Microlivestock in the Tropical Smallholder Farming System



The purpose of this page is to introduce the reader to microlivestock and its applications in tropical farming systems. This web page was created for the completion of FW571: Trees in Agroforestry Systems.

What is Microlivestock?

The National Research Council defines microlivestock as "a term coined for species that are inherently small as well as for breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs that are less than about half the size of the most common breeds. These miniature animals are seldom considered in the broad picture of livestock development, but they seem to have a promising future, especially in developing nations or wherever land is scarce (NRC, 1991)". It tends to include unusual, unconventional animals, for instance Navajo sheep and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, as well as reptiles and insects (Gibbons 1991).

The Tropics are areas in the tropics, located between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn,with annual monthly averages above 20C (68F).

The tropics include 40% of the earth's surface. Temperature is warm year round, with daily fluctuations in temperature rather than seasonal ones. Rainfall is highly variable in the tropics, and its seasonability and stability are as important for farming systems as total rainfall (Beets 1990).


Several rainfall regimes can be found in the tropics: rain in all seasons, summer rain with winters dry, semiarid with slight summer rain, and dry in all seasons (arid).

Table of Contents:

Problem Statement:

In many parts of the world, nutritional requirements are not being met for protein in the diets of subsistence farmers or small landholders, and both the rural and urban poor. Subsistence farmers are outside the cash economy, unable to purchase the meat, milk, and eggs necessary to their diet. Others simply cannot afford these necessities.

The estimated morbidity for stunted growth between the ages of 0 and 6 years, owing to nutrition deficiency in protein and energy, is 500 million people. The mortality per year for children between the ages of 1 and 4 is estimated to be 10 million. 350 million people also suffer from anemia in the tropics, the hardest hit being women between 18 and 45 years of age (Beets 1990).

Rising population pressure is forcing farm size to shrink, making traditional livestock unviable. Typical livestock is too large for small landholdings (Gibbons 1991). As farm size decreases, more and more has to be produced on the limited space available. Consequently, the different components of the farm system must maintain a balance in order to maximize overall production. However, this can be difficult to achieve due to such socio-economic constraints as lack of knowledge, lack of labor, and lack of external inputs such as fertilizer.

Often, the small farm is geared to producing excess grain crops or cash crops rather than diversifying the farm system for self-reliance. Farmers are struggling to produce extra cash to send children to school, buy firewood, and other items that cannot be produced on the farm. This makes production of meat, milk and eggs for protein difficult as all available land is used to create this cash income. The debt burden on many developing countries contributes to this problem by encouraging export oriented agriculture rather than self-sufficiency (Beets 1990).

Shortage of labor can be attributed to malnutrition. People suffering from malaria and Vitamin A deficiency, for example, are restricted in the amount of work that can be performed. This is particularly detrimental to the system during critical times such as planting and harvesting. It is a vicious cycle: not enough labor input = not enough production = malnutrition = not enough labor input and so on.

One Solution

Microlivestock management offers much potential for subsistence production in that it is a flexible solution that fits the needs of many developing countries. It can be integrated into the farming system with relative ease, making the system more stable and sustainable. As a result, the farmer receives a higher protein intake, and nutrients get cycled inside the farm system.

Microlivestock provides a low-risk investment for the small farmer, as it tends to be an inexpensive initial investment, and rapid returns are prevalent. It costs less to maintain than smaller animals because most require little living space, and many can be fed on crop, garden, and household waste. Microlivestock, smaller than traditional livestock, tend to grow faster, have higher reproductive capacity, with high numbers of offspring reaching sexual maturity in less time (World Future Society 1992). They provide a more steady source of food or income than a larger animal and can be easily managed by both women and children. Extra income can also be earned from leftover fur and skins.

The smallness and adaptability of microlivestock is an advantage in difficult environments where larger livestock cannot survive. Some species show remarkable disease resistance, other species can tolerate wide ranges of climates.

 Animals, when integrated into a farming system, can contribute to intensification. The animals can play a "complementary or supplementary" role in the system, by converting crop residue into readily available nutrients as manure (Beets 1990).


It may be difficult to introduce microlivestock into a traditional farming system because people are not responsive to change, and many animal species are socially unacceptable for eating. Conventional attitudes intensify the need for extension work as unfamiliar species are brought into the system. More research is necessary for the efficient use of microlivestock and how to integrate them into a farming system.

Smaller animals require more feed per body weight than larger animals (World Future Society 1992). Higher requirements make them less efficient in converting fodder into energy for humans.

Smaller animals require more effort to raise. Microlivestock often depends on cheap or free willing labor that have the time to care for the animals (World Future Society 1992).

Some microlivestock can harbor diseases and parasites for other animals and people; the black plague was spread by fleas on rats. Safe handling of the animals is absolutely necessary (Gibbons 1999, World Future Society 1992).

Microlivestock species are esteemed for their adaptability and efficiency, but these characteristics can also make serious pests of these species when introduced into new environments. For example, if one or two animals escape, destruction of gardens can occur and the animals can become a serious nuisance.

Smaller animals can carry a larger risk from predation. They are more vulnerable than larger livestock as they cannot protect themselves as well (World Future Society 1992).

Related Links:


FAO's Animal Production and Protection Page has several links on animal husbandry, animal feeding, breeding, pests and more.

Agroforestry.Com's newsletter called the Overstory has two related issues, on Microlivestock (issue #41) and Animals in Agroforestry (issue #35). Issue 41 is a good introduction to microlivestock.

An argument for using neglected animal and plant species from Overseas Development Institute.

A general introduction to Minilivestock.

Bees and Other Insects:

ECHO's information on Bees from their book AMARANTH TO ZAI HOLES: Ideas for growing Food Under Difficult Conditions by Laura S. Meitzner and Martin L. Price.

Beehive Design, also from ECHO. This article explains several beehive designs.

Articles on Beekeeping, from pest management to wax extraction, by Apiservies.

APIS Newsletter , indexed by topic. This newsletter is published by the University of Florida.

FAO's information on Economic Insects. This includes links to other publications.

Learn about Insect Nutritional Values, from Iowa State's Entomology Club.


Tips to Rear Rabbits. This is a technical how-to article for raising rabbits.

ECHO's Rabbit notes, interesting technical tidbits. Including nest box behavior, raising in pits, and a report from the field--raising rabbits at St. Kits.

Guinea Pigs and other Rodents:

ECHO's Guinea Pigs for Meat Production. This includes breeding, diseases and pests, butchering, and management.

Toby's World Ecobuisness and Guinea Pigs, gives a brief introduction followed by an article about Guinea Pigs as food in the Andes from an economic perspective and The Futurist's article Microlivestock: small animals with big futures.

The Capybara Page, somebody's personal web site on the worlds largest rodent. Has lots of great pictures, but of little technical value.


Improving backyard production of Chicken from ECHO

From ECHO's Technical Notes:

All of ECHO's notes gives technical information on breeding, health, and use as food.


Learn about "chicken of the tree", from the IDRC. Not only do Iguanas have nutritional value, raising them keeps their dwindling natural population from crashing.


ECHO's Animal Feeds information.


Microlivestock. 1991. Little-known small animals with a promising economic future. BOSTID and NRC. National Academic Press, Washington, D.C.
You can order the book here.

Animal/Livestock book list from Fertile Ground Books.

Literature Cited:

Beets, William C. 1990. Raising and Sustaining Productivity of Smallholder Farming Systems in the Tropics. Holland: Ag Be Publishing 738pp.

Gibbons, Ann. 1991. Small is Beautiful: Microlivestock for the Third World? Science. Vol. 253. Number 5018. pg 378.

Payne, J.A. and T.R. Wilson. 1999. An Introduction to Animal Husbandry in the Tropics. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd. 815pp.

World Future Society. 1992. Microlivestock:small animals with big futures. The Futurist. Vol. 26 Number 37. pg 37.

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Copyright 2000 Andrea Durham and Matt Judd.Michigan Tech Last Modified: 05-16-2000 All rights reserved. Michigan Technological University 1400 Townsend Drive Hougton, Michigan 49931 USA