As in Mexico, the emphasis is on training for breeders and the need to listen carefully to their questions. This resource centre does need finance to operate, however, a problem requiring a clear political will favoring rabbit production. CECURI made spectacular technical progress between 1988 and 1991: fertility virtually doubled, litter size at birth rose by 30 percent and mortality was cut by a factor of between two and six. There again, the time factor is important: a centre of this type needs several years to reach cruising speed and iron out the main production problems. One final aspect that deserves emphasis is CECURI's 1992 organization of the First Regional Rabbit Congress, an indication of the need for cooperation between countries in resolving rabbit production development problems in tropical and equatorial Africa.

Unfortunately, as in Mexico, most rabbitries in Benin were decimated in late 1995 by viral haemorrhagic disease. A new rabbit development program is currently under evaluation.

Lukefahr and Cheeke (1992) summarized their review of various development programs in southern countries, particularly in Africa. In addition to the aspects of the Mexican program already mentioned, they come up with a number of original ideas. In their view, the initial demand for rabbit development should come from the breeders themselves. They next suggest setting up a network of leading breeders, representing different villages, to follow program developments and identify problems more quickly. Training is a major item and to be successful all trainers should also be breeders. They also agree with Kpodekon and Coudert that research and development programmes are crucial in solving local problems and they stress the need for reliable technical information.


Analyzing a small rural rabbitry depends on a number of interacting factors. Not all operate on the same level: Figure 54 gives an idea of how they interconnect. The reader can either start from the centre and read outwards, or start from the outside and read inwards. The objectives are in the centre. Here the major goal is to produce proteins to feed the breeder's family. A secondary goal is to generate family income through sales and employment.

The first circle around the centre shows factors that directly affect achievement of the objectives. Double arrows show how several factors interact at the same level. The second circle contains a second series of factors. The plain arrows represent the action of one factor on another. The system considered here is only a subsystem, one component of a global system of rural development and links with the outside are barely indicated in the diagram.

The program is executed by a national organization. This structure is responsible for developing the work. Its task is to inform, create awareness and provide training and evaluation. Local backup is provided by regional units which do the same job. The regional units do not train the producers directly; they train the technical people who are in touch with the field. This decentralization is essential to the effectiveness of the whole and to avoid the excessive growth of the organization that is technically responsible for the program. The regional units produce and multiply the breeding animals. They may also act as centers for demonstration and experiment, where the animals' reactions to the production techniques and the agro climatic conditions they will meet outside the centre can be tested.

This program is one section of an integrated development program. According to circumstances it might embody such features as production of other animal species, agronomy, horticulture, or perhaps home economics, hygiene or home renovations. Such integration requires good coordination between the executing agency and the other development agencies: some technical, others more concerned with socio-economic work.

In practice, liaison is through the promoter responsible for keeping the program going. He will have been given basic training in rabbit production at one of the regional production centers. Preferably, he should have two years' experience in rearing rabbits. His training will also enable him to lead other programs.

The sphere of action is the village community. To get these programs off the ground at least ten families have to join. This number makes the agent's work more effective, promotes interest in the community and makes mutual assistance more effective. It also makes it unnecessary to include one male in each batch of five females. The promoter can distribute a number of males among the units and organize their use.

The promoter must be in constant contact with the local branches of each organization involved in the program. Periodic reports will enable him to evaluate his work. Regional experts can rapidly detect problems that come up and help the promoter solve them. Feedback is essential for the system to run smoothly.

The human factor is a very basic component of this environment. The promoter has a primary role. It is he who arouses interest and enthusiasm, who provides information and who guides the rabbit breeders. He is both instructor and observer; he must not give up easily, but he must also be patient. He is largely responsible for the level of technical ability reached by the farmers.

It is hard to modify agro climatic factors, so they must be exploited as much as possible. An inventory of regional forage resources often requires the intervention of an agrobotanist. Medicinal plants could be useful, for example. Water resources will be the subject of a separate study.

There is a great deal of interaction at this level. The reproduction rate adopted must be decided on the basis of alternating seasons and thus according to forage resources. Where fodder is abundant the production potential of the species can be fully exploited. During harder times, most of the animals will be eaten by the producer's family. He will keep only the future breeding animals. This extreme pattern is adapted to regions where the dry season lasts less than six months. Microclimate, locally available materials and available labor will also determine the type of cage and shelter to be used.

FIGURE 54 Global analysis of a development programme using rabbits

The socio-economic factors depend partly on other development programs. It is these that determine any sales outlets for eventual meat surpluses or by-products. Where there are enough by-products a small industry can be launched to provide a little work and generate some income for the community.

The animal factor should not be overlooked. A systematic evaluation of local genetic types will help to breed animals adapted to the local agro climatic complex. A policy of cross-breeding to reinforce this adaptation to the environment and so upgrade productivity can be tried. Selection should take place in an environment not too different from the area where the producers work. In countries with several clearly defined climatic zones, selection should be done at the regional centers.

Rearing rabbits jointly with other animals such as domestic poultry (chicken, duck, turkey), small ruminants, bees or fish is often the best way to exploit the resources available.

Large-scale production of quality breeding animals is a difficult problem. One effective solution is to establish a network of multiplication centers based around one or more selection centers. Other solutions could be devised. But anything less than full control of such technical parameters as feed quality, or climatic parameters such as temperature, will lead to productivity problems. It is therefore wise to limit the size of these regional units to a few hundred females at the start.

At the rural community level the promoter is responsible for finding the best combination of existing possibilities in the light of local constraints. There is probably no need to reiterate the importance of the work of this person and the need to reach an understanding with the community. Development program success hinges on how well the promoter has understood their needs, expectations and motivations.

Program evaluation should not be limited to a simple quantitative analysis. The standard "amount of rabbit meat eaten monthly by each family member" is important, but far too restrictive. An attempt should be made to evaluate the social impact and deep-seated transformations from a program such as this. Evaluation, like program design and follow-up, requires a multidisciplinary team. This should include an agronomist, a livestock expert, a sociologist and an economist, at the very least.


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