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Citation of this paper

Strategies for the development of small- and medium-scale rabbit farming in South-East Asia

S D Lukefahr

Department of Animal and Wildlife Sciences, MSC 228, Texas A and M University, 78363 Kingsville, Texas. USA

(Paper presented at the International Conference on Rabbit Production, Bogor, Indonesia, July 24-25, 2007,
sponsored by the Indonesian Branch of the World Rabbit Science Association)


To establish a dynamic and viable rabbit breeding industry, it is critical that a formal farmer training and development programme exists in the country. Indeed, farmer selection, training, and early on-farm supervision, and later, project multiplication or spread effect, serve as pivotal activities for a successful programme. The purpose for this paper is to outline key strategies that can be modified and implemented for any country to development such a programme. Many country programmes have focused on rabbit projects as a means to target poverty alleviation. A sustainable system of rabbit production involves the use of renewable on-farm resources, such as local breeds, feedstuffs from forage or garden plots, local materials for hutches and other equipment, and family labour. The key is low investment and operating costs. In addition, the integration of rabbits with other farming enterprises generally results in "increasing the whole more than the sum its parts" (i.e., nutrient recycling among aquaculture, garden, and vermiculture activities). Families should be encouraged to either consume rabbit meat on a regular basis, or sell rabbits as a cash crop in order to purchase food of higher quality to improve the nutritional status of the family's diet. The upgrade from small- to medium-operations can occur once the farmer moves away from poverty and invests capital to expand his operation. Typically, this conversion is a shift from an enterprise based on on-farm self-reliance to off-farm purchases of supplies, for example, exotic breeds, commercial feeds, medications, and equipment, including hired labour. However, this upgrade is usually justified only in cases where well established markets exist near major cities where consumer demand or popularity of rabbit meat is high. A dynamic and viable rabbit breeding industry also depends on a cadre of rabbit scientists who engage in research activities that directly solve farmer problems.

Key words: poverty alleviation, programme development, rabbits, sustainability, training


For decades, the unique attributes and(or) potential of rabbit production for small farm family development has been well documented (Owen 1976; Cheeke 1986; Finzi 2000). This era of potential is now history because the benefits of rabbit production to smallholders have been realized in many lesser-developed countries (LDC's) throughout the world. The present challenge is to take the rabbit to a higher level - to usher in a new era that involves formulation of new and improved models for development projects to provide even greater benefits for limited-resource families, especially when initiated as a vehicle to alleviate poverty.

Lukefahr (2004) proposed the small-scale rabbit production model (SSRPM) as a general guide to plan successful rabbit projects. The SSRPM can be used in several specific ways:
1) to prepare proposals for funding support;
2) to decide whether or not a rabbit project should be started, and
3) to design a rabbit project that can be justified for initiation.

Briefly, the SSRPM assesses three dimensions of the planned project: internal, intermediate, and external. Internal aspects determine the farmer's availability and management of on-farm resources, such as breeding stock, feedstuffs for diets, materials for housing, etc. Intermediate aspects reflect how the project itself will be managed by the development agency or organization that involves the components of project feasibility, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. External aspects examine if favourable ecological, economic, and social environments exist to support the project.

The purpose for this paper is to describe generally appropriate strategies for establishing small- to medium-scale rabbit production units as a means for poor families to move away from poverty, as well as for resettled victims to recover from natural disasters, with an emphasis on southeast Asia.

Establishment of small-scale rabbit units


In many LDC's, rabbit projects have been developed by governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGO's) to target families with the aim of poverty alleviation. Basically, four reasons exist:

1) low cost to the programme for breeding stock;
2) low investment and operating costs to farmers;
3) early benefits to farmers and loan returns to the programme; and
4) more rapid rate of project multiplication.

Overall, there is minimum economic risk to both the programme and to farmers because a rabbit project is not expensive. To the farmer, if a breeding cow, goat or pig dies, this is a major loss. In Asia, rabbits have a competitive edge over poultry because they do not depend on cereal grains, not to mention concerns about risks from Asian Bird Influenza.

First, is it possible to establish small-scale rabbit enterprises at little or no cost to farmers who live in poverty? Yes, it is possible, but how? One of my earlier experiences was to develop a 5-year budget plan for rabbit farmers in Cameroon (Lukefahr and Goldman 1985). In this budget, initial investment costs involved breeding stock and materials for hutches. This was a project managed by Heifer International, an NGO well known for their "Passing on the Gift" model of stock distribution in projects throughout the LDC's. Trained farmers received an in-kind loan of three does and one buck. From the first litters produced, farmers returned four offspring to the programme to fulfill the loan agreement, which the programme redistributed to another trained farmer. Concurrently, farmers saved enough replacements to expand to 5- to 10-doe operations (while exchanging bucks among farmers to prevent inbreeding) to ensure significant benefits from consumption of the nutritious meat and from the sales of surplus fryers. In addition, most farmers constructed eight hutches from rapphia wood from palm plants that were harvested from their own farms.

The same budget included projected operating or recurrent costs for feed, replacement stock, and new hutches, and a 10% miscellaneous line item was added. Likewise, in many situations, farmers cut costs by providing feedstuffs to rabbits from forage plots and "wastes" from gardens, orchards, and kitchens. Replacement stock were produced rather than purchased, and new hutches were made on the farm at no expense. Further, labour was shared among family members, so no labor was hired. Hence, for many farmers there was little or no economic risk to engage in rabbit farming. Later, diet quality improved and farm income increased as farmers abandoned poverty. After termination of the formal 2-year project, local rabbit farmer leaders assumed control and continued the project by voluntarily providing training, breeding stock loans, and on-farm supervision. Of course, this project may have been more of an exception than the rule, but all planned projects should nonetheless strive to create close to such an ideal situation.

As a project planning tool, the small-scale rabbit production model (SSRPM) has been recently developed for use in LDC's (Figure 1).

Figure 1.
 The small-scale rabbit production model (SSRPM) wheel of sustainabilty

The internal and external dimensions of this model were previously discussed in detail by Lukefahr (2004), whereas the intermediate dimension was described in greater detail by Lukefahr (2007). Both papers are available on-line. The internal factors of breeding stock, diets, housing, etc., pertain to the management by farmers of locally appropriate resources. Farmers should be trained to become self-sufficient rather than dependent on off-farm inputs, such as exotic breeds, commercial diets, and welded wire. Of course, exceptions may exist, for example, in El Salvador where there is a scarcity of wood, a programme provides start-up loans of three welded wire cages (J I McNitt, personal communication). Later, farmers purchase additional wire with income from rabbit sales.

In general, locally adapted, rustic breeds or crossbreds are usually more suitable for small-scale, extensive production systems than recently imported exotic animals from intensive production systems. There is a paucity of controlled research that compares performance of local and exotic breeds under extensive systems. Das and Yadav (2007) reported poorer preweaning growth performance in the local "Meghalaya" breed compared to New Zealand White and Soviet Chinchilla breeds at a research centre in India where rabbits were fed a commercial mash with fresh-cut forage. Diets should consist of nutritious and palatable grasses, forbs, and legumes that can adapt to the region and be cultivated by farmers in small plots (Raharjo et al 1986; Grant et al 1996). In Vietnam, diets consisting of molasses blocks and leaves from mulberry and Trichanthera gigantea resulted in satisfactory performance in breeding does (Le Thu Ha et al 1996). In Cambodia, water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica) has shown good promise as forage for rabbits with gains of 14 to 20 g/d (Pok Samkol et al 2006). Locally available materials for constructing hutches and other equipment is certainly more affordable to farmers than use of wire, such as the common use of bamboo in China (Milne 1982), in Indonesia (Cheeke 1983), and in the Phillipines (Bondoc et al 1986). However, it has often been observed that a combination of wire and local materials for hutches is used. In Vietnam, Nguyen Quang Suc et al (1996) reported on the use of an underground housing system to offset high temperature effects on rabbit performance. This is a viable option in countries with hot climates (Finzi and Amici 1991).

The intermediate dimension of the SSRPM pertains to the planning and management of a rabbit development programme. Persons interested in this aspect are again referred to the detailed paper by Lukefahr (2007), as well as a book by Lukefahr (1992). However, it is emphasized here that project participants should be carefully selected and trained well by the programme to ultimately become successful rabbit farmers.

There are at least two ways to consider the external dimension (environment) of the SSRPM. The first way is in determining if a rabbit project or enterprise is feasible for initiation. For example, would it be socially accepted? Do markets exist or can they be created so that the farmer can make a reasonable profit? Can the farm environment (ecofarm) be enhanced or sustained through the rabbit component using integrative practices as presented in the next section? If a negative response or red flag is raised, then the project should not be started. To cite Bunch (1982): "A failed project is worse than no project at all."

The second way to consider the external factors is in evaluating a project to assess the impact after formal termination by the programme. Basic broad and specific questions may be asked to gather useful information for analysis and interpretation. For example, Did the community benefit from the rabbit project? Did the project specifically support youth development or empower the role or social status of women? Was the trend of rural migration reduced or reversed? Was family health improved through the regular consumption of rabbit meat? Economically, were markets created or expanded to increase the level of income through the sales of surplus rabbits? Did farmers possibly increase the size of their operations to take advantage of market opportunities? Was a rabbit farmer's market cooperative established? Of course, there is much flexibility in addressing the impact of the rabbit project; however, there should be a clear focus on the original project's goal and objectives (Lukefahr 2004).


A holistic and integrative approach should be used in developing a sustainable, small farm model that includes a rabbit component. In Indonesia, it has been reported that mean farm size is only 0.4 ha (Devendra and Chantalakhana 2002). An effective model highlights the close integration of all diversified farming activities to improve the efficiency of food production, while minimizing economic risk (Lukefahr and Preston 1999). If successful, the small farm transforms from a state of inefficiency into a more stable unit of food security and profit generation, to eventually provide the farmer with the opportunity to escape from poverty.

Specifically, all farming activities or components should be complementary, for example, using animal manures for compost to add to forage and garden plots, fish ponds, and(or) worm bins, while fresh-cut feedstuffs from forage and garden plots and edible kitchen scraps are fed to rabbits and other livestock (Figure 2).

Figure 2.
 A holistic on-farm model illustrating integration of farming activities

The focus is to capture solar energy and to ensure that there is an efficient flow of nutrients among components, essentially a farm ecosystem, such that there is reduced dependence on off-farm inputs (e.g., commercial feeds, breeding stock, and fertilizers), including lower capital, major equipment, and hired labour requirements. The model reflects a "more for less" approach (i.e., unit increase in farm outputs per unit decrease of off-farm inputs). As illustrated in Figure 2, rabbits are supported from farm-based feedstuffs, whereas rabbit excreta and slaughter wastes are recycled into compost or are used for aquaculture or vermiculture. Ruminant species should generally be raised under more easily managed, zero grazing conditions to minimize damage from overgrazing (Aaker 1994). In addition, in the context of common agricultural practices in Asia, small ruminants can be leased to control weeds by grazing on other farms or plantations (Devendra 1991), whereas ducks can be leased to control undesirable insects and weeds in rice paddies (Lukefahr and Preston 1999).

In addition, there should be a subdivision of labour among family members. Rabbit projects have been used as a vehicle to empower women who live in poverty in Cameroon (Lukefahr et al 2000). Rabbits were chosen over other small livestock because of the low initial investment and operating costs (especially feed) and the short lag-time before women began to benefit from a steady supply of meat and much needed cash from surplus fryer sales in local markets. Women also became more active in participating in social groups based on experiences gained as leaders in rabbit clubs. Hence, the role of women should not be overlooked in planning rabbit projects. Further, the model is reinforced when there is a close working relationship between agricultural scientists and extension staff. This is evident when farmers are, for example, adopting improved varieties of forages and new resource management techniques, reducing labour inputs, and exploiting new marketing opportunities.

It is appropriate to make reference to the pioneer research contributions of Dr. Thomas "Reg" Preston. His career, spanning decades of regional programme efforts throughout the developing world, has embodied the previously described model of small farm sustainability with opportunities for poverty alleviation. Examples of novel areas of research pursued by his international team of scientists include promotion of high potential, nutritious local forages, indigenous trees, and aquatic plants, and processed agro plant by-products (e.g., juice from sugar palm and sugar cane, forage from duckweed and water spinach, and ensiled cassava leaves) as opposed to commercial cereals, biogas production from livestock excreta for household fuel use, and training of graduate students as generalists rather than specialists (Preston 1995, 2000). In addition, in 1989, the first electronic agriculture journal, Livestock Research for Rural Development (, was developed. Many animal scientists from Asia have actively contributed to this practical research journal.

Poverty alleviation

Before addressing the topic of poverty alleviation, it is appropriate to first determine the relative importance of rabbit production to the southeastern region. Colin and Lebas (1996) extensively documented rabbit production figures for all countries of the world, including southeast Asia, which is shown in Table 1.

Table 1.  Rabbit production parameters for ten countries in southeast Asia1


Production, 000 t

Exports, 000 t

Imports, 000 t

No. does,


No. does/

1000 inhabitants

Per capita consumption, kg

Value production,

$/1000 of TGNP

























































































1Adapted from Colin and Lebas 1996

Of course, with recent trends, such as many Asian farmers abandoning chicken production in certain countries, the figures in the table are not current. Nonetheless, from their survey, it would appear that Indonesia led other countries in rabbit meat production. However, there were virtually no export or import activities in the entire region. Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam accounted for 87% of the region's total doe population. Interestingly, Brunei had the largest number of breeding does per 1,000 inhabitants (44.6). Per capita consumption of rabbit meat had a narrow range of 0.27 to 0.36 kg for five of the countries listed. Vietnam led other countries in the total value of rabbit meat produced per 1,000 USD of the country's total gross national product. In terms of world production, the southeast region accounted for 6.5 and 10.5% of total meat production and number of breeding does, respectively.

An international benchmark figure for a family living in poverty is the daily earnings of less than 1 USD (IFAD 2001). De Haan and Lipton (1998) reported from an analysis of studies conducted in Asia that a 1% growth in per capita GDP was directly associated with 0.82% decrease in poverty rate. As reported by Devendra and Chantalakhana (2002), the mixed and integrated, crop-animal extensive production system is the backbone of traditional agriculture in Asia, whereby the economic importance of animal products is well realized by the poor. Hence, the stimulation of the animal agriculture sector is a direct means of improving the lives of rural families who live in poverty.

Since rabbit production is a viable agricultural enterprise, the opportunity exists to design projects with the goal to alleviate poverty. To determine economic impact, however, one basic question to be addressed is "To what extent should farmer's income be increased?" As a general guide towards project success, according to World Neighbors, a US-based NGO, an increase of farmer's income by 50 to 150% is advised; neither too small to discourage farmer's motivation nor excessive to risk overspending or waste (Bunch 1982). The farmer should sense that the increased income was hard earned and as such will be spent wisely. Moreover, in terms of total investment of the programme that works in a target area, the number of staff should be small consisting of one or two professionals and two or three village employees, and with a first year budget between 3,000 and 20,000 USD (excluding vehicle or large equipment purchases) (Bunch 1982).

Because of the complex connections between the root causes and the solutions of poverty, the goal of the rabbit programme may have several aims, which are typically directed at improving family health and nutrition, enhancing farm security, and increasing income. A farmer should first receive rabbit training, establish forage plots or a garden, and construct hutches and a place for rearing. Afterwards, an in-kind loan of 1 young buck and three does is recommended. After the loan is honoured by the return of four offspring, the farmer should soon expand the operation to 10 does and later to at least 20 does as critical experience is gained.

What is the potential nutritional impact to the family of the regular consumption of rabbit meat? Using benchmark values from Lukefahr and Cheeke (1991) that involved a survey of literature reports from LDC's and a summary of production parameters, a breeding doe should produce 20 marketable offspring from 4 litters per year. Ten does should provide 200 fryers annually. This first set of figures assumes a forage-based diet and using supplements produced from the farm. The inclusion of purchased concentrated feeds could increase doe production to 6 litters per year. Hence, these figures could be considered as conservative. Depending on the family size and its age and body weight composition, 2 to 5 fryers could be consumed weekly, and the rest sold for income. As a guide, a live fryer weighing an average of 2.5 kg with a 60% carcass yield should produce about 1.0 kg of edible meat of which there should be approximately 200 g of protein (Table 2).

Table 2.  Projections of nutritional and economic impact from a small- to medium-scale rabbit operation consisting of 10 or 20 breeding does and 1 buck from an extensive, farm-based production system


Weekly fryer consumption level by family

10 breeding does

0 fryers           2 fryers

20 breeding does

0 fryers            5 fryers

Total protein intake, g





No. of adults meeting of their

daily protein requirement





No. of fryers marketed per year





Total revenue, USD





Income of mean annual farmer’s salary, %





Therefore, 2 to 5 fryers should provide a total of 400 to 1,000 g of animal protein per week. However, it is assumed that it is not necessary for protein from rabbit meat to meet the family's total daily protein requirement. For the general population of Indonesia, according to IRRI (2007), rice is the staple food crop and accounts for slightly more than half of caloric intake and nearly half of protein intake. In addition, intake of protein from fish is relatively high in Indonesia among other Asian countries, and the contribution of animal protein from other livestock (meat and dairy) is also important (FAO 2001; Lipoeto et al 2004).

Therefore, if target groups for which rabbit projects are designed are meeting only half of their daily protein requirement, the following calculations can be made. Based on the daily protein requirement of 0.75 g/kg of body weight for adults (for women: non-pregnant or lactating; FAO/WHO/UNU 1985), and a mean body weight of 60 kg, 5 rabbit fryers consumed in one week would meet one-half of the daily protein needs for the equivalent of 6.3 adults. Of course, planners should adjust the above generic figures to develop realistic goals to determine rabbit fryer consumption levels needed to bridge specific protein gaps for individual families.

In terms of economic impact, in Indonesia, a live rabbit weighing between 2 and 3 kg sells for 1.22 USD per kg (Y. Raharjo, personal communication). If a small family that rears 10 breeding does consumes only 2 fryers a week, as many as 86 fryers with an average live weight of 2.5 kg could be sold for 262 USD. This figure represents a 19.8% of the average income of farmers in Indonesia, which ranges between 90 and 130 USD (Y. Raharjo, personal communication). If a larger family that rears 20 breeding does consumes 5 fryers a week, a total of 120 fryers with an average live weight of 2.5 kg could be sold for 366 USD. In contrast, if either 10- or 20-doe operations are maintained solely as sources of income (except for the same number in doe replacements), 580 and 1,159 USD could possibly be generated, respectively.

Expansion of a sustainable and integrated, small-scale rabbit enterprise should be done with caution. Too often, rabbit farmers have gone out of business after expanding from a low-cost and sustainable system to a high-risk, non-sustainable system. For example, the forage supply from on-farm plots was outstripped so commercial feeds had to be purchased, outside labour was hired, and farmers became victims of market uncertainties. Finzi (2000) outlined features of small and sustainable versus large and non-sustainable rabbit operations (Table 3).

Table 3.  Comparison of small- and commercial-scale rabbit production systems1

Small-scale family unit

Commercial-scale unit



 Many Smallholders

 Few Investors

 Family Needs


 Low Initial Inputs

 Continuous High Inputs

 Family Labour

 Hired Labour

 Simple Technologies

 Complex Technologies


 Rapid Innovations

 Locally Available Breeds

 Exotic Breeds/Hybrids

Farm Integration

Land Detached

Natural Feedstuffs

Commercial Feedstuffs







 Any Market

Urban Market

 Any Country

Developed Countries

1Modified from Finzi 2000

Obviously, expansion should occur gradually, while keeping pace with the market demand. Market surveys should be conducted to assess demand. Paul et al (2000) in Bangladesh and Bondoc et al (1986) in the Philippines, reported that the greatest opportunities for market exploitation were in large cities (especially in areas of heavy tourism) and weakest in rural areas. Rabbit farmers should certainly avoid flooding the market. In addition, rabbit meat should be competitive with other meats; for example, keeping buyer and consumer prices for a rabbit fryer below that of a commercial broiler or duck.

Project opportunities

In Asia, a role model of grassroots-level project success has been the rabbit programme in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province in China (McKibben 2007). The programme was initiated in 1984 with the importation of 200 Californian and New Zealand White rabbits to 4 farmers, including technical training, which was supported by Heifer International. One of the first farmers trained was Mr. Ren Xuping, who is now referred to as the "rabbit king of China." After becoming a successful rabbit farmer, Xuping established a thriving rabbit breeding and training centre (the Rabbit King Poverty Alleviation Centre), where some 300,000 people, mostly rural peasants (including young rural women who wish to continue their education), have received critical rabbit training and breeding stock to secure a more stable form of living ( Xuping states, "Raise 10 rabbits and it will help you find a wife, with 50 rabbits, a better home."

Photo 1. The author with Mr. Asep Sutisna, the "Rabbit King"
of Lembang, Indonesia (Photo courtesy of Yono Raharjo)
  Photo 2. A village of rabbit farmers welcoming delegates from the
International Rabbit Congress in Bogor (Photo courtesy of Yono Raharjo)

In large populations of rural poor, the Asian Development Bank (ADB 1999) documented that 20 to 40% of households are headed by women. In Bangladesh, Paul et al (2000) determined from survey data that 65 and 26% of small-scale rabbit enterprises were managed by women and children, respectively. In projects involving women in Bangladesh and India, Todd (1998) reported on the Grameen Bank approach, a micro-credit institution used to extend rural credit to impoverished people. In brief, after joining a micro-credit center, cycles of small to increasingly larger loans were provided over several years to poor and usually landless women who often started with a chicken or duck project (Figure 3).



Figure 3.
 The progression of animal ownership towards poverty alleviation
(modified from Todd 1998)

From income earnings used to pay off the first loan, a second loan was provided that was used, for example, to purchase goats and to either sharecrop or lease land. Eventually, women were owning milk cows, bullocks and(or) buffaloes, purchasing their own land, living in better homes, eating higher quality foods, sending their children to school, and depositing money safely in banks.



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Received 8 August 2007; Accepted 18 August 2007; Published 5 September 2007

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