Like computers, livestock for use in developing countries should be getting smaller and becoming more "personal." Conventional "mainframes," such as cattle, are too large for the world's poorest people; they require too much space and expense. "Miniframes," such as the conventional breeds of sheep and goats, have an increasingly important role to play. But tiny, "user-friendly" species for home use are the ones highlighted in this report. We have called them "microlivestock."'

There are two types of microlivestock. One consists of extremely small forms of conventional livestock - such as cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. The other consists of species that are inherently small- poultry, rabbits, and rodents, for instance.

Microlivestock are important because the developing world's animal production is only a fraction of what it should be. Throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the poor eat almost no meat, milk, or eggs - the most nutritious foods. It is estimated, for example, that in Mexico 25 million campesinos cannot afford meat. In poor countries, even the middle class eats less meat in a year than the populations of North America and Europe eat in a month. Malnutrition is common and its effects, especially on children, can be debilitating. It is one of mankind's most serious imbalances - and most pressing problems.

Rural families in the Third World usually subsist mainly on the products from their homes or farms. Thus, if we are to help their livestock production, more attention must be given to animals that are sized for their situations. Examples discussed in the report are summarized here.

Microbreeds Small breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs are common in the developing world. Because they are often raised for subsistence rather than for commerce, the national and global contribution that they make is often overlooked. These small, hardy animals deserve much greater recognition.

Later chapters highlight dozens of promising microbreeds. All are less than half average size; some are far smaller than that. The "miniBrahman" cow of Mexico is only 60 cm tall and weighs 140 kg; the southern Sudan dwarf sheep of eastern Africa can weigh as little as 11 kg; the Terai goat of Nepal weighs less than 12 kg; and the cuing pig of Mexico weighs merely 10 kg.

Poultry The widespread use of poultry in Third World villages demonstrates the importance of small, easily managed, household livestock. Small size, the ability to forage for themselves, and a natural desire to stay around the house put chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, and other birds among the most vital resources of rural Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Scratching a living out of the dirt, dust, ditches, and debris, these often-scrawny creatures are a resource to be taken seriously. For the most poverty stricken, a bony bird may be the only source of meat during much of a lifetime.

Among poultry, there are many underrated, but highly promising, species, including:

- Pigeon. These birds forage widely but return home, thereby providing the farmers with squab, one of the tastiest of all meats.

- Quail. Small and efficient, they, too, are suited to home rearing, and in Japan and a few other countries, large numbers are raised commercially in very small space.

- Muscovy. A native of South American rainforests, this bird is a major poultry resource of France, Taiwan, and a few other countries. Tame, tolerant, and tough, it deserves greater recognition everywhere.

- Guinea Fowl. One of the most self-reliant of all domestic birds, this native of Africa is raised in huge numbers in Europe - notably France. Its potential for increased production elsewhere is exceptional.

- Turkey. The traditional turkey of Mexico still exists as a scavenger bird in villages and household backyards. Unlike the highly selected modern breeds, it is self-reliant, robust, and disease-resistant.

Rabbits Like chickens, rabbits exemplify the vast possibilities that microlivestock offer for increasing meat production in the most poverty-stricken parts of the world. Captive rabbits have been popular as food at least since the time of the Romans. Rabbit rearing has been well established in Europe and China, and now national rabbit projects have begun in many developing nations.

Rodents Some 7,000 years ago, guinea pigs were domesticated as a source of food for the high Andes; even today in the uplands of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, most Indians raise them inside their homes and regard them as an essential part of life. For many Indians, these indoor livestock are the main source of meat. Prolific, tractable, and easy to feed, house, and handle, guinea pigs are even kept in downtown apartment buildings - often in boxes under the bed.

Other rodents might also be suited to domestication; for instance, the potentially tamable, clean-living species of South American fields and woodlands - agouti, capybara, hutia, mare, coypu, pace, and vizcacha. Two remarkable domestication programs have been started in Africa: the grasscutter in West Africa and the giant rat in Nigeria. Both animals provide popular "bushmeat" and researchers are now learning to raise them in captivity. (Because of its tangy taste, Ghanaians actually pay three times more for grasscutter meat than for beef!)

Antelope Another wild African mammal with potential for "household animal husbandry," the blue duiker, is a rabbit-sized antelope. In some areas of Central and Southern Africa the demand is so great that its population is declining at an alarming rate. Duiker rearing, if it can be made successful, might provide both food and an economic alternative to slaughtering the wild populations. It is reported that duikers are easy to maintain and they reproduce well in captivity.

The meat of several other tiny antelope species is also much sought in many African countries, and these animals are also suitably sized to feed the average family at one meal.

Deer Several species of tiny deer - smaller than many dogs - might make useful microlivestock, although much research is needed before their true potential can be judged. Normal-sized deer were once considered too easily frightened to be reared as domestic livestock, but several species are now raised on thousands of deer farms in New Zealand as well as in at least a dozen other countries.

Mouse deer and musk deer (which, strictly speaking, are not true deer at all) are of microlivestock size and are also possible future livestock. The musk deer produces one of the most valuable materials in the animal kingdom - more valuable, in fact, than gold. The musk from the male's glands is used in oriental medicines as well as in European perfumes.

Iguanas Over much of the Caribbean and Latin America, iguanas are a traditional source of food. Indeed, the meat of these large herbivorous lizards is so delicious they are being hunted to extinction throughout their wide range. Their eggs are much enjoyed also. Programs in Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Curacao, and Argentina have developed simple methods to hatch and rear three iguana species.

Bees Honey bees are present almost everywhere, and honey and wax are high-value products that demand little processing and can be stored and transported easily. Innovations in equipment and technique have made beekeeping successful in the tropics without requiring sophisticated hives or elaborate training. Raising bees can also benefit the many crops that require pollination.


Although animal science has traditionally emphasized bigness, smallness has its advantages. Some of these are summarized below.


Microlivestock lend themselves to economic niches that are not easily filled by large livestock. Much of their potential is for subsistence production. They are promising for the many peasants who, being outside the cash economy, are now unable to purchase meat, milk, cheese, or eggs. These people can afford only animals that can be raised within the home or backyard under ambient climatic conditions and on feeds that are cheap and easily available.

A subsistence farmer is likely to benefit more from small species than from large because of several factors:

- The animals are less expensive to buy.

- They are less of a financial risk to maintain. (A farmer with several small animals is less vulnerable to loss than a farmer with a single large animal, a feature that is particularly important in subsistence farming where success determines whether the family will survive.)

- They give a faster return on investment. (Small size generally signifies high reproductive capacity and a fast turnover.)

- They provide flexibility. (Farmers can more easily change the size of their herd or flock to match the amount of feed available at a given time. Also, they can sell animals according to the family's fluctuating needs for cash or food.)

- They provide a steadier source of income.

- They increase the chances of successful breeding because greater numbers are usually kept. (This also means that breeding stock is more likely to be retained in times of scarcity.)

- They are more easily transported. (Who hasn't traveled in a Third World bus or train without chickens, ducks, or guinea pigs as fellow passengers?)

- In some cases they are more efficient converters of food energy.

There are also a number of other benefits to small species.

- Reduced Spoilage. A portion of meat that comes in a "package" of a size that can be readily consumed by a family is important in areas where refrigeration is unavailable or uneconomic. A family can eat the meat produced by most microlivestock in one meal or in one day to minimize the risk of spoilage.

- Efficient Use of Space. The space required for handling and feeding microlivestock is proportionately less than that required for large animals. Low space requirements make many microlivestock (such as guinea pigs, rabbits, pigeons, and quail) available to landless rural inhabitants who have no room for a cow. This is particularly important with respect to feed production.

- Cheaper Facilities. Facilities and equipment required for microlivestock are, by and large, smaller and simpler than those required for large animals. They often can be made from local products or scrap material or both.

- Ease of Management. Farmers and villagers can manage small animals more easily than large, which is an advantage in the many places where women and children are the main keepers of livestock.

- Increased Productivity. Small animals tend to fit well into existing farming systems, thereby expanding the resource base and recycling nutrients. Some - for example bees, ducks, and geese - can feed themselves by scavenging.

- By-Products. Many species have fur, feathers, skins, and other by-products that are often more valuable than their meat, milk, or eggs. Examples include the feet and tails of rabbits, musk from musk deer, and pelts from rodents such as coypu. Processing such byproducts creates diversification for the farmer and perhaps jobs for the village.


Many have argued that livestock raising should be discouraged, that it is a primary cause of desertification through overgrazing and that it is an inefficient converter of basic material and energy into human food. "Grow more pulses, grow more grains," these people cry. Their arguments can be valid where the land has high potential for permanent cultivation. Much of the world's surface, however, does not fit into that category, and it is in these areas and for those people who have no access to arable lands that a convincing case for livestock can most easily tee mace. As W.J.A. Payne has written:*

- Livestock, particularly ruminants, can process forage and waste crop materials inedible by man into nutritionally desirable food products, many of high protein, mineral and vitamin content and including some of high caloric value.

- Approximately 40 percent of total land available in developing countries can be used only for some form of forage production and a further 30 percent is classified as forest with some potential for the production of forage. Some 12 percent of the world's total population live in areas where people depend almost entirely on the products obtained from ruminant livestock.

- Livestock provide a range of extremely valuable by-products. Dung is not only a fertilizer and soil-stabilizer but also a fuel of often considerably greater value than the fodder consumed in its production. Other byproducts, especially hides and wool form the bases of rural enterprises that may provide significant incomes to the poorest members of society.

- Animal plant and human life are ecologically interdependent. The establishment of agricultural systems in which livestock are integrated with crops, forestry and aquaculture is essential for the improvement of overall productivity.

Livestock produce food that adds to the nutritional quality and variety of human diets. Although it is possible for humans to exist without them, these foods are relished and sought after by the majority of humanity. These foods include meat, eggs and processed products such as biltong and cheese.


In general, small species tend to expand the food base by using a wider array of resources than do major livestock such as cattle. Many can be raised on feeds that people discard: fibrous residues, industry by-products, or kitchen wastes. Some collect minute feeds that otherwise go unused. For example, chickens and pigeons gather scattered seeds, turkeys gobble up insects, geese graze water weeds, iguanas feed in the tops of trees, and bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers that may be miles away.

Even some grazing microlivestock prefer different forages from those preferred by cattle. Antelope and deer, for instance, browse tree leaves; capybara and grasscutters eat reeds. Combining microlivestock with conventional livestock results in a more complete utilization of forage resources and greater animal production per hectare.

Under conditions of abundance, small size may be of no advantage in mammals, but if feed is limited, it is of great help. A small animal (or its keeper) needs to cover less area to fulfill its daily requirements, so that microlivestock may grow fat in areas where the forage is too sparse to support a larger animal. This is particularly vital when there are seasonal bottlenecks. For example, feed may be plentiful enough for most of the year to supply many large animals; however, the dry season may greatly restrict the numbers that can be kept.

Although small animals generally require proportionately higher inputs of feed, they also grow proportionately faster (see sidebar opposite). In addition, species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and grasscutters digest fibrous matter with surprising efficiency, even though they are not true ruminants like cattle, sheep, and goats.


Many small animals have high reproductive capacity with short gestation periods, large numbers of offspring, and rapid juvenile growth. They tend to reach sexual maturity at a younger age than large animals, and the interval between the generations can be very short. Thus, meat or other products can be produced more rapidly and more evenly throughout the year.

Cows, for example, produce a maximum of one calf per year. A pig, on the other hand, may produce 7 or more young; a rabbit, 30 or more; a chicken, more than 100.

Adaptability and Hardiness

The survival rates and manageability of many small breeds and species can be outstanding. Smallness is often an adaptation to harsh environment. Indeed, a major promise for microlivestock is in special environmental niches. Where cold, heat, temperature fluctuations, aridity, or humidity are extreme, microlivestock are likely to show their greatest advantage. Chickens, guinea fowl, goats, and many other small species already live in villages, homes, and backyards in harsh and disease-prone climates, and are usually given no care and sometimes no food: they have to scavenge for their sustenance and survive as best they can. Such selection pressures result in animals of remarkable adaptability, tolerance, and robustness.

Some microlivestock can produce under conditions where conventional species die. The capybara, for instance, is at home in the Latin American lowlands, where the climate is hot and humid and floods cause seasonal inundations. Cattle, by contrast, die because of malnutrition, foot rot, or drowning. Other microlivestock species with a wide tolerance to ecological extremes include the turkey, pigeon, and bee. And some dwarf breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs show surprising tolerance to trypanosomes, the parasites that make conventional breeds impossible to maintain throughout much of Africa.

Some small species can be raised in cities, where poverty and malnutrition are often worse than in rural areas. It is estimated, for instance, that one million livestock exist in Cairo, not counting the pigeons that are raised on countless rooftops. Goats and cattle are common in urban India, and many Third World cities have far more chickens than people.

Food utilization versus body size


Raising microlivestock is not a panacea for the Third World's food problems. Efforts to develop them will not be without difficulties. Some likely problems are noted here.

High Energy Requirements

Smaller animals tend to have a higher feed requirement per unit of body weight than large animals. Anatomical and physiological constraints prevent them from meeting their relatively high energy requirements simply by increasing the rate of food ingestion. Therefore, for optimum production, some small animals, particularly nonruminants, require feed that is higher in protein and lower in fiber than large animals. This is particularly true when the small animals are compared with ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats.

Increased Labor Requirements

The advantages of low investment, fast return on capital, flexibility, and efficient resource utilization are offset by higher demands for labor. Keeping small animals often requires considerable effort, and its economic viability may depend on the availability of cheap and willing labor. Many small animals are raised at home by family members, such as children, the elderly, and the handicapped, who have time available and whose labor costs are nominally zero.


Some potential microlivestock are undomesticated, and resistance to diseases and parasites is one justification for their consideration. However, the general healthiness of a species when it is free-ranging can be a misleading guide for its husbandry. Confining any animal in high density invariably increases the potential for the spread of infectious diseases and parasites. Moreover, mismanagement can foster respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases (such as salmonella or coccidiosis) that are rare among scattered populations.

Some microlivestock are potential reservoirs for diseases that affect not only local animals but people as well. This may limit their successful development in some areas. Although the dangers are often exaggerated, controls may be needed, particularly of rinderpest, tickborne diseases, and those diseases communicable to humans.


Small size makes microlivestock easy prey.

Lack of Research

Techniques to manage some microlivestock species are not yet well established. The development of appropriate husbandry techniques, as well as a better understanding of the animals' particular biological and behavioral characteristics, will be needed before major progress can be made. These species (for instance rodents, deer, and iguanas) may require collection of different genotypes, as well as studies of diseases, nutrition, and management.

Complex Logistics

It is complicated and expensive to reach millions of widely scattered peasants, each having only a handful of small animals. Even though total production may far exceed that of commercial farms raising large animals, the smallholdings are often dispersed, their animals are often used for subsistence rather than commerce, and their managers are often ill-trained and illiterate.

Legislative Restrictions

The use of some microlivestock species may be restricted by legislation. For instance, some countries have meat and veterinary laws that work against the development of species other than cattle. Others have laws to protect wildlife, which could be important in the case of species such as antelope, deer, pace, and iguana.

Lack of Markets

Microlivestock need not be just for home or local consumption; they can also be raised for market. But some commercial programs, including some with rabbits and guinea pigs, have failed because no public demand was developed.

Resistance to New Species

People have close associations with livestock, and in most cultures they do not easily accept animals or animal foods that are radically different from their traditional ones. In general, the ties between certain ethnic groups and a particular species or breed is very strong (one reason, for example, why European colonists introduced their own large breeds of cattle and sheep to Africa and Asia, paying little attention to small indigenous breeds). Moreover, people who are used to bringing the animal to the feed rather than the feed to the animal may resist a small animal that has to be penned up and fed by hand.

Opposition to Smallness

Finally, there seems to be an innate human trait that considers bigger to be better, especially among the common livestock. For example, because many tropical cattle are small, there is strong inclination on the part of those responsible for livestock improvement to dismiss them or to increase their size by crossing them with large breeds.


Small animals are likely to become increasingly important. As human populations increase, the space available for growing forage decreases, and this phenomenon favors small animals. Many villagers already have little or no pastureland. Some live in areas (the rice-growing areas of Southeast Asia, for instance) where crops are grown on almost every square meter almost every month of the year. Microlivestock are potentially important for urban areas of developing countries as well. There, too, land is at a premium and is usually inadequate for raising conventional livestock.

So far, however, microlivestock have been largely ignored. Compared with cattle, they have been accorded little scientific effort. In the drive towards larger animals, stimulated by experience in the temperate zone, the virtually unstudied gene pool of small species and breeds has been mostly bypassed. There have been few attempts to assess or improve their farm productivity.

This is unfortunate, and it is perhaps due to the fact that small animals may be less efficient at digesting certain foods and therefore technically less attractive than large, "modern" breeds. But to Third World peasants, an animal's efficiency is far less important than its survivability and manageability. If an animal cannot be raised under village conditions, its feed-use efficiency or milk yield is irrelevant.

Microlivestock production should be integrated into most ruraldevelopment projects. Small animals offer a way to improve the lives of people who are hard to reach by other methods. Only by expanding research on the husbandry, hygiene, nutrition, reproduction, physiology, and breeding can the promise of animals sized for small farms and villages be fulfilled. Moreover, the costs will be small compared with those of programs for large animals.2

Specifically, experiment stations should produce and promote methods and materials for use in rearing microlivestock. Donors and development institutions, planners, and policymakers should note the potentials of microlivestock and the benefits that can be derived from them. Teaching manuals and materials are needed, and classes in microlivestock husbandry should be included in rural school curricula.

Raising personal livestock on weeds and table scraps in cages beside the house or boxes under the bed will, in many instances, get quality protein to the most poverty stricken more effectively than raising large livestock on pastures.

Although small size confers many advantages, the question is not whether the large or small animal is "best," but rather how well each can meet a person's varying requirements. In a given situation, livestock can be too small or too large. But the fact remains that not everyone who wants meat or money has the resources to acquire, keep, manage, or utilize a large animal.

The key is balance. Both microlivestock and traditional livestock deserve serious attention. Indeed, it seems likely that the two will seldom compete. Most microlivestock complement traditional livestock because of unique physical, physiological, behavioral, or economic characteristics. They increase the range of options for the millions of poor for whom the choice may not even be between large and small livestock, but between microlivestock and no livestock at all.

It's an unfortunate fact that small animals don't have the prestige among Third World farmers that large animals do (perhaps this arose because children can look after goats and sheep but it takes men to look after cattle). Even sheep and goats are not accorded the same stature as cattle.

Hugh Popenoe

Breeds and varieties were created from mutant genes and thus haste become living reservoirs of these genes, holding them for use in future generations of mankind.



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Part of Little-known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future
Keywords farming
SDG SDG15 Life on land
Authors Board on Science and Technology for International Development National Research Council
License CC-BY-SA-3.0
Language English (en)
Related subpages, pages link here
Aliases Micro-livestock: Little-known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future 3
Impact 2,225 page views
Created March 13, 2009 by Oorxax
Modified December 5, 2023 by Felipe Schenone
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