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MEKARN Workshop 2008: Organic rabbit production from forages


Rabbit  production development, new strategies to avoid the conflict between use of natural resources for food and feed

Alessandro Finzi

Rabbit and Guinea Pig Unconventional Keeping Experimental Centre
Animal Production Department
University of Tuscia  01100 Viterbo - Italy




 Two important and very sound reasons have been considered to justify a workshop on supporting development programs of rabbit keeping as an alternative to poultry keeping. They are a) the increasing cost of feeds and b) the need of developing production systems to match the emergency created by the persistent danger of poultry flu.


These are, in some way, negative, though strong, reasons to develop rabbit keeping, in the sense that we are impelled to do it and it is not a real choice based on the positive factors that  make rabbit keeping in itself as an important economical activity.


Two more main “positive” arguments on this topic and some minor considerations will be here discussed. They are related with c) vegetal biomasses exploitation and d) overall rentability of the monetary investments comparing the  rural with the industrial rabbit keeping system.



Exploitation of vegetal biomasses


Only cultivated cereal grains or industrial byproducts are utilized in poultry feeding. In the rabbit pelleted feeds also dehydrated alfalfa is included at a high rate (about 50%), but this also is cultivated and its prize has also increased depending on the increase of energy costs and other economical factors.


If all the available biomasses of vegetal origin are considered, independently if spontaneous or cultivated, we find that about two hundred plants or byproducts have been studied as appetized by rabbits and their chemical composition and digestibility are known.  Many of these have been tested in feeding trials in different experimental conditions, nevertheless only a small percent (no more then 14%) is utilized in the industrial production. Some of these feedstuffs are utilized only seldom and, as a mean, they are only about 3.5% in one single formulation (fig 1).


Figure  1. Number of plants or byproducts that could be utilized to feed rabbits. The blue area  is not utilized; A, B, C, D, E correspond to the total of feedstuffs, the maximum utilized, the maximum for each formulation, the mean and the minimum observed respectively.  




This happens because, to be utilised in the industrial production, basic feedstuff must satisfy many technical conditions as, to be easy collected, transported and conserved and, mainly, to be always available or anyhow easy to be stocked to be utilised all the year long. As a consequence, studying  the composition and possible inclusion in formulation of local nutritional resources is useful, may be very useful, only if the increased knowledge is applied to develop an appropriate technical know-how fit to rabbit keeping in specific conditions of local exploitation.


As a matter of fact, even the number of studied feeding resources is only a minimal part of all the possible worldwide resources. In many opportunities we have found that people don’t even try to utilise different vegetal resources easy to be collected and behave as the one they utilise was the only one available, for instance the green part of sweet potatoes in North Africa or banana leaves in West Africa. It is clear then that a lot of local very good nutritional resources or are locally utilised to feed the animals or they are wasted and lost. In a short mission in a mountain rural area in Mexico where rabbit were raised, without any specific research it was possible to identify as much as 15 plants the leaves of which can be fed to rabbits but in practice are not utilised.


It is clear also that these local nutritional resources could never be utilised for industrial feed production but they could became very useful if properly exploited in the very place were  they grow spontaneously or are cultivated by man for other purposes then animal nutrition. People that can collect and utilise the natural or cultivated vegetal biomasses dispersed on vast territories are only the rural populations and rabbit is fit to exploit also small daily amounts of forage if at disposal (nearly) all the year long. Rabbit has not only an herbivore style of feeding, but it can utilise also feedstuffs rather hard and rich of fibre and lignin.  All families in rural areas can raise a few does for their own consumption and experience has taught that people normally increase their production as soon as commercial perspectives become favourable.


This activity is generally began by women and very fit to them because they are not obliged to leave their home for many hours and working near the dwellings allows to take care of children. Also social or religious customs are generally favourable to women work.  Sometimes also children or old people are involved. Only when the dimensions of the breeding are exceeding the needs of the family and commercial perspectives are coming into being, than men are often beginning to take care of the rabbit keeping unit.


We can than assert that rabbit keeping in rural areas is a very efficient tool to exploit the local vegetal biomasses for food security or economical aims, avoiding them to remain unutilised and wasted. This is a very important point supporting the workshop on organic meat production. But it must be remembered that, if we go back to a forage based diet, also an appropriate specific management must be studied and applied. It is easy to understand that the reproduction rate cannot be maintained as in the industrial system, but it must be slow down, since, due to the poorer nutritional level, does receive an insufficient amount of protein and energy and cannot quickly recover after parturition and milking. An easy method to decide when it is convenient to mate again is weighing the does. When they have recovered their weight they can be mated. After a while a good farmer becomes able by practice to evaluate a body score. Reproduction rate must be regulated also according to the seasonal abundance or insufficient amount and quality of available feedstuffs. No problems with fattening, since the nutritional level of the forage administered  regulates automatically the time necessary to reach the slaughter weight.


Local smaller breeds should be preferred, not only because they are better adapted to specific environmental conditions but mainly because they are less exigent and can cover the basic metabolic needs with a lower amount of forage administered.



The monetary point of view


Figure 2. Comparison of efficiency of an industrial system versus two possible rural systems that can be realised when the same capital is invested.


The idea that industrial production systems are more efficient in comparison with rural systems is generally accepted as an unquestionable truth. In fact it is obvious that each single doe or each single mother-cage produces much more in the intensified systems. Nevertheless we will try to demonstrate here that it is not so if the invested capital is considered.


In figure 2  an investment of 1,000.000 euros is hypothesed. In the industrial conditions a big 3,300 highly efficient rabbit breeding unit can be created at the European standard costs (the lower cost level is indicated). In the lower part of the figure a production of 45 rabbit sold/doe/ year is supposed as in a well managed rabbit industry.

With reference to the family systems it is supposed an output of 10/doe/year (rural B), as observed in some of the well managed units in the rural area of developing Countries where the real output is frequently even lower. It is also supposed that, with some feed integration and an improved management, an output of twice as much is possibly attained (rural A).


In the left part of the figure the weekly output of the industrial farm is compared with the two different small rural units composed by 5 does each, as frequently observed in developing and even in industrialized Countries. Units of 5 does and a production of 10 rabbit/doe/year represent a prudent goal for any cooperation program, nevertheless a good contribution to food security could be attained since all families involved could eat a rabbit a week.


As it can be observed, the industrial unit is 600 times bigger than one rural unit and its output is 1,400 times bigger than in the case A and 2,800 times bigger than in the case B, that is the basic model. In this way the tremendous superiority of the industrial farm is out of discussion. But if we consider the chance of self-building wooden cages and nests, clay drinkers or tin boxes with the same function, no need of feeder, since a basically green ratio is administered, then the investment per doe can be certainly lower than 10 euros (15 U.S. dollars) in the rural systems.


Each basic unit of 5 does must then cost less then 50 euros (75 U.S. dollars). As a consequence a well planned program to diffuse rabbi keeping in rural areas can activate as much as 20,000 family rural rearings with the same investment of 1,000,000 euros as shown in the right part of the figure. The total number of does involved is now 100,000 as to say 30 times more then the ones raised in the big industrial farm. And even if production per doe is much lower, nevertheless the total output is 7 times more then from the industrial farm and, if management and nutrition are improved, the total output could be 14 times that of the industrial farm.


The tremendous efficiency of an overall rural production is now demonstrated. With the same monetary investment, the result is as we had put in place 7 efficient industrial industries, may be twice as much (!!!). The only difference is that, in the rural case, the units are dispersed and small and, when we look to one of these, with wooden cages, green forage administered and low productivity per doe, we think it is nothing. But if we are able to calculate the total number of units, of does and of rabbit slaughtered, we are obliged to admit that this is the most efficient utilisation of any monetary amount invested to produce rabbit meat.

A second conclusion to add to the ones proposed as a justification of the importance of the workshop is that, if overall productivity is considered, rural rabbit keepings are more efficient then industry in terms of unit of capital invested. More, the cost of the kg of meat produced is cheaper or, better said, near to zero, if fodder is freely collected and  part-time work with no other possibility of employment is utilized.


Organic meat produced by a wide system or rural units, being cheaper, can always gaining compete on the market with meat of industrial origin. If correctly commercialized market prices can be lower with advantage of urban populations and a constant useful income can be obtained by rural populations.


The fact that organic meat is sold at an higher price in the industrialised countries is not here considered, but it could become relevant if it was developed a system of collecting the rural production to get a meat total amount able to sustain an exportation line. In this case, not only the interest of farmers but also the national economy could be positively involved.


Other important differences are summarized in figure 3. It looks clear that only rural systems should be supported by official projects, having a specific social interest among many other favourable traits.


Figure 3
.  Comparison of main traits of the industrial vs the familiar keeping system




To reduce to the minimum, and even to zero, the input costs, not only the feeding resources, but also all the materials to build up the equipments must have some specific characteristics; mainly they must be: original of the place, by-products or wastes, abundant, no cost or economical, easy to be utilised. This requires always a previous accurate analysis of the local conditions.


Also housing ad equipment must have specific traits, mainly they must be: simple, appropriate, efficient, self or locally made, accepted by the users, easily imitated.


A lot of know-how on this matter has been provided by the applied research performed by the Centre in Viterbo-Italy that is specialised in developing alternative rabbit keeping systems where poor socio-economical conditions and hot climate are very impairing rural production. Two examples will be shown later.



Worldwide vision 

   Now, let us consider that:
- world population is nowadays nearly 7 billions,
- rabbit meat production is about 700,000 tons in the industrialised countries

and suppose that:
- perspectives about cereals and energy prices continue to be unfavourable and rabbit meat production is getting no longer sustainable in the industrial systems, where in fact an increasing number of farm has failed.
- that the mean composition of a rural family is prudently (and to make a round figure) considered as composed by 7 members so that the estimated families in the world are one billion.
- that only 1.0% of the families are induced to raise rabbits.
- that the mean unit is composed by only 5 does.

- that each doe, nourished with collected non cost grass and leaves, can produce 10 rabbits (2 kg L.W.) each/ year (4 parturition of 5 and 50% mortality).

Then it is possible to calculate:
(1,000,000,000 families) x (1.0% families raising rabbits) x (5 does) x (10 produced) x (kg2.0) = 1.000.000 tons.

This is sensibly more then the total output of the industrialised countries.

Now the questions:
- can we involve the 2% of the total families?

- may be, in some favourable area, as much as 5%?
- can we collect and commercialize toward industrialized countries what is produced with rural    systems, may be also in some of the poor areas of the world?
- how many vegetal biomasses can be locally exploited instead of getting wasted and lost?
- and what economical income could be obtained instead of the negative balance yet present in developed countries where also perspectives are very dark?

- as a consequence of organic nutrition, how many cultivated feedstuffs could be spared?

- and how many hectares of fields could be recovered to be destined to cereal production to mitigate the actual worldwide crisis?

The experience teaches that if:

- a regular monthly collection of rabbit produced in poor rural areas is organized.

- supposing that 10 families in 10 villages keep 5 does, each producing only 10/rabbit/doe/year, as to say 1/week = 4/month,


- the families prefer to sell, even for a small income.

- first month 4rabbits/5does/10 families/10 villages =  2.000 rabbit will be collected to be brought to the urban market.

- rapidly the number of families involved, being sure to be able to sell, will increase, independently of the promotional function of the project and also the does raised/family will increase.

- if the collecting system is well organised the number of rabbits commercialized will grow to very important figures.

The conclusion is that if:

- a good rabbit keeping program is developed.

- rural populations are involved.

- industrial models are discarded and organic meat is produced.

- a good system of collecting and commercializing the rural production is organized.


- rabbit meet will be available in town market.

- a low cost production can be correlated with low cost selling.

- a production, collection commercialization chain is put in place.

- rural families can profit of a new income source.

- urban families can profit of an economic meat.

- a new profitable commercialisation line is created.

- organic meat is appreciated in industrial Countries and, in this moment of acute crisis, could be easy to gain their market.