President, Oyo State Rabbit Breeders Association; Mrs. Josephine Oyelami showing our reporter her flourishing backyard rabbit farm.
In Nigeria’s vibrant agricultural landscape, where crops and livestock like poultry and cattle take centre stage, there are lesser-known farming opportunities that have been overshadowed. Rabbit farming, guinea pig husbandry, and grass cutter farming, collectively known as small livestock or mini-livestock farming, remain neglected.
The neglect of rabbit, guinea pig, and grass cutter farming in Nigeria represents a missed opportunity for sustainable agriculture and economic growth. This reporter, who was in Ibadan, visited the backyard farm of the President of Oyo State Rabbit Breeders Association and Chief Executive Officer of Big Mama Farms, Mrs. Josephine Oyelami, where she shared her knowledge of forgotten/under-tapped areas of livestock farming in Nigeria. There, she shared her thoughts on the culture of rearing rabbits, guinea pigs and grasscutters as well as her experiences doing this for over two decades. Mrs. Oyelami also has a palm tree plantation of about 25 acres, intercropped with cassava, on another farm in Ibadan, Oyo State.
While first reminiscing the old days of having over 400 rabbits teeming her compound (because she had only about 100 now); she stated that these little animals – rabbits, guinea pigs and grasscutters – have huge economic value, if given the attention and care required. According to the National Research Council in 1991, these neglected micro-animals are naturally/genetically small. According to her, these mini-livestock are the most cost-effective animals to rear judging by how they consume mostly leaves and roughages with little concentrates. Let’s consider, for a moment, the humble rabbit. Known for their prolific breeding habits, rabbits offer a sustainable source of lean protein popularly known as “white meat”. They are low-maintenance animals that can be raised in small spaces, making them ideal for resource-limited regions or for backyard farming.
A commercial rabbit pen on Big Mama’s Farm.
In some countries, like France and Italy, rabbit meat is a delicacy, but in many others, it remains a forgotten protein source. Meanwhile, these little animals have been described as sources of quality meat security and nutrition for families and nations. But this is not the reality in many. For instance, hardly would you go to a restaurant or eatery and you are asked if you would like rabbit meat, in Nigeria. “Raising rabbits is not labour-intensive like cattle and poultry. Rabbits are easy to feed and often don’t need a lot of attention. As a result, a rabbit farming business can be run on a part-time basis or even a backyard farm just like my own”, she said. Despite its potential, the practice of these mini livestock farms faces a decline as younger generations gravitate towards more modern forms of agriculture.
Considering the rabbits, the economic value they offer includes their low maintenance in terms of feeding them with leaves; such as dandelions, banana and plantain leaves, back of watermelon fruit and tridax, among others. She emphasised that what they eat is virtually free as long as one is committed to doing rabbitry. Mrs. Oyelami stated that for their antibiotics, she prepares a solution of soaked ginger and garlic as well as some turmeric added to their water for five straight days would strengthen their immune systems and even help them fight coccidiosis; which they are susceptible to, especially when near chickens.
Caged guinea pigs on Mrs. Oyelami’s backyard livestock farm.
“I also use Africana aspilia plant known as “yun-yun” in Yoruba, for their reproductive health most especially, when they, the doe which is female rabbit, just give birth, the kids eating the aspilia makes them grow fast even in one week. It’s a wild plant for growth and reproduction in rabbits. I also use Moringa leaves to aid the doe’s breastfeeding capacity, especially when it just gives birth. A rabbit can get pregnant twice because they have two wombs, but it is not healthy for them, because a mother rabbit would only take care of its immediate babies and neglect the first ones. But if there are no means of fostering when a rabbit mother with same age of kids to look after, they would die or have stunted growth.
“When I notice mucus in their poo, I give them organic antibiotics solutions for seven days just like humans also take malaria drugs and it had worked for my rabbits. On the wastes, she had this to say; I plan using their poop later for biogas. I won’t have to be buying gas later. It’s safer, cost-effective and sustainable for environmental health”, as she identified some of the breeds of the animals on her backyard farm, as New Zealand, hyla, Dutch, chinchilla, harlequin, Flemish giant, among others. When I think of rabbits, I can describe their main body as 75% greens and 25% hay. “Groundnut hay also makes them reproduce more for instance. Though there are many other things are involved; what we do in my backyard farm is that, one or two hours before mating, we give ginger the male and some to the female too and then they are crossed. This can lead to 10-11 kids from one mother rabbit some six weeks later”, she added.
“Beyond selling as bush meat, rabbit meat is now a good meat source for barbecue – very healthy rabbits”, she stated. Initially, I had 400 rabbits, but they died from a virus known as respiratory haemorrhal disease (RHD). They got it from the feed sack that was used to package feed for my animals”, she lamented. The 65-year-old Mrs. Oyelami of Big Mama Farms also mentioned the various value chains existing in rabbit farming to include; the fur of these animals, their skin, meat, poo and even urine. According to her, an adult meat rabbit is usually 2.5 kg and it’s N6,500 plus per kilogram. I sell growers 10,000 – 15,000 naira depending on the size”, she added.
Some weaned rabbits on the farm.
Moving on to guinea pigs, these edible small rodents, as they are called, have been domesticated for thousands of years, primarily in South America. In places like Peru and Bolivia, guinea pig farming, or “cuy farming,” is deeply embedded in the culture and cuisine. Yet, outside of these regions, guinea pigs are often associated with pets rather than a vital source of nutrition. The meat is not only rich in protein, but also low in fat, making it an excellent choice for health-conscious consumers. However, the global demand for guinea pig meat remains far from its potential.
The grass cutter, also known as the cane rat, might be the least known of the three. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, this rodent has adapted to a wide range of habitats and is a natural forager. In countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon, grass cutter farming is a source of income for many rural communities. Its meat is considered one of the most delicious bites globally and is sought after in urban markets. However, the lack of commercialisation and sustainable practices has hindered its potential as a viable source of protein in other parts of the world.
Abandoned but ‘about-to-be resuscitated’ grasscutter cages in Big Mama’s Farm.
“In 2020 or thereabouts, I lost about 4.5 million naira on grass-cutter farming because one of my girls accidentally used sprayed leaves to feed them. We didn’t know they had sprayed the leaves we got for them with herbicides. Their iron cages are still there and I still plan on doing grasscutter farming again”, she noted. Feed poisoning is one of the challenges of this form of animal husbandry. Although it takes little to feed them, getting the right leaves all the time can also be difficult except a farmer would plant his own grasses and plants to feed them. For instance, Mrs. Oyelami grows pawpaw in their compound, and informed that she serves the little animals pawpaw leaves to deworm then, while she uses mint leaves for medicinal purposes in their meals. “Apart from the little concentrates they eat; we also feed them with bamboo leaves banana/plantain leaves, etc. I use soaked ginger, garlic and at times turmeric as an organic antibiotics for them”, she revealed.
A soaked garlic and ginger which Mrs. Oyelami uses as a source of antibiotics for the rabbits.
So, why have these forms of husbandry been pushed to the sidelines? One reason is the perception of these animals as unconventional or exotic. The global food industry has predominantly focused on traditional and conventional livestock like cows, pigs, and chickens, relegating rabbits, guinea pigs, and grass cutters to the periphery. Additionally, there is a general lack of awareness about the nutritional benefits and ecological advantages of these animals. Efforts are being made to revive and promote these forgotten farms. Organisations and farmers like Mrs. Oyelami of Big Mama Farms, are advocating for increased awareness and education about the benefits of rabbit, guinea pig, and grass cutter husbandry. Initiatives are underway to develop sustainable farming practices and integrate these animals into mainstream agriculture.
Potential values of mini-livestock farming
“Rabbits’ urine is like an insecticide for plants to destroy caterpillar and related boring insects that affect plant growth”, stated Mrs. Oyelami. “Their faeces is the only organic fertilizer you can use on plants and it won’t damage or hinder plant growth, whether in it’s dried or wet form. Unfortunately, a sack of rabbit faeces, according to the President, Oyo State Rabbit Farmers; “in Ibadan, a bag/sack of rabbit poo sells for about N300; it’s so cheap, but at least, it is better than just letting it waste. 20 bags would mean about N6,000, which would in turn, could be used to buy the rabbits concentrates”.
The Executive Secretary/Chief Executive Officer, National Agricultural Land Development Authority (NALDA), Paul Ikonne, had disclosed in 2021, about 25,000 litres of urine had been harvested from over 5,000 rabbits, adding that it will be deployed as organic fertilizer for farms in some parts of the country. Guinea pigs are far more beyond just pet animals now, even though they don’t often grow bigger than 1-2kg, as adults. According to the National Research Council, guinea pigs often feed on weeds/vegetation from backyards or roadsides, kitchen scraps, garden wastes, barley and alfafa.
Mint plants grown by Farmer Oyelami of Big Mama Farms, to be used as a treatment for her mini-livestock.
“My grandfather, before he died, had them in his sitting room in those days. Whenever we went to his house as his grandchildren then, he might just call for 10 guinea pig to be caught and killed and prepared for us a meal”, she narrated nostalgically; “Little wonder those our old parents lived longer and healthier”. According to nutrition experts, rabbit meat contain less fats and cholesterols and have higher health benefits for families. Apart from fish, rabbit meat has the highest amount of protein and contains the lowest fat than all other types of meat. It contains less calories and sodium than other meats, but contains more calcium and phosphorus, which is very good for overall human health. As a result of these properties, rabbit meat has become the ‘super meat’ for people looking to eat healthy meats and live a healthier lifestyle. Rabbit meat is also very widely accepted.
Rabbits produce high quality skins that are used to make fur garments like clothing, hats and boots, and to cover bicycle seats, among others. Another significant use of rabbits is in cosmetic, medical and pharmaceutical research laboratories. Rabbits are also purchased by people, who want to keep them as pets. Though rabbit meat may not be as common as chicken, beef or pork, there is no doubt it is a very lucrative business; every year, as over one million tonnes of rabbit meat is consumed worldwide (Newfoodmagazine, 2017). Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), an estimated 1.2 billion rabbits are slaughtered annually for meat with countries like China, North Korea, Spain, Egypt, among others, effortlessly contributing to this global trade.
According to a forecast published by Euromeatnews, the market volume for hare meat will reach 1.8 million tonnes by the end of 2025, which means that the demand for white meat would definitely increase, but how many countries of the world are ensuring the sustainable supply of the white meat to ensure quality meat security worldwide? “… Rabbitry is an upcoming Automated Teller Machine money-dispenser. Very soon, it is going to be a money dispensing business”, a rabbit farmer in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Pastor Tayo Ayinla once stated this in a 2021 interview with Daily Trust newspapers.
In a study, “Is there unrecognised potential in neglected livestock species?”, Oguche, Birner and Kariuki (2021), submit that focusing on neglected livestock species can benefit smallholder farmers in several ways. Rabbits, guinea pigs and grasscutters are well-suited to small-scale production systems and can provide economic benefits such as higher prices for meat compared to conventional livestock. Additionally, their small size makes them easier to handle and can improve family nutrition with minimal physical difficulty. I’m am estate surveyor by training, but I have always loved animal husbandry. There was a time I was sick and one of my daughters, who is a nurse told the doctor that I should not work again, but even the doctor testified that my rabbit farming was needful for me to exercise myself since it entails little stress of feeding and just sweeping/cleaning their cages”.
Why many farmers are not doing mini-livestock farming sustainably
There are several challenges to promoting the use of neglected livestock species in agriculture. These include problems of nutrition and feed, especially during dry seasons when access to fresh grasses and formulated feeds are not readily available. Environmental constraints such as heat stress were also considered as barriers to successful adoption (Oguche et al, 2021). Neglected livestock species are also susceptible to diseases, pests, and predators, which can be exacerbated by the challenges of health due to their feeding behaviour and weather conditions. Take for instance, Mrs. Oyelami stated that during the time the RHD virus hit her grasscutter flock, she was told to buy a vaccine and renew annually at a very expensive rate. “Nobody will price your rabbits based on the expensive vaccines you get for them …”
Mrs. Oyelami doing some cleanings on her rabbit cages to ensure a thriving and safe place for the little animals
Domestication problems such as inadequate finance to acquire inputs, treat animals, the start-up costs, inappropriate cages/housing, and thefts were also identified as considerable barriers to effective production, and the lack of processing opportunities and available markets for the neglected species and their products minimises incentives to farm these species on a commercial level. Despite the visible challenges, there are emerging sustainable ways of traditionally mass-producing these livestock with little losses using natural/organic methods. Returning to these overlooked farms can be a smart move, driven first by the realisation that the initial investment is budget-friendly, maintenance is hassle-free, and marketing and distribution are feasible. The trio of rabbits, grasscutters, and guinea pigs boasts rapid growth and breeding capabilities, enabling farmers to achieve profitability swiftly while requiring minimal resources in terms of food, water, and space when compared to other livestock options.