Livestock Research for Rural Development 20 (5) 2008 Guide for preparation of papers LRRD News

Citation of this paper

The impact of agricultural projects on cows’ productivity, farmers’ revenue and rural development in Tunisia

M Ben Salem and H Khemiri*

INRAT, Laboratory of Animal and Forage Production, rue Hédi Karray, 2049 Ariana, Tunisia
* Office du développement Sylvo-Pastoral du Nord Ouest, 9000 Beja, Tunisia


A significant part of cattle production in Tunisia is carried out in the north of the country. Its share to households’ revenue is quite significant, particularly in rural areas. However, due to the limited production levels of milk and meat per cow, farmers’ revenue remains low in these zones. As a result, the government has adopted different agricultural development projects to enhance animal productivity and to improve the livelihood of the living rural population by supporting farmers and providing them with necessary livestock services. Services consisted mainly in providing producers with dual purpose pure breed animals, encouraging the production of cultivated forages, enhancing farmer skills, improving feeding and reproductive management practices and upgrading the animals’ genetic potential through the use of artificial insemination and cross breeding programs.


The aim of this article is to evaluate the impact of two implemented development projects on animal productivity, milk quality, farmers’ revenues and rural development in targeted rural zones. Data used come from field studies and surveys we conducted and from information contained in published project documents.


Results revealed that both projects resulted in positive impacts on production performances, farmers’ revenues and living conditions. Survey data showed that project 1 resulted in a shift in the proportions of the herd genotypes of cattle toward the introduction of more exotic breeds, an increase in milk per cow and improvements in calving rates. They also showed increases in meat production and in the part of cultivated forages as a percentage of total farm sizes. The share of the agricultural income to the total revenue of households was also improved. Project 2 resulted in a significant improvement in milk quality, which was coupled with an increase in paid milk prices and farmers’ income. However, despite these positive outcomes on the livelihood of farmers, both projects failed to have sustainable impacts on livestock and rural development. The specific reasons for such failure are not clear. However, it is more likely, that the fact that these projects lack of success, was partly due to the lack of developed leadership’s capacity, such as farmers’ organizations or common interest groups to take over once they ended. Therefore, livestock and rural development research programs are needed to define durable alternatives which ensure the sustainability of such project impacts. International research institutions and development organizations can be of significant contributions.

Key-words: cattle production, farmers, income, rural development


Animal production contributes significantly to the revenue of households in rural areas, particularly in the northern part of Tunisia where much of the cattle production in carried out at the smallholder level. However, despite the important efforts devoted to livestock production at the national level, productivity of cattle for milk and meat and the quality of milk remained low in these zones (Lahmar et al 2005). At the same time, the demand for milk and milk products and meat is growing because of the increases in population growth and income per capita. To meet such demand, while improving small scale farmers’ income, the government had implemented, in cooperation with international organizations, different agricultural development projects. The main objectives of these projects were to improve animal productivity, product quality and the livelihood of the rural population, mainly by supporting farmers through the delivery of necessary livestock services. Two such projects that are used for this evaluation are: the Participatory Community Forest Project (PCF) on “the rural development of Forest regions in Northern Tunisia” and the Tunisian-Luxembourgeois project on improving small scale dairy farming and milk quality. The objective of this work is to evaluate the impact of these projects on animal productivity, product quality, farmers’ revenues and rural development in targeted zones using field studies and surveys and published project documents. The first section of the paper describes the methodology adopted. The second part is on major characteristics and production performances of small scale dairy farms. In the third section, impact of development projects on animal performances and rural development were evaluated and discussed. The last part addresses major limitations of these projects and suggests possible future alternatives which need to be taken to ensure the durability of such project impacts.



A large part of the data presented in this paper is collected from comprehensive surveys and field studies. They were, whenever necessary, complemented with information published in the project reports. In the case of the PCF project, an initial survey was conducted to evaluate the initial situation prior to the start of the project. Collected data were then used as a reference base for future comparisons. Additional surveys were conducted later at regular intervals; every other year. Nearly 500 farms served by the project were sampled. Collected data were then compared to the reference base to assess project impacts on cow productivity, farmer income and on the development of the local infrastructure and living conditions. In addition to farm description and production constraints, surveys addressed animal performances, common management practices, such as feeding, housing conditions, labor qualification, artificial insemination and genetic improvement, farmers’ revenues and major social and economical indicators. For project 2, a comprehensive survey was conducted in the project zone to collect data on dairy farms and farming practices. It was felt that a comprehensive survey covering as many areas of a dairy operation would be of utmost use in evaluating project impacts and in planning any extension and/or research efforts both at the local and the national levels. In addition, we conducted in parallel a field study where animal performances and milk quality were compared between two groups (control and experimental) of farmers. The control group is composed of farmers not adhering to the project and thus receiving no support or services, whereas farmers in the experimental group received services and technical support in various aspects of dairying through regular visits by the extension team of the project. Management practices and animal performances were evaluated and milk samples were collected and tested for chemical composition (AOAC 1990) and enumerated for  total bacteria counts by Petrifilm using 3M Petrifilm for aerobic plat count (Ginn et al 1986).


Production system and animal performances  

Production system


Survey data revealed that the cattle production system in the rural areas of northern Tunisia is traditional, extensive and of small scale type where nearly three quarters of the herds have less than 5 cows. This is in agreement with reports made by Khémiri and Jmel (1996). Moreover, about 20% of these herds are owned by landless farmers and 36% belongs to farms with less than 3 ha. Local breed animals represent thirty eight percent of the cattle population whereas the remaining 62% is exotic and crossbreds cows (table 1). The Tarentaise and the Brown Swiss are the main exotic breeds. Bull calves are usually sold before one year of age without any fattening period. However, heifers are generally kept for replacement. Most of the time, heifers are first bred at a late age because of poor growth during the rearing phase. Produced milk is partly used for nursing calves until weaning. The remaining part is either used for family consumption or transformed into traditional dairy products, such as cheddar cheese, buttermilk and/or butter for sale in the nearby urban local markets.

Table 1.  Breed distribution and their average production performances





Exotic breed

- Herd percentage

- Production performances

       Milk, kg/cow/year

       Meat, kg carcass/cow

- Calving rate, %
















* Insignificant number     
adapted from Lahmar et al 2005

The production system used here is quite different from production systems practiced in other parts of the country. It is characterized by nutritional deficiencies, health and reproductive problems and relatively little production. Natural pastures and forest rangelands constitute the major feed resources for animals. Cattle supplementation with concentrate feeds is an exception. Moreover, the contribution of natural resources to animal feeding varies between years as it largely dependent upon seasonal rainfall. The role of cultivated forages is small. In 1996, it did not exceed 15% of the total farm size. Furthermore, produced forages have low nutritive values due to their high fiber and low crude protein contents. This has a direct effect on the cows’ productive and reproductive performances. The labor is mainly of family type where most of the times women are taking care of the cows. They lack basic cattle management techniques as they are usually illiterate and thus do not get much benefit from extension programs. Animal vaccination against major diseases is limited to free programs provided by the government. Furthermore, the permanent presence of bulls among the cows is, in many cases, responsible for the even distribution of calving throughout the year, including unfavorable periods. In addition, animals are usually confined in small simple shelters which do not meet the minimum housing requirements in terms of space, cow comfort and heat stress protection. Such housing conditions, poor management and agro-climatic constraints limit production performances and expose cattle to diseases in the lack of a sound health program.


Animal performances


Results obtained from the initial survey showed that, in 1996 just before the start of project 1, milk yield and meat production are relatively low and major reproductive parameters are poor for all genotypes (table 2). Average milk yields were 260, 810 and 2070 kg/cow/year, respectively for the local, crossbred and exotic animals. Respective average meat production, on a carcass weight basis, was 42, 90 and 150 kg/cow/ year. Corresponding calving rates were 53, 58 and 69%. These overall performances are low compared to those reported for similar animals in other parts of the country (Lahmar et al 2005; Atti and Ben Dhia 1990; Rondia et al 1984). Local field investigations indicated that in 60% of the investigated herds, low fertility rates were due to anoestrous. Ovarian cysts, repeated breeding and uterine infection accounted for 13, 15 and 6% of reproductive problems. These low performances may be due to poor nutrition and general management practices. Low meat production per cow could be attributed to two reasons. First, calves are fed high fibrous low quality feeds and are rarely supplemented with feed grains. Thus, their total nutritional requirements for growth are rarely met, which limits growth performances. Second, and because of farmer needs for cash, these animals are usually sold young and thus slaughtered before approaching or achieving their genetic potential in terms of live weight. Milk quality data obtained from the comparative study conducted on farmers adhering to project 2, revealed low quality milk with average fat and protein contents of 30.3 and 28.5 g/l, respectively. The total bacterial count in milk is high. It was in the range of 106 Colony Forming Units par ml (CFU/ml).


Project impacts on animal performances and rural development


Over the years, different agricultural development projects were implemented in the favor of the cattle production sector particularly in less favorable zones, such as rural areas. It was felt that production performances are low in these areas and producers needed further support. Services provided by these projects consisted mainly in encouraging and supporting the production of cultivated hay and silage forages, enhancing farmer skills in many aspects of cattle management, including feeding, health and reproduction, improving milking practices and hygiene, introducing exotic dual purpose breed of cattle and upgrading the genetic potential of existing animals through artificial insemination and cross breeding. Overall recorded production indicators indicated that both of the projects under investigation had positive impacts on farm characteristics, animal performances and farmers’ revenues (tables 2 and 3).


Effects on farm characteristics


Data in table 2 show a variation in the composition of the herds toward the introduction of more pure breed animals, mainly the Brown Swiss and the Tarentaise. They were brought to farmers under the services and supports delivered by the PCF project. A significant decrease was observed in the percentage of the population of local cows which went from 38% in 1996 to 17.5% in 2000 that is a 54% reduction. However, the proportion of exotic breeds cows increased by 15% going from almost none in 1996 to 15% in 2000. The number of crossbred animals remained relatively unchanged within the 60% range.

At the same time, a change was also observed for feed resources, mainly for forages. Indeed, the part of cultivated forages has more than doubled, in terms of percentage of the total farm area. It increased from 15% in 1996 to nearly 24% in 2000. Better quality feeds were therefore made available to animals.


Effects on animal performances


Table 2 gives the trend in major productive and reproductive parameters throughout the duration of the PCF project between 1996 and 2000.  

Table 2.  The impact of the PCF project on the productive and reproductive performances of cows



% Variation





Milk, kg/cow/year

- Local

- Crossbred

- Exotic breed

















Meat carcass,  kg/cow/year

- Local

- Crossbred

- Exotic

















% calving

- Local

- Crossbred

- Exotic

















* Reference year

(adapted from Lahmar et al 2005)

All production indicators were improved as a result of the project contribution. Milk yield was improved for all types of animals by as much as 81% for crossbred animals going from 810 in 1996 to 1469 kg/cow/year in 2000. Milk yield doubled for local cattle during the same period. It went from 260 to 401 kg/cow/year. Milk improvement for the exotic breeds was in the range of 32% with yield reaching 2742 kg/cow/year in 2000.


Performance improvements were also observed for meat production. Yearly meat production (kg carcass weight) increased by 63, 21, and 14% for local, cross bred and exotic breed animals, respectively. The highest increase (63%) was observed for local animals as meat production increased from 42 to 68.8 kg carcass/cow/year. Such relative important increase was observed for these animals probably because they were used to have access only to low quality forages and natural vegetation and are usually sold at early ages without any fattening period. The magnitudes of improvements were lower for other types of animals. They averaged 14 and 21% for pure and cross bred animals, respectively.


 Another important factor affecting animal productivity is reproductive parameters. Indeed, it is well established that reproductive efficiency is a major contributor to farm profitability (Britt 1985; Meadow et al 2005). This is also the case in Tunisia (Ben Salem et al 2007). Among the major indicators used in evaluating reproductive efficiency is calving rate. Results in table 2 showed improvements in calving rates between 1996 and 2000 for all breeds in the range of 15 to 20%.  It increased from 53 to 61% for the local cows and from 69 to 82% for exotic breeds.


Effects on farmers’ revenue


Data on table 3 presents the impact of the PCF project on major economical indicators. it shows that the project not only increased agricultural revenue but also the contribution of such revenue to the total income of households regardless of the farm sizes.  

Table 3.  The impact of the PCF project on major economical indicators








Agricultural revenue (TD)

-                      farm size ≤ 5ha

-                      farm size > 5ha











+ 520

+ 1583

% agricultural revenue

-                      farm size ≤ 5ha

-                      farm size > 5ha














- On farm working days

- Herd  values (TD)











+ 149

+ 583

* Reference year; Tunisian Dinar (1US $ = 1.3 TD)

(Odesypano 2000)

Indeed, farmers revenues have doubled between 1996 and 2000. They went from 1113 and 3142 Tunisian dinars (TD) in 1996 to 1633 and 4724 Tunisian dinars respectively for farms of less or more than 5Ha. Slightly higher increases were observed for larger farms. Such revenues contribute about 50 and 67% to the total revenue of farmers. As a result, it is most likely that farmers increased their herd sizes as reflected by the increases observed for herd values. Such hypothesis is further supported by increases in on farm working days. Indeed, the project generated more employment for the local population as depicted by the considerable increase (+110%) in the total number of working days on the farms (table 3).





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Received 16 July 2007; Accepted 18 February 2008; Published 1 May 2008

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