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close this bookCERES No. 098 - March - April 1984 (FAO Ceres, 1984, 50 p.)
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Livestock for the landless

Some small species are ideal for household husbandry - and for improving diets of poorest families

Computers, as everyone knows, are getting smaller and becoming more personal. First we had large mainframes, then minicomputers for small businesses, today microcomputers, designed mainly for home use, are all the rage.

Now consider livestock. "Mainframes", such as cattle, have received enormous research and development; "miniframes'', such as sheep and goats, have received some attention; but few people have ever taken seriously the possibility of "microlivestock" for home use.

Yet, with "personal livestock" even postage-stamp-sized farms - now so prevalent in the Third World - could be meat producers. In fact, the landless could raise their own meat right within their own dwellings.

Animals for rearing in the home are obviously not the conventional farm stock that need pastures. At first they seem strange and exotic. But look behind the initial shock and you'll see an important area for development.

The almost universal use of chickens shows how vital small, easily managed livestock can be to poor people. Scratching a living out of the dirt and dust, these scrawny creatures are ubiquitous throughout the Third World. For the poorest of the poor, bony chickens may be the only source of meat during much of a lifetime. The animal's small size, ability to forage for itself, and natural desire to stay around the house makes it one of the most vital livestock resources of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Guinea pigs. Other examples of home livestock are less well known but equally deserving of recognition. In the highlands of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador most Indians keep guinea pigs and regard them as an essential part of their life. The animals are allowed free run of the house. They cannot climb like other rodents, and a simple stone sill placed across the doorway is all that is needed to prevent their escaping. Inside the hut special rock or adobe hideaways are constructed, usually under the hearth or in a corner, for the guinea pigs to sleep and bear their young.

For many Indians these household livestock are the main source of meat. To celebrate special occasions they eat guinea pig roasted on a wooden skewer. Often they serve it with potatoes or rice and a sauce made out of onions, peppers, or peanuts. They may have it deep fried like chicken. Criollo restaurants serve picante de cuy, a guinea pig stew with plenty of chills, or cuy chactado, a breaded guinea pig sandwiched between stones and fried.

Today, Peruvians alone cat an estimated 70 million guinea pigs each year. Guinea pigs are even raised in high-rise apartments in the city of Lima. They are commonly kept in cardboard boxes and often live under their owner's bed.

The idea of raising guinea pigs for food may seem repulsive to outsiders, but these small animals are prolific, tractable, and easy to feed, house, and handle. They exemplify the possibility that microlivestock could be a key to increasing meat production in the poorest parts of the world's poor countries.

In the Andes the guinea pigs are cared for mainly by women or children. The animals are so easy to manage that one person can tend as many as 3000. They are fed mainly cabbage, lettuce, carrot scraps, wild grasses, dried corn stalks, and leaves. Some barley is grown specifically for guinea pig food; it is cut green and sold in small bundles in the markets.

Twenty female and two male guinea pigs can produce enough meat to provide a family of six with an adequate diet year-round. These tiny animals actually require so little space that the ideal production is a small cage or pit housing about 10 females and one male. Females can become pregnant when only three months old and can produce as many as four litters a year. The young are for themselves almost as soon as they are born and wean themselves in only three days. In principle, a farmer starting with one male and 10 females could have 3 000 animals one year later.

An FAO study at Ibarra, Ecuador, showed that on small mountain farms guinea pig was more profitable as raise than either pigs or dairy cows, partly because it fetched higher prices in the local markets.

University of Florida researchers Wayne King and Charles Woods suggest that at least a dozen relatives of the guinea pig are potential microlivestock resources. They believe that capybara, nutria, hutia, agouti, vizchaca, mara, cloud rat and bandycoot rat all deserve investigation. These animals could be the guinea pigs of the future.

Grasscutter and rat. Actually two rodent domestication programmes have occurred in Africa in recent years: the grasscutter (canecutter) of Ghana and the giant rat in Nigeria. Both animals provide popular "bushmeats" and researchers are now learning how to raise them in captivity.

The grasscutter has beady eyes and a long tail and weighs up to eight kilos. In West Africa its meat sells for more than beef, pork, or lamb. Indeed, an average mature animal weighing four kilos can bring the equivalent of $75. With prices like that, the meat is a luxury only wealthier Chanaians can afford.

In an effort to capitalize on this gourmet delicacy, the Chanaian agricultural extension service encourages farmers to rear the grasscutter in cages. Breeding stock and information are furnished, and there is a central office for records. The deep red, rabbitlike meat is a savvy treat. Every part of the body - even the hair - is eaten. Reportedly, this vegetarian rodent is healthy and easy to raise in captivity. In more widespread use, its price should come down, and the grasscutter might one day play as important role in reducing Africa's protein shortage as the guinea pig plays in the Andes.

Blue duiker. Another small African mammal with potential for household animal husbandry is the blue duiker, a rabbit-sized antelope of southern Africa. Some United States researchers are excited by its promise. Ruminant nutritionist Robert Cowan of Pennsylvania State University has had them in trials for two years and reports that there is no problem with domesticating them. They are easy to maintain, and they are producing well. They don't seem fussy about husbandry or environmental conditions; in fact, they seem to enjoy living in cages, perhaps because in their native habitat they live in the thickest, thorniest bush.

Few people know much about these tiny ruminants that, fully grown, stand only about 30 cm high and weigh a mere four kilos. Reportedly they are wild, nervous, shy, and nocturnal, but Dr Cowan finds that they tame easily and make good house pets. From the day they are caught they can be handled, petted, and even milked, he says.

Duiker meat is much sought after in many African countries, and it is suitably sized to feed an averagesized family at one meal. Under good conditions young blue duikers grow fast and breed fast. The calving interval is a mere eight months.

About 80 other types of duikers are found throughout most of Africa. These little ruminants are shy and rarely seen, but are often kept as pets. In 1977 a Nigerian journal reported that Mawell's duikers can be eaten at age three months when they weigh about four kilos. In one trial they were fed on banana, plantain, and papaya fruits: hibiscus' cassava, and banana leaves; dried maize; and an array of other fruits, leaves, and seeds.

These tiny African antelopes seem like useful microlivestock and others are possible candidates also. The Livingston's suni is one. In addition, hyraxes are African animals that, although being distant relatives of the elephant, are only the size of a dog.

A dwarf pig. Elsewhere in the tropics are found other species possibly suitable for indoor or backyard rearing. In China, Peru, and Mexico hairless dogs were raised for food in centuries past. In parts of Southeast Asia dog is still sometimes surreptitiously eaten. In northern India there is a dwarf pig, the pigmy hog, which is only 25 cm tall when full grown. Unfortunately, it has been hunted to near extinction, but it would seem to have enormous potential as a "kitchen animal" to be raised in the house on table scraps. Also, in Southeast Asia there are dwarf deer, barely bigger than goats, that are fully at home in the heat, humidity, and diseases of the lowland humid tropics. Furthermore, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, farmers erect special roosts to attract bats, thus providing backyard sources of both food for the table and guano for fertilizer.

And beyond mammals there are underexploited reptiles such as iguanas and other lizards. Iguana meat is so delicious that the animal is being hunted to extinction over much of the Caribbean and Latin America. The Caribbean Marine Biology Station on Cura already has iguana-farming experiments underway.

Pigeons and quail. There are species of birds, such as the pigeon, that will forage widely, and yet live and grow at home providing food for the inhabitants. Pigeons, housed in towering dovecotes in backyards, were once a mainstay of the diet in the Middle East and in Europe. Quail is a small and very efficient bird that is also suited to home rearing.

Snails. Microlivestock can be found among the invertebrates too. Bees and snails are two examples. Edible snails have been raised in small pens in Nigeria, and some of this legless livestock has been shipped to France, where gourmands are wiping out their own populations of escargots. Actually, snail farming has been a backyard occupation in Italy since the days of the Roman Empire.

There are a number of basic reasons for giving more consideration to small animals. Smallness is often an adaptation to heat and to harsh environment. Zoologists have enshrined this in Bergman's Rule: members of a species tend to be smaller in a warmer climate than in a cooler one.

Smallness also helps an animal survive in arid and other marginal areas where forage is limited. For example, in sparse conditions where a pair of small animals barely survive, a single larger animal will likely starve because it cannot hunt the scanty herbs in two places at once. Under such circumstances, it does little good to introduce large-sized breeding stock in an effort to improve the local animals. A more effective approach might actually be to send even smaller specimens so that three animals could graze where two cannot now survive.

Although many of the small species I have mentioned are undomesticated and almost unstudied, given a little attention some of them may prove to be remarkably important. It should be easier to domesticate small animals than large ones. And with most small animals there is little likelihood of transmitting disease or competing for food with conventional domestic stock.

The skills for rearing small animals are easier to learn and less demanding than those for large ones. The starting investment is much less, the economic risks minimal. Also, such small animals make sense when meat cannot be stored because refrigeration is not available. And it is probable that indoor animals could be raised on kitchen scraps and weedy vegetation from the backyard or nearby roadsides.

Time to down-size. Agronomists once considered that the bigger the plant the better, but the green revolution's success with short-statured cereals has led to down-sizing crops: maize, rice, cotton, fruits, trees, and others. Now it is time down-sizing animals and for a similar intense investigation of small animals that are indigenous to the tropics.

For the landless and the small farmers in developing countries animals that can be raised within the home or backyard could be the main source of meat. Raising "main-frame" livestock on pastures who never get meat to the poorest people as effectively as if they raise t own microlivestock on weeds table scraps in cardboard car under their beds.

Indoor animals are a missing of animal science. This level livestock deserves to be explored. We need to select new species, to develop household animal husbandry. It may be an answer to the gross lack of meat in Third World count where today people get less meat in one year than people elsewhere in a month.