Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture


Suburban livestock rearing by smallholders in the backyards of Xochimilco in the south-east of Mexico City as an important strategy for sustainable urban agriculture.

H. Losada, J. Cortés, J. Vieyra, L. Arias and R. Bennett1

Animal Production Systems Area. Department of the Biology of Reproduction. Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Iztapalapa. Av. Michoacán y la Purisíma. Col. Vicentina. Iztapalpa. C.P. 09340. México D.F. 1. Researcher from U.K. sponsored by the interchange CONACYT-British Council.


A survey was applied to characterise the keeping of poultry and pigs in the backyards of the suburban areas of Xochilco at the south of Mexico City. The results demonstrate that backyard production is carried out within the vicinity of the house or habitation. The number of birds kept ranged from 1 to 50 with the largest frequency was found within the value of 1-10 birds. In relation to the production of pigs, the number of animals was concentrated within the range of 1-5 pigs. The system of feeding of both species was based in the use of house wastes, stale tortillas, maize, wheat grain by-products and alfalfa. The objective of poultry production was found to be fundamentally for subsistence use and saving money for emergencies whereas in the case of the pigs, a further function was to supplement familiar budget. The character of the system is discussed in terms of a proposal for its replication in the city towards a sustainable proposal for urban agriculture.

Key words: Mexico, backyard, poultry, pigs, family farm, house wastes


The keeping of small numbers of animals in the backyards of the house is part of a Mexican tradition which goes back to the prehispanic epoch (Cossio, 1965), and later was enriched during the conquest with the introduction of European domesticated species (Romero, 1990). The backyard fills a large range of objectives: transformation of household wastes into food for family consumption, such as meat and eggs, savings and finance in times of economic emergencies of the nuclear family, and lastly, similarly to the case of the orchard, as an experimental laboratory for the introduction and adaptation of new varieties or species of animals. Despite the importance of this system for peasant families in the majority of countries in the world, information from the literature permitting the understanding of this system is limited. Previous studies carried out by our research group show animals to have divergent roles in the family economy: birds were used for household consumption, while pigs provided financial support to the family budget (Losada et al 1997). In the south-east of Mexico City, the limited urban development has allowed the activities related to agriculture to form a source of income and a form of life of an important sector of the population. In this sense, it is considered relevant to study the backyard with the objective of understanding its productive dynamic, which may allow its subsequent use in programmes for sustainable development.

Materials and Methods

The method used was that of obtaining information directly from the producers, using a static questionnaire (Arriaga 1993), designed to permit an understanding of the social, technological and commercial contexts in which production is carried out, which were extensively tested in the field before final application. In the absence of reliable statistical sources which would provide knowledge of the number of producers and animals in the area, the methodology used was to apply questionnaires at random. Backyards were detected by direct observation or by informants. In total, 45 questionnaires were applied, which involved a representative population of birds and pigs. Once obtained, the information was analysed and the results expressed as measures of central tendency and percentage frequency (Daniels 1984).


1. Social context of backyard production.

In a similar way to that which occurs in the majority of urban animal production systems, the activity takes place in the area which includes the house/home. In 88% of cases, services (potable water, electricity, drainage) were provided, while a lower percentage (12%) reported having one of these. The average of individuals per family was found to be in the range of 6-10 members. The family members involved in the management of the backyard was most often the woman (62%), followed by children (28%), and with lastly contracted individuals carrying out the role in only 10% of cases. The levels of schooling amongst the producers ,showed that over half had had primary and secondary education, whilst 27% were illiterate.

Table 1: Schooling levels of the producers of birds and pigs in Xochimilco.
Level of schooling attained%
Primary 38
Secondary 14
Preparatory --
University 21
Illiterate 27

II. Technological context of the backyard.

Types, breeds and functions of animals

The distribution of species in Xochimilco, in terms of their frequency in a flock, is comparable to that reported by ourselves in the west of the city, that is: adult chickens (70%), juveniles (14%), guajolotes (12%), and ducks, doves and quail? (4%). The number of birds kept ranged from 1 to 50, with the largest frequency of owners maintaining between 1 and 10 animals. Within the flock, there was a greater presence of males, followed by females, reflecting the different bird production systems focused on breeding and replacement of old rejected adult animals. The breeds and/or types of birds involved were native breeds (60%), from farms (20%), and fighting birds (20%).

In regard to pig production in backyards, the number of animals per production unit was concentrated in the range of one to five pigs. The type of animals present were castrated pigs being fattened (28%), and females in growth (30%), which made up the majority, followed by fertile females (15%), piglets (15%) and studs (12%). The predominant types and/or breeds of animals present were Yorkshire (36%), native or crossbreeds (30%), Hampshire (20%) and Duroc Jersey (14%).

Accommodation and hygiene

The location reported for breeding and maintenance of the birds included the yard (19%), hen-house (58%) or both (23%). The hen-house, in cases where it exists, consisted of a simple construction made from recycled materials, of a rectangular form with a floor of earth or cement, walls of wire mesh and/or wood , and a roof made of a layer of cardboard, where the animals stay the whole time, or at least at night. The feeders encountered included the commercial galvanised sheet, or in its absence, old cooker bases. Bottles were used as a substitute for drinking troughs. According the reports from the producers, the hen-house is cleaned at times, and the excreta, when collected, is used as a source of organic matter for house plants, or some producers reported drying and grinding it for later sale, as a means to gain extra economic resources. Smells and flies were dealt with using creosote.

In the case of the pigs, accommodation was in the form of a pigsty, where the animals remained the whole time. It was found to be rectangular in shape, with a floor of cement (95%), walls of brick (73%) or recycled wood (24%), and a roof partly or wholly made of a cardboard sheet. The feeders and drinkers made of cement in the majority of cases (76% and 70% respectively),and a small proportion included the use of plastic and or galvanised sheeting. Depending on the number of animals and their function (for fattening or reproduction, etc.), the number of pigsties is greater. The cleaning of the corral is carried out an average of five times a week, and the majority of producers put excreta as waste, and only a small percentage used it as a source of organic fertiliser for plants.

Feeding system

Similarly to that found in other local production systems, the feeding of birds and pigs maintains a regional and domestic link, as shown in table 2.

Table 2: Dietary components of birds and pigs in the backyards of Xochimilco
Component:% of producers who use it:
Birds .
Maize grains 50
Commercial feed 40
Hard tortilla* 32
Kitchen wastes 16
Alfalfa 12
Breiking de trigo 10
Wheat bran 10
Pigs .
Hard tortilla 80
Commercial feed 70
Kitchen wastes 65
Alfalfa 58
Sema de trigo 10
Bakery sweepings 5

In the case of the birds, the greatest proportion of producers reported using maize grains as food, followed by commercial food used in combination with the maize for the young, as well as kitchen waste, including tortilla. In contrast, the majority of pig producers used tortilla, commercial feed and kitchen waste to feed the animals. For both types of animals, there were indications of the use of fresh alfalfa, as well as other products derived from the food industry of the city.

Reproductive management

The criteria for the selection of breeding birds (males and females), were bodily form, size and/or live weight, which together were used by 95% of producers, and the rest were breed and colour. In the case of the creole types, a seasonal reproductive cycle was maintained, with a short laying period (mean of 20 eggs), followed by natural incubation which guaranteed the reproduction of the system. The majority of producers reported using the advantages of this type of reproduction, reporting an average of two (66%) or three (34%) incubations per year. The number of eggs incubated were within the ranges of 7-10 units (40%), and 11-13 units (31%), depending on the size of the bird.

The reproductive management of the pigs included identification of the oestrus by direct observation of the vulva, and by the animals quietness. The approximate live weight at which females were first crossed was in the range of 70 to 90kg, and an average of two matings in the same day, to guarantee gestation. The mean number of piglets reported per birth was from 6 animals in the first pregnancies, and more than 8 in those subsequent. The majority of producers reported disinfecting the navel, removing teeth, vaccinating and castrating the piglets during the lactation period. The criteria to select the breeding animals was based on the combination of physical characteristics: body form and colour and affinity for a determined type of pig, while those used to reject animals were based on economic emergencies (60%), or age associated with low production (40%).

Sanitary control

The presence of diseases in the birds showed a seasonal pattern, associated with humidity and temperature (high and/or low). Principally, these were respiratory diseases (38%), smallpox (27%), Newcastle (15%), diarrhoea (12%) and cholera (8%). Some 28% of producers reported vaccinating birds against Newcastle, and treatment of diseases was based on home remedies (garlic, lime, onion),(47%), medicines for human use (11%) and medicines specifically for birds (14%).

In the case of pigs, respiratory diseases were most common (pneumonia 42%), followed by diarrhoea (24%), cholera (24%) and pig fever (12%). The majority of producers reported vaccinating their animals against cholera (94%), and de-parasiting them (88%). The use of specific medicines was dominant (60%), in contrast with human medications (34%), and home remedies were only used in a minor proportion of cases (7%).

III. Economic context of the backyard

The objective of keeping birds was the production of eggs (6%) or meat (19%), with a high percentage of producers reporting an interest in both (56%). The aims of the backyard were directed towards self-consumption (70%), obtaining money for emergencies (9%), and a significant percentage of those questioned had the intention of producing fighting cocks (19%), and activities associated with magical beliefs. A minor percentage of producers answered that they sell animals and eggs for incubation. As would be expected, the sale price of backyard animals were highest for guajolotes and lowest for ducks, while that for chickens was intermediate. Birds were consumed throughout the whole year (48%), although a significant percentage (33%) reserved them for festivals.

The sale of pigs in Xochimilco has, as its prime objectives, the production of meat and bi-products for self-consumption, as well as to provide resources to increase family income. In this respect, a high percentage of producers reported a contribution to the family income in the range of 20 to 40%, and higher amounts in a minority of cases. An additional form of income was by the rent of studs, as well as the sale of recently weaned piglets for breeding or fattening, and replacement of rejected individuals. The predominant forms of sale are in bulk, and by kg weight, in the house of the proprietor (45%), or via butchers (40%), while direct sale in the market or slaughterhouse are of secondary importance.


The information obtained in the present study demonstrates that the rearing of birds and pigs in backyards in the suburban environment of Xochimilco constitutes an activity of economic and cultural importance which has endured over time, by the use efficient use of physical space in the area of the house/home, and the use of household wastes and renewable resources from the surrounding zone, considerations which give it high potential to be seen as a important form of production within the sustainable alternatives of urban agriculture. Some aspects of interest to discuss in the present study are related with the characteristics of the system in relation to the urban space in which the activity is carried out, the role of the system in the transformation of household wastes into sources of food for the inhabitants, and lastly, the ability of the system to be adapted in accordance with proposals for sustainability.

The results obtained in the present study show minimal differences in the productive dynamic of the system, compared with results previously obtained by ourselves in the east of the city (Losada et al 1997b). That is, both systems maintain a similar number of birds and pigs, even though they are located. in different areas (urban vs. suburban). This situation seems to be contrary to expectations, in view of the fact that in the urban zones, the availability of physical space around the house/home is low, whereas, in contrast, in suburban zones, the lower urban development has allowed the persistence of large spaces within and around the family house/home. A further contradiction in the results obtained, is that the existing restrictions on the keeping of domestic animals, in particular pigs and ruminants, in the urban regions (Losada et al 1992), are absent in suburban counterparts, which would be expected to act as a mechanism to increase the presence of animals of backyards in such zones. Bearing in mind that in both spaces, the method of investigation used was to identify backyard producers, and not to make an estimation of the total number of producers, which could in part explain the differences, available statistical sources have reported a generally larger number of animals in suburban than urban spaces, whilst the reverse true in the case of birds(INEGI 1990). A possible explanation for the absence of differences in the number of animals per producer between the spaces may be associated with the role of the system in the physical conditions of the city. In the rural parts of the country, backyard animals can wander freely over a large area, allowing them to eat insects, worms and other foods which complement the diet provided by the owners. The links with the house of the proprietor are established by the supply of a basic food source, such as maize, rice, banana etc., as well as provision of night shelter from possible local predators (Martinez et al 1994). In the conditions of Mexico City, the presence of urban physical structure, and maybe the high population density, obliges individuals to keep animals within the area of the house. In this situation, it is possible to suggest that the number of animals is a function of the quantity of food resources that can be made available to the animals, by the family. Following the above explanation, the absence of differences between the backyards of this study, and those others reported in urban spaces, can be understood.

In the conditions of the present study, the relationship between the number of animals kept, and food availability (including household wastes and local food industries) that the family income allows to be provided, is an interesting point to discuss. An analysis of the diet administered to the animals (see table 2) allows us to see that household leftovers, as well as foods produced in the zone, constitute association of the system with the region. An independent component in this model was present in the commercial feed, which does not have local associations. Although the results do not permit us to measure the quantity of food administered in the diet, evidence at hand to date (Losada et al 1995a) indicates that the use of commercial feed is restricted to the young animals whose development entails a high demand for food. In accordance with this situation, the logic of the producer in making up the diet was based on considerations which fall outside of simple live weight gain per day. While in technified production systems, the principal function of the system is the input: relationship, in the backyards, to this relationship are added criteria such as family consumption, provision for economic emergencies, and social and cultural events, which determines that the live weight gain is subordinate to other factors, outside of obtaining maximum yield (Toxtle 1994). The number of animals that the backyard supports, therefore, constitutes the margin which the family economy can maintain.

Despite the fact that the backyard of Xochimilco, as in the east of Mexico City, has been demonstrated to be a system which utilises organic wastes as a prime source of food to be transformed into products for human consumption, or to support particular socio-economic relations (festivals, economic emergencies), the majority of governmental development programmes have been focused on intensive systems, relegating the backyard to productive processes of minor importance (Sánchez 1984). Without doubt, this situation is a part of the reductionist view of the phenomenon of urban agriculture. While it is clear that the presence of pigs in urban environments is restricted as a result of smells and noises not acceptable to an urban population, in the case of the birds, such drawbacks do not exist. In fact, and as was mentioned above, in urban parts of Mexico City, the presence of birds is greater than in suburban regions, which is evidence that birds do not necessarily cause problems to the urban population. Bearing this in mind, it is clear that the formulation of new proposals involving the development of the backyard with the objective of increasing such activities within the population could have direct effects in alleviating some of the problems that plague urban centres, such as unemployment, waste generation and others. In terms of political support of such activities, the reduced live weight gain of animals could be seen as a limiting factor, though it is also clear that the potential of these systems must be seen in the context of the availability of physical space in the city, the knowledge of the average person with respect to management of animals, and the almost unlimited presence of solid organic wastes that could be transformed into food. All of these give the system a far wider value than that of the narrowly conceived technified systems. Backyard animal production has also been criticised for the poor use of technical support (Toxtle 1994), however, in the case of this study, use of medicines, vaccines, commercial feeds as well as particular breeds by producers indicate that the techniques developed for technified production systems have been adapted to the urban agricultural context of the backyard. The politics of microcredit support for small scale activities, such as given by banks of producers in Bangladesh using birds (Johnson and Rogaly 1997, Saleque and Mustafa 1997) is an experience that could be replicated by local government in Mexico City with satisfactory results.


The authors wish to thank the students of the Animal Production option, who helped with field work; the authorities of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana for facilties given for the research, and the producers in the Delegation of Xochimilico for providing the information.


Arriaga C.M., C.E. González, J.G. González, E.G. Nava y L.G. Velázquez. 1993. Sistemas de producción campesinos en dos zonas de San Felipe del Progreso. Estrategias contrastantes. Congreso Nacional de Investigación en Sistemas de Producción Agropecuarios. México D.F.

Cossio, S. L (1965). La ganadería. Historia Moderna de México, tomo 7. R. Hermes, México. 135p.

Daniels WW 1984 Bioestadística. Limusa. México.

INEGI. 1990 Censo Agrícola, Ganadero y Forestal. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática. México.

Johnson S And B Rogaly 1997 Microfinance and poverty reduction. Development Duidelines. Oxfam Publication. UK and Ireland. 85p.

Losada H, J Cortés, D Grande y G Hernández 1992 La Producción Animal en Iztapalapa. Rev. Iztapalapa. México.

Losada H, Neale M, Vieyra J, Soriano R, Rivera J, Cortes J, Grande D. 1995a The Potential of Traditional Sytems of Pig Production in the Temperate Region of Xochimilco. LRRD Vol7, 1.

Losada H, R Pealing, J Cortés and J Vieyra 1997b The keeping of poultry and pigs in the backyards of the urbanised areas of Iztapalapa (east of Mexico City) as a proposal for sustainable production. LRRD, Vol. 9:3:62p.

Martínez S, H Losada and C Carvajal 1994 La avicultura de traspatio en la Región de la Chontalpa, Tabasco. Memorias. 1 Congreso Internacional y II Nacional de investigación en Sistemas de Producción Agropecuarios. UAEM- UAM-I. 235p.

Romero, A 1990 La agricultura en la época colonial. En: Coord. T. Rojas. La agricultura en tierras mexicanas desde sus orígenes hasta nuestros días. Ed. Grijalva, CONACULT. México. 87p.

Saleque M A and Sh. Mustafá 1997 Landless women and poultry: the BRAC model in Bangladesh. Second FAO Electronic Conference on Tropical Feeds. Livestock Feed Resources within Integrated Farming Systems.

Toxtle S 1994 La ganadería de traspatio: un sistema de producción presente en las zonas conurbadas. Memorias. 1 Congreso Internacional y II Nacional de investigación en Sistemas de Producción Agropecuarios. UAEM- UAM-I. 246p.

New Feature! Search Our Site[new]

pointer Return to Contents' Page pointer

Revised Thursday, September 10, 1998

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture