9. Rabbit breeding and rural development
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The mexican "family packages"
The DGAEM: an action agency
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 uncover 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 an historical component, an environmental component, an animal component, a human component, and the socioeconomic 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 supporting structures and services available for development projects need to be investigated.
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, turkey, ducks), rabbits and bees, using local resources to produce quality animal proteins and honey, mainly for home consumption. The eventual marketing of products and byproducts will raise the income of the community.
Assisted by several rabbit production centres, the Mexican programme has a threefold mission:
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.
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 Lower California; and lastly 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 3 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. Their unfamiliarity can make them suspicious, even hostile towards it.
Oryctolagus cuniculus is well adapted to the agroclimatic complex of its area of origin (the entire western Mediterranean). In the natural environment it 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 ( 1 970 000 sq km), 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 1 000-2 500 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, Lower California) and sometimes into great, closed depressions dotted by an occasional oasis. Towards the 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 semiaquatic in the state of Tabasco. The next region is Yucatan, 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 semidesert 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 semidesert 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 underway 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 these exist.
While not every agroclimatic zone in Mexico is favourable for rabbits, some can be exploited in creative fashion. The "family packages" used by DGAEM in its 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 like 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 making the most of 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 they exist, should be promoted. The direct introduction of selected animals into production systems should be discouraged. On the one hand these animals probably do not possess the characters of adaptation necessary, and on the other the strains almost all derive from just 2 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 1 or 2 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 terrible 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 70 million mark has perhaps been passed and a figure of 120 million will doubtless be reached by the end of the century.
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.
A look at Mexican agriculture is necessary to view the programme in the proper context, starting with an historical footnote on agrarian reform. A brief description of industrial rabbit production follows.
Agrarian reform began about 1910 during the 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 labourers and tenant farmers working them and who run them 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 over 1 000 ha. Despite the existence of laws protecting productive properties, the risk of expropriation holds investments to a very low level on these estates.
Each elide 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. Numerous efforts have been made by the government to finance the ejidos with nonagricultural capital but most of these have failed.
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. For example, maize exports had reached 1 million tonnes in the period 1965-69 and had dropped to nothing in 1975-79. Imports, however, totalled 1.5 million tonnes during this same period.
TABLE 56.-ANNUAL PER CAPUT CONSUMPTION OF SOME FOODS OF ANIMAL. ORIGIN IN MEXICO, 1971 AND 1976
|Eggs (1 egg = 55 g)||3.25||7.15|
Source: Salinas Aguilera, 1976.
The consumption of animal products is growing, but there should be no illusions about the figures in Table 56. This increase is stronger in the cities and conceals the stagnation or even regression in meat consumption in rural areas. Between 1965 and 1976, agricultural output increased at half the rate of population growth. This is due in part to 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. Of the 70 million inhabitants, 19 million are suffering from malnutrition and 55 percent are not getting enough to eat. The unemployment figure due to this and to the population growth should be noted here. Underemployment is chronic in the countryside. The Mexican peasant works an average of 4 months a year. The rest of the time he cannot find any employment. Some try to improve their lot by doing several seasonal jobs.
TABLE 57.-SOME FOOD PRICES IN MEXICO IN 1976 RELATED TO THE RETAIL PRICE OF RABBIT MEAT
|Rabbit meat||100||1 litre milk||19|
|Beef||125||1 kg wheat||2 6.41|
|Pork||141||1 kg sorghum||27.50|
|Mutton||188||1 kg rice||25|
|Chicken||69||1 kg tortillas||12.5|
|1 kg eggs||53||1 kg beans||25|
1Base 101) = price al 1 kg rabbit meat, about 32 Mexican pesos (US$1.50 in 1976).-2 Bought by the tonne
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 people 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 rabbitriess prang 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 grave problems with the feed used because of the poor quality of the raw materials and the small amounts manufactured. Growing production costs were concealed 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.
Industrial production did not develop as had been confidently predicted in the early 1970s. Today the objective is different: to meet a social need by introducing a new product, rabbit, to top-ranking restaurants in a few tourist towns. The prices charged enable a small profit to be made despite production difficulties. This is still a very small market, however, and output is limited.
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, old people. It therefore allows these categories to be part of the family labour force.
Fibrous feed is an important part of the rabbit's diet, so it does not compete directly with man 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 byproducts such as skins and excrement which can be used. Processing the skins could provide a little employment for rural labour. 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 support 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 labour that is not skilled, a certain minimum 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.
To make good use of the advantages offered by the rabbit therefore requires a better knowledge of the animal: a knowledge of its requirements vis-a-vis the environment, a knowledge of rearing techniques, a knowledge of the products it supplies. It also needs motivated labour.
The DGAEM: an action agency
This agency has been working with rabbits since 1969. It also works with many other species: chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, bees and pigs. The family packages programme was developed in cooperation with other development organizations. The rabbit component of the programme 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 centres 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 centres breed other animal species as well as rabbits.
At 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 foreign agencies involved in the same work. A leaflet designed and drawn up by this department is published here to illustrate the work it does (Figure 44).
Promotion at the rural community level is the responsibility of a technician. Usually he works for another organization but has been trained in one of the DGAEM centres. This promoter is the key element in the field programme. His first step is to present the programme to municipal or ejido authorities. He explains clearly the origin, development and aims of the programme and the benefits it offers the population. He then organizes public meetings and visits families in the community. Next he 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 he 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 1 male and 5 does the farmer can pay back the same number of animals or 7 dried skins. A community representative collaborates with the promoter. He acts as his 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 his skill in communicating, his 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 his intentions stand out clearly. He also needs to choose the best medium for his message, from the leaflets, tapes, slides, films, posters, cinema and television available.
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 programme.
FIGURE 44.-Sample of leaflet circulated in Mexico for the promotion of rabbit production
Training and extension in the family packages programme works on 2 levels: training the promoters who in turn train the producers.
Promoters are trained at the DGAEM centres in all livestock species handled by the programme. There are over 25 of these centres in the country. Courses are about 60 percent practice and 40 percent theory. The Irapuato course, for instance, lasts 3 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. 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:
Farmers receiving the family packages are trained by the promoter. He is helped by the DGAEM, which supplies him with the necessary teaching materials. The promoter also offers direct assistance to families whenever the need arises. He must be particularly attentive to the crucial stages of the programme:
Every month the promoter sends his comments to the DGAEM centre which supplied the animals. The centre can then help him 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 programme is only one of the many functions of the DGAEM centres. DGAEM has set up a multilevel network. The Irapuato National Rabbit Centre has 1 500 breeding rabbits of various genetic types. It provides a certain number of lines to other DGAEM centres 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 centres 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 climatic 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 centres 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 centre 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 size 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 purebred animals for other centres for multiplication, and pure or crossbred 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.
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).
To facilitate the organization of the work each doe is assigned a card. A system of colour-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 litter also 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 analysed and attempts made to remedy them.
Irapuato is located on the Altiplano at 1 700 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 pelleted 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 fibre 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 pelleted 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 labour 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:
There are several genetic 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 practised. The least productive animals are culled and future breeding animals chosen from the litters of the best females.
FIGURE 45.-Example of worksheet used for selecting does according to numerical productivity. This sheet is used in a unit producing a yearly average of 6 litters of 5 young each per doe. At each weaning after the second, the doe's tag number is repositioned in the area corresponding to her average output, taking the date of her first kindling as the base time 0
Number of rabbits weaned / doe / month of production
Fewer than 1.8
Months of production since 1st kindling
females to be
culled as soon as
females are kept
but none of their
be kept to
renew dead or
will be kept
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 45). 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 centres 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 gave the best compromise between quantity and quality under variable environmental conditions and where factors of production were not fully under control.
The organization of matings 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 matings are scheduled between these groups. This frees the keeper from having to check to see if the animals he is going to mate are related.
In the family packages a crossbred female is included, say a Chinchilla x New Zealand White genotype. She will be supplied to the producer with a Californian male (Figure 46). 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 programme. The multiplication centres do not keep much stock of each genetic type. They receive Chinchilla and Californian males regularly from Irapuato. Basically these centres multiply New Zealand White females.
FIGURE 46.-Example of crossbreeding based on 3 genetic types at Irapuato
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 programme like family packages is just one component of an overall rural development strategy, itself a component of the national development plan. A global programme 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.
The promoter thus requires multiple training. In addition to strictly technical matters he must be conversant with other, nonagricultural fields such as hygiene and pollution control. Moreover, if he is to get his message across, he 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 programme in some communities was due to inadequate training for promotion and poor coordination with the DGAEM centre supplying the animals.
When the promoter has finished his publicity campaign he visits each interested family. He notes their resources and the time they have available. He then draws up the final list of applicants and sends it 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 1 male and 5 females needs about 10 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 nesting 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 provided with straw or wood shavings. To prevent the urine from collecting at the bottom several small holes are made in the floor of the nesting box.
Cages are always placed under some partial shelter from rain, wind, cold, direct sunshine and other extremes. The shelter should be designed and situated in consideration of 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.
When the cages are ready the promoter sets the 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 8 hours.
The first few days are the tricky period of adaptation. The promoter pays careful attention to the rabbits' behaviour. Three hours after their arrival they are given fresh water. For the following 3 days they are given only dry feed. After that they may be given green forage.
For their feed the best use possible is made of local forage resources and kitchen waste, or feed wastes of other animals, so there is minimum competition with people for food. As part of the integrated rural development programme, 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, if the animals are over the age of 41/2 months they are gradually bred, presenting I female to the male each week.
Palpating is a delicate technical operation so it is seldom performed. Nesting 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 4 litters per female a year, or 24 young, at an average rate of 6 per litter. The animals are slaughtered when they exceed a liveweight of 2-2.5 kg. However, the producer does not slaughter an animal until he wants it. Fattening animals constitute a live larder from which the producer takes what he needs when he needs it.
Healthwise, almost all treatments are discouraged. A few simple rules of preventive hygiene are usually enough:
The promoter uses commercial products to treat benign infections such as ear canker or injuries to the foot pads. In more serious cases the animals are let out into a closed pen measuring a few square metres 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. He has to teach the families 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. He 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 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 byproducts, 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 centres 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 keyrings.
The promoter ensures in advance that there are marketing outlets for these products, perhaps in one of the many tourist centres 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 programme in the community. After the various preparatory stages have been completed it is the production stage that convinces the producer of the programme's benefits. The number of kg of meat produced per family is an important standard. This is the point that will draw the interest of other families and nearby communities.
The next phase is home consumption-the number of kg of carcass eaten by the family, especially the children, should be the basic standard of evaluation. Income generated by the utilization of the byproducts and the sale of any surplus meat is also part of the development.
In supervising the programme the promoter notes the dates of his visits to each family, progress made in the unit and the advice he has given. He sums up the information on an evaluation form which he sends monthly to his DGAEM centre. On it he notes the output of the family packages, the side benefits and also the problems. This feedback is an essential part of the family packages programme, but in practice it is often difficult to obtain.
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