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Chapter 2

The small farm scenario


A number of definitions have been proposed to describe both small farmers and small farms. Adams and Coward (1972) referred to a small farmer as one who had very little access to political power, productive assets and/or income streams within society. FAO/RAFE (1978) defined small farmers, small fishermen and peasants in broad terms, including the low-income producers of agricultural, livestock and aquatic products. They referred, in particular, to tenants, informal tenants such as share croppers, landless agricultural labourers and small owner-operators. Wapenham(1979) defined a small farmer as an agricultural producer controlling no more land than he can farm without the permanent employment of non-family labour. Steenwinkel (1979) included in his definition all people in the rural areas of developing countries who do not have the means to provide for their basic needs or are living in constant fear of losing their means. The key elements in all of these definitions are subsistence, low income and illiteracy.

Small farms have been defined as household units that make most management decisions, control most of the farm labour supply and normally much of the capital as well. Since the family and the farm unit are the same, labour and capital expenditure decisions represent a choice between household and farm considerations. A more precise definition of small farms is that they are complex interrelationships between animals, crops and farming families, involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital, from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living.

Irrespective of the definition used, the important point is that Asia presents an overwhelming panorama of small farms with large populations of small farmers and peasants owning both ruminant and non-ruminant animals.


Climatic factors

The countries in South-East Asia fall within the equatorial climate zone, stretching from 5° to 7° latitude north and south of the equator, characterized by a constant high temperature and high humidity. Rainfall is abundant(2000–3000mm)and, although roughly distributed throughout the year, tends to be heavier during some parts of the year and lighter at other times. In general, animals in this climate tend to be smaller in size due to the effects of humidity on growth rates.

The high temperature and rainfall favours vigorous plant growth. Forage production is relatively easy and available all the year round. The main problem however is one of the control of growth to ensure that forages do not become too mature, i.e.too fibrous, and that they have a good nutritive value when fed to animals.

Intensive crop production produces abundant fibrous crop residues which are potentially important to the nutrition of herbivores. Additionally, and with specific reference to trees or perennial crops like coconuts, oil palm and rubber, there exists considerable native undergrowth and an abundance of shade which is advantageous especially for exotic animals introduced into this zone. One serious disadvantage of this climate is that the high humidity and rainfall favours internal and external parasites which, if uncontrolled, can be a major constraint to animal production.

Land use

The extent of land available and the categories of land are given in Table 2.1. Out of the total available land area of 434 million hectares, forests and woodlands(land under natural or planted stands of trees) accounted for 52%, followed by other land: 26%(built in areas, roads, barren lands, etc.), arable and permanent crop land: 17.8% and permanent pasture: 3.7%. The area of land is about 0.96 ha/person.

Table 2.1 Land use in South-East Asia(FAO, 1990)
Type of land useArea (million ha)% of totalRuminant livestock units (millions)*
Arable land and permanent crops77.717.8 
Permanent pasture15.93.7373
Forest and woodland225.552.0-
Other land114.926.5-
Total land area434.0100.0 

* Conversion factors buffalo=1.0, cattle=0.8, goats and sheep=0.1

Unlike Latin America, most grazing land in South-East Asia is permanent pasture. This limitation reinforces the importance of integrated crop-animal systems and the role of animals within these systems. Attention is drawn however to the availability of about 226 million ha of land under forests and woodland, which includes the area under tree crops(e.g., coconuts, oil palm and rubber). This area, especially the herbage under tree crops, is essentially unused and represents a potentially valuable resource that could be used in integrated production systems involving small ruminants (Devendra, 1991a). Table 2.1 also gives an indication of the density of animal populations in terms of ruminant livestock units (RLU). The magnitude of this number, in comparison to lower figures for Africa, Latin America and the Near East, emphasizes the imbalance in animal densities between South-East Asia and these other regions.

The limited area of land, and especially arable and permanent crop land, is unlikely to increase in the face of rising animal densities, demand to meet alternative human needs(e.g., industrialisation and housing), increasing urbanisation and growing environmental problems of which salinization is of much concern in South-East Asia. These circumstances suggest that higher agricultural production can only come from increased intensification of arable and cropland, as well as from the area under forests and woodlands.

Farming pattern

Within traditional mixed farming systems, a number of components are involved with varying levels of importance. Rice cultivation (irrigated and rain-fed) is the principal activity, followed by multiple cropping of rice with other annual crops such as groundnuts, soyabean, mungbean and pigeon peas. Perennial cropping is less common given the small size of the farms but coconuts, oil palm and rubber are very common.

Root crops are extensively grown in South-East Asia and include crops like cassava. In addition, vegetables are cultivated in small plots, mainly for home use and sometimes for sale. Animals are of secondary importance but a mixture of species are reared for a variety of reasons(Chapter 3). Fish farming is often carried out simultaneously with rice cultivation but, where ponds are available, more intensive production is common.


Crop-animal systems have been developed over time. As with other farming systems, the principal determinants of the type of crop and livestock system which has developed at any particular location are the agro-ecological conditions(Duckham and Masefield, 1970; Spedding, 1975; Ruthenberg, 1976). Since livestock systems, especially those involving ruminants, must invariably depend on vegetation or crops for feed, the feed resources provide a direct link between crops and animals. The interaction between the two components and the land, and the resulting effect on productivity, becomes extremely important in the context of the development of such systems.

Figure 2 attempts to provide an illustration of the phases of development in crop-animal systems involving ruminants and is adapted from a classification of world livestock systems by FAO(1980). Climate, and to a lesser extent soil, affects the vegetation that develops and determines whether crops can be grown. These in turn determine the feed base, its quantity, quality and distribution. The feed base, together with the disease challenge, determines the potential animal production systems that may develop. Intermediate phases in the development of both cropping and animal production systems involve shifting agriculture, hunting and herding respectively. Farming system methodology has been especially helpful in the development of integrated crop-animal systems in both irrigated and rain-fed agricultural areas.

Figure 2. Genesis and type of animal production systems in Asia.

Figure 2

Economic forces, including increases in demand for animal products, prices of alternative feeds and relative prices of outputs, then influence the choice of animal husbandry systems and their integration into what become traditional socio-economic and cultural systems. Growth of incomes and population and the opening up of these systems to outside influences could result in changes which lead to more productive systems or, in cases where the system cannot cope, to decline. Levels of intensification can also shift to commercial-scale production such as in dairying, beef cattle production based on fibrous crop residues or large-scale poultry and duck production for meat and eggs.

In the humid areas of South-East Asia, sedentary systems are possible because feed is generally available in greater abundance and owners of animals are able to stay in one place and graze their stock in the neighbourhood. Crop production is also more important and mixed crop and animal systems can be easily developed. Thus, sedentary systems can be classified into those that are solely or predominantly livestock systems and those that are mixed systems. The basic determinants of this classification are also climate, soils and topography. However, the feed resource base will determine the extent of animal production activities and also the level of intensification.


Small farm systems combining crops and animals are of three broad categories in South-East Asia:

Farms in rain-fed agricultural areas

These farms can be found both in lowland and upland situations, and the rainfall in these areas often fluctuates (1000–1500 mm per year). The system is usually traditional, sedentary and involves both crops and animals. Both ruminants and non-ruminants are involved but, in general, the upland regions tend to have a higher concentration of small ruminants (goats and sheep), cattle and swamp buffaloes.

The animals are raised for a variety of reasons: food production, draught power, supply of manure and feed, and as a means of capital accumulation. Animals are often sold throughout the year to generate income. Crops and animals are well integrated in these farms and their complementary roles is important for the development of sustainable agriculture in these situations.

Farms in irrigated agricultural areas

The area is usually one of intense crop cultivation: mainly rice, with irrigation. Cereal production is therefore the predominant activity and livestock are secondary to this purpose. Large ruminants, especially swamp buffaloes and cattle, play a vital role here in providing draught power. Small ruminants, although present, are of lesser importance. Pigs, poultry and ducks are also found here; the last of these being especially suited to this environment where they use available feeds and post-harvest losses of rice to great advantage.

In Malaysia, for example, an intensive livestock survey of 5274 farm households in the Muda rice growing area showed that about 87% of all the rural households were engaged in livestock keeping. Of these, 89.4% of all households owned chickens, 47.1% ducks, 26.7% cattle and buffaloes and 7.7% goats. It was also found that individual household owned quite large numbers of poultry and ducks (13–15 birds).

The importance of draught power from cattle and buffaloes on these farms is reflected in Table 2.2 which contains data for farms in the Philippines and Thailand. Of particular significance is the fact that, for farm sizes of up to 2 hectares, both manure and animal power were important. Of the two, animal power was the more important. It is equally interesting to note that only 2.3% of the farms were associated with mechanical power.

Table 2.2 Estimates of farm power sources for different size farms in the Philippines and Thailand (RAPA/FAO, 1989).
Farm size (ha)Farms with manual powerFarms with animal powerFarms with mechanical powerFarms with mechanical and animal power

Plate 1. Swamp buffaloes are extremely important in the supply of draught power for cultivating crops and in haulage operations. The photograph illustrates harrowing the paddy field before rice planting in Thailand.

Plate 1

Farms in areas of plantation agriculture

This sector, by its very definition, involves large areas of land under tree crops such as coconuts, oil palm and rubber. However, the countries in this region also have a sizeable proportion of small farms, including government settlement schemes (e.g., Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) in Malaysia) within which animals are found. The animals are reared mainly for food production: dairy cows for milk, small ruminants for meat and milk production, pigs for meat, and poultry and ducks for meat and egg production.

Types of integrated systems

Integrated crop-livestock production systems involve the combination of one or more types of animal species with crops and fish in a manner such that, although each of these sub-systems may function independently, they are nevertheless complementary and their products additive. The output from one sub-system (e.g., excreta) becomes the input to the other sub-systems (e.g., as feed for fish). This synergism and integration of the sub-systems thus produces a greater output than the sum of their individual effects (Edwards, Pullin and Gartner, 1988).

Two broad categories of such systems are identified:

  1. Systems combining crops, non-ruminants, ponds and fish. Pigs and ducks are the prevalent animal species found in mainly annual cropping systems. These systems are very important in such countries as China and Vietnam (Figure 3). Important crops that generate feed are sugar cane, cereal crops and multi-purpose trees.
  2. Systems combining crops and ruminants. Good examples of such crops include coconuts, oil palms, rubber and fruit trees. The systems is potentially important in those regions where tree crops are important such as in South-East Asia.

Figure 3. Integrated pig-fish-duck-vegetable system.

Figure 3

There are eight principal advantages of integrated systems:

The development of these integrated approaches can promote sustainable agro-forestry systems with complementary advantages of forage production, supply of fuel wood, improvement of soil fertility, maintenance of permanent soil cover and environmental protection. Unfortunately, too much emphasis on commodity-specific research and development in the past has not enabled the development of the types of systems which are potentially sustainable and which are environmentally sound.


Size of holdings

The small size of the holdings is one of the characteristics of small farm systems. The actual size varies between countries. Table 2.3 illustrates differences between countries within the Asian region. The smallest farm sizes occur in Bangladesh, while households cultivating paddy in Sri Lanka have average holdings of 0.3 ha of land.

It is clear that there is considerable variation in the size of holdings between and, in some cases, within countries, depending on the pattern of agriculture. In South-East Asia, the average size of small farms is about 1–2 ha.

Crop-animal systems

Several species of animal usually exist within the mixed farming operations on small farms: buffaloes, cattle, goats, sheep, poultry, pigs, ducks, quails and rabbits, but seldom are all these animals maintained together.

Animals in these mixed crop-animal systems play a multi-purpose role. This ranges from providing food, draught power and capital accumulation to income generation. In these mixed farm situations, animals form an integral part of farming systems. They use the available land and feed materials and are an important focal point for development.

Table 2.3 Variation in the size of small farms in some countries in Asia (Adapted from FAO/UNDP, 1976).
Bangladesha) Subsistence farmers/croppers <0.4 ha.
b) Viable and potentially viable owners, 0.4 to 0.8 ha.
Indiaa) Small farmers, 2 to 4 ha of dryland (1 ha wet = 0.8 ha of dryland).
b) Marginal farmers, 0.8 to 2 ha of dryland and annual income.
c) Agricultural labourers. <0.8 ha of dryland and annual income.
Indonesiaa) Java 0.66 ha.
b) Average size was 1.2 ha.
Korea Malaysiaa) Less than 1 ha.
Nepala) Rice farms 1.6 to 1.7 ha.
b) Rubber smallholdings 2.1 ha.
Philippines Sri Lankaa) Terai, 4 bighas (2.5 ha).
b) Hills, 1.75 bighas (1.0 ha).
Thailanda) Average size is 2.8 ha.
a) Agricultural households, 1.2 ha of land.
b) Paddy cultivating households, 0.3 ha of land.
a) Non-canal-irrigated areas: 15 rai*

* 1 rai = 0.16 ha

The value of animals in this context is also related to their multifunctional use. Buffaloes and cattle are used in small farms to provide draught power, meat and milk and the supply of manure for fuel and to increase soil fertility. Very seldom are they used exclusively for a single purpose, except when specialised dairy breeds like the Holstein-Friesian are used for milk production. In rice growing countries like the Philippines and Thailand, it is not uncommon for farmers to use female swamp buffaloes even in late pregnancy to meet the needs for draught power, e.g. ploughing. Small ruminants (goats and sheep) are also multi-purpose animals, usually valued for meat but also for milk, fibre and skin production, and for manure. Likewise, indigenous pigs and ducks are also used for more than one purpose. Pigs produce meat, manure and lard. Chickens and ducks are used for both meat and egg production.

Low inputs

The low level of inputs is due to a lack of capital and a low risk-oriented outlook. Labour is generally not considered a scarce resource in the small farm situation since unpaid family labour is generally plentiful. The use of one or more animal species in conjunction with crops reduces the vulnerability to economic set-backs. But since the vast majority of small farmers do not have the resources to apply new technology, they continue to remain in the grip of traditional patterns of poverty.

Low level of economic efficiency

Associated with the low input use is an inherent low level of economic efficiency of the total enterprise. It has been estimated that, in the late seventies, about 56% of the agricultural population in Asia had an annual income of 50 US$ per family, barely sustaining life. Both the scale of operation and the technologies applied are not conducive to high economic returns. Thus, the primary strategy and the approach to farming is to make ends meet from diversified agricultural operations which provide a basis for human subsistence.

Diversification of agriculture

Diversification is the backbone of small farm systems. Farmers consciously diversify the use of their resources to produce a mix of activities which are economically rewarding and highly stable. Within a broad variety of agricultural activities, opportunities are created which enable a shifting emphasis, for example between crops and animals, with diversification rather than specialisation being the primary consideration. Thus in Java, goats, sheep, chickens and ducks, are commonly reared in combination with mixed cropping.

The inclusion of animals is based on the consideration that they provide power and food, and are a source of supplementary income, an insurance and a means of investment.

Seldom are more than two species of ruminants reared together. There may be one to two cattle or buffaloes and, more often than not, there are also goats and/or sheep (Devendra, 1982). In the humid tropics where abundant supplies of crop residues are produced from cereal and sugar cane cultivation, the ownership of ruminants provides a means of converting crop residues into useful animal products.

Small farmers

Small farmers and landless labourers have a number of characteristics that are unique to them. These include the following:

In small farm systems, the farmers provide the bulk of the family labour. The extent of the contribution is dependent on the scale and magnitude of the farm operations. Children are often used for herding small ruminants.

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