Letter from fremont regier, mennonite central committee, Botswana (and earlier in Zaire)
I find your question concerning why rabbits catch on in one place or with one person and fail to do so in another place or with another person quite interesting. I've given this question a good deal of thought. There are some givens which must be present for rabbit raising to go in eveloping poorer countries in rural villages. Let me list a few of them which may seem very simple and obvious, but nevertheless critical.
Adequate source of cheap roughage. To be economically feasible a rabbit project cannot depend on expensive purchased commercial rations (unless a very high degree of management is available along with good transport and marketing facilities). To go well, rabbits must be raised by village farmers in areas where climate and other conditions permit the farmer to cut free, or nearly free, green roughage in large quantities. This cuts down on the need for grain. Though neither production nor weight-for-age will be as great, the gains will be inexpensive. The beauty of the rabbit in this situation is that it converts cheap roughage unfit for human consumption into meat of very high quality.
Proper housing. A large variety of forest and other materials can be used to build rabbit hutches. But a decent hutch is required to provide healthy surroundings, adequate light and protection from dogs and thieves. It must be made from inexpensive local materials, with the possible exception of wires mesh floors. Rabbits must be kept properly apart to control breeding. Hutches must last long enough that the farmer does not become discouraged at constantly having to repair them.
Management. Rabbits are very forgiving. You can get away with a lot. But certain minimum standards must be kept. Breeding, feeding, housing, record keeping,weaning and health maintenance must be done to keep the project operating. A man can have a flock of chickens, throw them a bit of grain occasionally, shut them up in his kitchen at night and get away with it. Much more is required of the rabbit raiser. We found that it is best to start with a farmer who has had no experience with rabbits and help him get started. The man who has "raised" rabbits before under improper methods of letting them run around the house and not in proper cages is less likely to succeed than the one who starts from scratch and "does it right". Extension work is essential here. Farmers need regular visits to their farms to encourage, train, support, trouble-shoot, give new ideas, etc. Occasional seminars, tours, field trips to visit other farmers' rabbit projects and other group activities serve to encourage and maintain interest.
Labor. As said earlier, a flock of chickens can take very little time under the traditional "scavenger" method of husbandry, but rabbits, each one in its cage, take much more work. In questioning many one-time rabbit raisers who later abandoned the work, I got many reasons why they had stopped. Some said their rabbits died, others that they couldn't sell them, or that they had no food. In questioning other raisers who had continued to raise them, I was told that rabbits do not die for no reason (hunger or ill care or dirty cages cause it), that they had no trouble selling all that they had for sale and that feed was available. I surmised that what it boiled down to in many cases was that it just takes too much time and work for some people. I'm not saying this is bad. If a person doesn't want to be that tied down to a set amount of labor daily, that is O.K. To many it just is not worth it. But you can't raise rabbits with no work or with as little work as would be required for an equal number of chickens. We learned to be wary of the would-be rabbit raiser who had a hard time staying at home. One of our extension agents would refuse to help set up anyone in rabbits who was unmarried or owned a motor bike! His theory was that such young men ran around too much and would not be at home with the project on a regular basis. At the same time I've seen fathers teach their sons to care for their rabbits in their absence and a beautiful family project developed giving occasion to teach the value of honest labor, discipline and husbandry.
Yes, some people are very negative about rabbits and others enthusiastic. Rabbit raising is not for everyone. In the same given area some will take to it, others not. And areas differ. One village will have a good group of interested raisers, others none. One development project with volunteer American extension agents will be successful in promoting rabbit raising, another similar project with similar extension agents in similar programs will be unsuccessful and become discouraged. I've even seen some of those volunteer agents from America unsuccessful in their own rabbitry. I don't know the secret. But I feel it lies in interest, real desire, sincere joy at farming and animal husbandry, willingness to work hard, determination to hang in there until it pays off, horse sense, a "feel" for animals.... and I suppose some mystery factor we can't put our fingers on.
In areas where the traditional "scavenger" method of animal husbandry has been practiced (where the animals are largely left to find their own livelihood) a fundamental change in attitude or educational process must take place for rabbits to be practical and successful. To cage and regularly feed the animal is very foreign. Especially when the farmer and his family may be hungry. We must not underestimate the significance of this educational process and fundamental change that must occur here. Very important in this all is discipline of thinking and living which has been traditional for some people.
You might find some assistance in the materials available on rabbits from World Neighbors, 5116 Portland Ave., Oklahoma City, OK 73112. I am enclosing a copy of a letter about rabbit raising that I wrote to someone else recently. It goes into more detail on some of the management questions. If I can be of further assistance, don't hesitate to contact us again. [Ed: See p.6 on World Neighbors material.]
Letter from fremont responding to someone's questions about management of rabbits
Thank you for your letter. I am very much interested and excited about rabbit raising. We have just started again after our move to Gaborone, raising rabbits for the family. We have had litters of 10, 13, 14, and 10 as our beginning! Though I cannot answer all of your questions, I will make an attempt on some of them.
1. How do you penetrate the villages with the practical helps of rabbits and the gospel?
To properly respond to this would, of course, involve volumes on anthropology, rural sociology, Christian love and patience and theology. But I'll mention several points.
I'm not quite comfortable with the word "penetrate" in the question, and would prefer a softer word such as "enter" or "present" or "approach". We need to come humbly, as learners and fellow travellers on life's road.
To be of significant service in effectively sharing the good news of the Gospel one needs to be accepted in a given village. An entry is needed. I'm most excited about working through the local church if one exists. I like the approach that God cares for His people and is concerned with every fact of their daily life: spiritual, social, political, economic, etc. These are all parts of the Gospel good news. God created the world. We are His husbandry people. We have esponsibility to care for, conserve and replenish the earth, to practice stewardship and Biblical ecology and to share the produce God's world will give us if properly tended, in cooperation with His laws of nature, with others in the community. These are all parts of the Good News of the Gospel.
If a local church exists in the village, working through its leadership/members provides a good entry, as one endeavors to facilitate their work and become assistant to their work.
Other points of entry through which it is necessary to work are the local chief or headman, school teachers, government agricultural agents, health workers, family welfare workers and other leadership/service types who may be present. In all cases initiative and bottom-up participation must be sought at all costs. Top-downing will not, in the long run, produce real on-going development nor is it Christian or consistent with Christ's examples. One must participate in village life and learn the language, customs, etc. to the extent of being accepted as a trusted friend before one can expect to make much impact or initiate change.
In our work in Zaire we were known in most villages as workers of the Mennonite Church which had been there for many years. Therefore we needed no introduction. Had the church not been there, our introduction would have taken longer. Our approach was, as extension workers, to visit the local clan chief and other leaders mentioned above. On initial visits to given villages we tried to come as learners to hear what their problems were. Some of their requests we could refer to other departments of the church or to other agencies. We would try to get people to think together on what they locally could do about it, looking at their resources and others available to them. It is unwise to do for anyone something that person can do for him/her self.
In the small livestock program specifically we would come to know those who were interested in rabbit raising. We would suggest materials from the forest needed to build hutches and promise to be back in a month to help any farmers who had their materials cut ready to build the hutches. These hutch building times became real community endeavors. Others would gather around to help, thus learning how to build their own hutches. After they had obtained breeding stock at the center from others already in rabbit production, we'd do follow-up extension work on care, feeding, management and financial record of rabbit keeping.
Each of the village visits was a beautiful opportunity to share with farmers and their families around the campfire at night about the issues mentioned above of God's involvement in His creation and our life. Occasional seminars of one or two days on rabbit raising in a central village and group tours to visit each others' projects increased interest and proficiency. We also imported wire mesh to sell to those who wanted it for floors for greater efficiency and life of the hutch. A cooperative was formed for marketing.
2. What possibilities do you see in raising rabbits in Nigeria?
The Nigerian government in the early seventies was pushing backyard rabbit production. I'm not sure of the present state of the program. Basically I do not think the weather is adverse there. Rabbits can stand a wide range of weather and climatic conditions if properly housed and cared for. To be practical for rural villagers cheap sources of greens must be available. Purchased prepared rations as pellets , etc. are so expensive and hard to come by in many cases that extremely fine management is needed to make it profitable. This level of management as well as the marketing and transportation infrastructure is often lacking in rural village situations. therefore, one needs to depend on such items as wild greens, (e.g. palm branches and various weeds) those leaves from field crops like cabbage and lettuce that are not used for human consumption, corn plants after the corn is harvested for roasting ears, planted crops like Stylo santhis, peanut vines, etc. These free or cheap sources of greens form the bulk of the diet and smaller amounts of grains are necessary. However some rain is necessary, especially for nursing does and growing fryers. If not using prepared portions, salt will be a necessary supplement as well. If there is sufficient rain for greens to grow and some grain is available, feed is no problem.
Culturally, some people do have taboos or are unaccustomed to eating rabbit meat, but with proper information on raising, slaughtering and preparation we've found this to not be too much of a problem.
3. Would raising chickens be complimentary to raising rabbits?
We used to call rabbits the "poor man's project" as opposed to chickens. To be profitable, chickens need more sophisticated diets, veterinary medicine and more frequent marketing of highly perishable produce (eggs) than rabbits. These inputs are often too expensive or unavailable to the rural village farmer. (That is if one wants to go with improved breeds on a commercially viable basis). An improved cock with local native hens running in the village is a good little sort of thing, but not too much of a commercial venture. However, where these necessary poultry inputs are available to a farmer, we have found that chickens and rabbits go well together. In fact, I like to run chickens under my rabbit hutches part of each day to clean up on the grain or pellets the rabbits inevitably spill. Other than this, I don't suppose there is too much complimentarily between rabbits and chickens. Rabbits don't compete with humans for grains as strongly as do chickens, another advantage for rabbits.
Rabbits do compliment well with vegetable raising, however. As extra greens are available they are fed to rabbits, the manure goes back on the plots, etc. A good cycle is possible there.
4. Would you consider any vegetables or plants that could be preventative measure for diseases?
In case of rabbit or poultry feed, I know of no plants that could be used as preventative measures for disease other than the normal dietary components necessary to provide health and strong resistance to disease.
Letter from gary shepherd
(1) Clean the pen daily, i.e. throw out all old grass etc.
(2) Keep feed off of the bottom of the pen by either building a feed rack or tying it up.
(3) Make sure villagers build pens with bottom slats of bamboo or wooden rods so that it is as self-cleaning as possible.
(4) Avoid giving grass that is wet during the hot season. Though you might get away with it for a month or more, one day you will find that a bunch have died overnight. Cut grass in the morning and spread it out to dry excess moisture in a sheltered place (on top of the pen) and feed it in the evening. In the evening you can cut grass again and dry it overnight. Rabbits do OK on a 90% banana leaf diet, but prefer a mix of foliage, weeds, etc.
(5) Some books say not to give salt. I put it in with a little ground grain made damp with water. Our villagers feed their rabbits a lot of mustard cake. They are far more profitable than chickens and require comparatively little grain."
Fremont's reply to my second letter
Thanks for your kind letter of 25 August, 1982. It is very gratifying to realize my letter and other information I sent was useful. Yes, you may go ahead and include my address in what you send out to people in this connection. [Editor: You may write to him at P.O. Box 33, Gaborone, Botswana] Let me attempt to answer your other questions.
1.) Too many rabbits die from heat in hot climates to make them profitable: We never had rabbits die from the heat in Zaire or in our short experience in Botswana, though some other countries would have even higher temperatures. Higher temperatures do lower growth rates as feed consumption goes down and does are also harder to breed when it is very hot.
2.) You can't feed a rabbit very much green matter or it will bloat and die: I have heard that fresh green matter with dew still on it will cause rabbits to bloat. For that reason some farmers would cut their greens in the morning when they were fresh, crisp and sweet and then hold them for evening feeding which works well since rabbits are night feeders. I've also heard that changing kinds of greens feed suddenly can cause trouble, but I've never had trouble with that. Farmers in Zaire fed a tremendous variety of greens with no ill effects. I have heard that Paw-paw tree leaves cause diarrhea but in moderate amounts they have never caused any problems for me. Just now we are feeding our rabbits enormous amounts of cabbage, lettuce and cauliflower leaves that we get from grocery stores in the city and we have no problems. And it saves us a lot on expensive commercial pellets. Basically, it is safe to say that practically anything from the garden, forest or kitchen can be run through the rabbit hutch - banana and paw-paw peels, pineapple cores, palm branches, corn stalks, peanut and sweet-pea vines, weeds, alfalfa, stylo-santhis. If they eat it, fine; if not, it goes on out to the compost pile with the manure.
3.) The danger of escaped rabbits is too great. They could end up being another Australia: I've heard this argument before also, but actually it is a rather ridiculous one, I think. The Australia thing was caused by the introduction of wild rabbits, not of domestic rabbits. J.E. Owen in "Rabbit Production in Tropical Developing Countries : A Review." Tropical Science, 1976, 18 (4), pages 203-210, on pages 207-208 says: "One aspect of rabbit keeping which causes concern to many developing countries is the potential threat of escaped domestic stock and their effects upon other agricultural enterprises. The unfortunate experience in Australia is probably responsible for this. It should be pointed out, however, that in Australia in the mid-19th century domestic rabbits were kept in almost every town and city. Those which were liberated or known to have escaped gave little or no trouble, except around Sidney where they became established and merely constituted a local nuisance (Fenner and Ratcliffe, 1955). However, this problem paled into insignificance compare with the damage caused by wild rabbits which were introduced later on. All successful mainland invasions, of England, Australia, New Zealand, and South America have developed from the introduction of wild stock (Flux, 1974,1975, 1976, personal communication), but even in Australia wild rabbits have not spread into the tropical parts of the country.
There are many instances of escaped domestic rabbits multiplying on small islands, to the detriment of the vegetation, in both tropical and non-tropical climates (Watson, 1961; O'Farrell, 1965; Flux, 1974, 1975, 1976, personal communication). The burrowing habit has undoubtedly helped them to withstand periods of very high temperature and water shortage in warm countries (Hayward, 1961) On large land masses, such as Africa, escaped domestic stock are extremely unlikely to cause serious problems. On small islands with no natural predators, however, the situation may be very different, although the island of Malta has both wild and domestic rabbit population and has suffered no such problems. In these situations expert advice from ecologists who are familiar with local circumstances should be sought." Incidentally, if you don't have Owen's Article, it would be a valuable one to get. It is a good summary and his reference list is helpful.
No, I've not had experience with the feeding of leaves of leguminous trees, but it does sound like a workable idea if such trees were available in abundance. Rabbits can eat large volumes of green material and care would have to be taken in harvesting leaves to avoid killing the trees.
Some planning ideas to remember when considering rabbit production as a church development project to help village farmers by fremont regier
Introduction. Rabbits have a number of valuable advantages that make their production quite inviting. One doe can produce 4-6 litters of 6-8 young each per year. That means one doe can easily give you 25 or more young per year. Multiply that number by the number of does you may have to arrive at your annual production given proper husbandry and management practices. Multiply this number then by 1 or 2 kilograms and you see the potential of meat production in rabbits.
Rabbits consume large amounts of forage - greens of many types - which people do not eat. They convert this forage into meat which people do eat. Anyone with fields or a garden will have maize stalks, sweet potato vines, fruit peelings, peanut vines, cabbage or lettuce leaves, carrot tops or any number of other greens in addition to lots of wild plants and kitchen garbage on which rabbits thrive. Many of these greens would otherwise go to waste. They would need, however, a bit of grain each day.
These animals produce a highly acceptable, very nutritious meat. When slaughtered, they give meat for a family-size meal. They are easy to prepare in a number of ways. The pelts can be used for clothing, hats, to cover bicycle seats, etc. and their use could spark a village industry/crafts project.
To start a rabbit project one does not need a large initial investment. One can begin with home-built hutches and 1 or 2 does plus the breeding buck which all together represent a small outlay of cash. They respond well to good management but are surprisingly forgiving of poorer management. They give good returns for the inputs invested. Any size of project can be profitable depending upon the resources of time, money and materials the individual rabbit farmer may have.
Rabbit raising makes an excellent family enterprise. Children in the family learn about life, production, the joy and value of hard work, and cooperation in caring for their rabbits. My three children each owns one doe in our family rabbitry and are saving money for college with the returns from their doe's offspring. They are learning about the possibilities and joy of working in harmony with God and His creation to increase food production.
Rabbits fit well into a balanced farming scheme. Their manure is very valuable for vegetable gardening to fertilize the soil. Unlike poultry manure, it will not burn the plants and can be applied directly to the plant or its roots. Excess and waste from the vegetable gardening project goes to feed the rabbits, setting up a profitable cycle and aiding the balance of nature.
A rabbit farm takes little space. Rabbit production is very adaptable. The farmer can be as inte nsive or extensive as his condition, materials, possibilities and wishes dictate.
1. Keep the production unit at your center simple and small. You will want to save all your resources of energy, time, and money possible for the more important extension phase of your program. A small production unit will allow you this time, while still giving valuable experience in learning to raise rabbits. A unit of 5 to 10 does will give you lots of breeding stock to sell to beginning farmers. Very soon new farmers wanting to start new projects can buy their initial breeding stock from other farmers. In a short time, then, your center will become less and less important in selling breeding stock and village farmers will sell to each other, thus increasing their income.
2. Use breeds locally available and adapted. Don't worry about getting some sort of exotic stock from far away. Locally successful rabbit breeders can provide you with good stock. Several does from one breeder and a buck from an unrelated herd will be a good start. Then select replacement stock from the mothers producing the largest, fastest growing litters. Both you and the village farmer can improve your stock better this way than by trying exotic imports.
3. Be innovative. Use local materials as much as possible for hutch construction. Maybe stone hutches with stone floors, using deep litter will work for you. You may prefer to use woven wire mesh for the floors, but materials like bamboo for the rest of the hutch. Thus you will save money, but even more importantly you will be giving a practical example to the village farmers wishing to start their own projects.
NOTE: If you use the deep litter method it will always be dry. Mothers will make their nests to kindle babies right in the litter. If you use wire mesh floors, you will need to supply nesting boxes for your does.
4. Read all you can get on rabbit production. There are a number of books on rabbit production in available. If you write to World Neighbors, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma USA, they will send you an English copy of the rabbit production manual village level, for Zaire conditions, but it has a lot of material applicable anywhere.
5. Base your whole rabbit project on extension. An aggressive extension program will be the most important part of your project. Get out where the people are! You can follow up farmers who purchase starting stock from you or elsewhere or who are already raising rabbits. You can give them on-the-farm assistance in husbandry, nutrition, management. The most wonderful production center will be of little value to your project if it is not made valuable to village farmers through extension services. Visiting rabbit farmers on extension tours give you a chance to get the pulse of what's going on in the village. This awareness will help you to orientate your whole project to village needs and actualities.
Very basically, an extension program will give excellent opportunities for your staff to communicate their faith in God to people in a natural atmosphere under conditions conducive to discussion. Many meaningful relationships can be built through extension work, giving witness to Christ through natural channels which farmers understand. God in His care for us created the world for our husbandry. He is interested in how we use it and our welfare on the earth. Man is not only physical or economic. Man is also social and spiritual. Faith in Christ and eternal values can be built on relationships built through good extension work.
6. Use short, intensive courses for training in rabbit raising. Farmers can come to your production center for one or several days to study together the essentials of rabbit raising. Rabbits do require lots of work, proper technique, sanitation, etc., so training is essential. But don't plan courses that take farmers away from their homes and fields for months at a time and alienate them from their communities. Follow-up seminars or short courses can also be held in villages where farmers come together for learning about rabbits. Training can thus be part of your extension program. Learning farmers can also work as apprentices with more experienced rabbit raisers to learn very practical lessons to put to work on their own farms. You can hold recurring training sessions. Repetition is helpful. New things come up as farmers share their experiences, and they learn a lot from each other.
7. Don't do anything for the village farmer which he could do for himself. We are thinking here of hutch construction, breeding of does, weaning, cleaning hutches, feeding, marketing, etc. This is to help save your time, and even more importantly to help the farmer to become a good rabbit raiser soon. Rather than doing it for him, help him to do it himself through extension on his own farm.
Comments on world neighbors material
In light of Fremont's reference to their material on rabbits, I phoned Karen Shallenberger at World Neighbors. They have one formal publication on rabbits. Ask for "Learning to Raise Rabbits". This is a back issue of their quarterly newsletter, World Neighbors in Action. Each issue is dedicated to one topic. Subscriptions cost $3.00, and back issues are 75 cents (airmail included). If you already have a good book on raising rabbits I do not believe you will find much new information. But it is a very good 8-page condensation of how to raise rabbits.
The other material consisted of photocopied typewritten manuscripts. Because of expense of postage (they are bulky), you should order these only if seriously interested. One of these is "Housing of Rabbits in Africa". This is a summary of the different housing in which rabbits are raised in Africa and some of the basic criteria to keep in mind when designing housing for rabbits. An appendix reports on a project in northern Ghana where construction material is so limited that the project relied on round mud huts with rabbits on the floor.
I found the most new ideas in a manuscript called "Commercial Rabbitry Handbook". It is written by Lovelace and Divine Odonicor, who appear to be entrepreneurs in the Volta region of Ghana. The most unusual idea (based on what I have read) is their method of reducing labor and number of cages by housing rabbits in large groups which they call intensive gangs. They call the system of having each producer buck and doe in separate cubicles "subsistence rabbitry" because they cannot make enough with that system to expand. Even does who are about ready to kindle are paired two per cage. Here does must be of similar size and due about the same time. They should also be the same breed and be of similar physical fitness. They found that the does do not discriminate so much in milking bunnies, so when one doe is weak the other helps in feeding all of the bunnies.
They feed a variety of greens. In addition, "dry groundnut tops and guinea grass (Panicum) are of remarkable importance alongside wheat bran, corn chaff, sorghum or dried brewers mash mixed with 5% fish meal and 25% ground dry cassava peels, and salted to taste".
Their system of "rotary crossing" was especially interesting, though I found it hard to follow. This system ensures that production of bunnies will be uniform each week. With large numbers of rabbits it could become difficult to remember when to do what. The best way to explain this system is to consider what they would be doing at different days of the week. In the diagram below you can see that they have divided the rabbits in their "production" area into 11 groups. There are 12 sections, but one of these is empty at all times. Light does are those ready to breed, and heavy does are pregnant.
Schematic diagram of the production section
The first thing Monday morning, bunnies in K-1 are weaned and transferred to a "bunnies section". The does are transferred to the empty section L-1, and are now considered light does. Newly emptied cages are cleaned up. On Tuesday, the heavy does that are about due are transferred from H-1 to the newly emptied section K-1. On Wednesday (and through the rest of the week, if needed), the light does in L-1 are bred and transferred to the newly emptied section K1. Note that when these does are transferred to the kindling sections in four weeks they will be 28 days pregnant (less, if bred later in the week). This assures that they will have been in their new quarters a few days before giving birth.
The following Monday the whole cycle is repeated. Bunnies are transferred from K-2 to bunnies section, and does to L-1. On Tuesday, heavy does are transferred from H -2 to K-2 in preparation for kindling. Light does in L-1 are bred starting on Wednesday, and transferred to H-2. Twelve weeks (one quarter) elapse between the time of breeding, passing through each of the 12 sections, and the next breeding.
Fred Pettit told me that he raised angora rabbits in Ecuador. Twice a day he would feed them fresh alfalfa just as it was going into flower, enough so a little would be left over at the time of the next feeding. Very occasionally, if it was available, he would give them a little corn. Every couple of weeks he threw in a mineral supplement with a little grain. He never watered the rabbits! Apparently they got enough water from the fresh feed. (But before you try that, remember that his temperatures never rose about 78o F.)
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