The Farming Opportunity Of The New Century
Many ranchers in Texas and the Southwest promote the cactus pear as a strategic fodder in arid and semi-arid areas. The idea of using Opuntia to feed livestock is not recent - during the 19th century, there was extensive trade in cactus in cattle-raising regions of Texas, USA, and both wild and cultivated cactus are used today in Tunisia, Mexico and South Africa as an emergency forage during drought. But a 1995 study found that more research on cactus was needed. Since then universities (including Texas A&M Kingsville) helped establish an international technical cooperation network on cactus pear, initiate a horticultural variety information bank, and sponsor a series of international congresses and workshops on the plant. Several professors from Mexico and Israel have done intensive studies and have presented their findings.
Cactus pear is attractive as a feed because it converts water to dry matter - or digestible energy - far more efficiently than grasses and legumes, responds well to fertilizing, tolerates heavy pruning, and can be fed to livestock as fresh forage or stored as silage. Studies have shown that a hectare of mature cactus pear can produce up to 100 tons of cladodes (the cactus "leaves") a year in areas with very little rainfall. (1 hectare = 2.471 acres)
In North Africa and the Near East, Opuntia has become an important subsistence crop, and thousands of acres of it have been planted, mainly in low rainfall areas, to provide feed for livestock during droughts (to encourage plantations, the Tunisian government provides farmers with free growing material, and subsidizes their soil preparation and maintenance costs). As well as providing fodder, the cactus pear helps alleviate pressure on watering holes during the summer and drought periods - research shows that sheep's water consumption drops to nil when their cactus intake reaches about 300g, by dry weight, per day.
We caution that cactus pear does not provide a balanced diet - it should be fed in association with fibrous foodstuffs (such as straw and hay) and needs to be supplemented with nitrogen. However, as an emergency fodder and a reliable source of forage in low-rainfall areas, it has few equals.
Failure to use a supplement in addition to cactus can be disastrous. Cactus fiber balls can form in the animals intestines and cannot be digested, eventually killing the animal. That is why ranchers will also feed hay and or cottonseed cake to the animals in addition to the cactus. Many, many ranchers in the South Texas area swear that cactus is what kept their herds alive during intense droughts. They will tell you that modern agricultural technology promoting the dozing of cactus lands is a big mistake. The same is told of destroying mesquite covered pastures, but that is another story.
Information by Mr. Robert J. Mick prepared for the August 2007 TCC Meeting
We've had many people asking about cactus and how they can get started in their own fields or backyards. The information below was reported by one of the original members of the Texas Cactus Council, Mr. Robert J. Mick. Robert is no longer active in the council. Thanks t o Shin Ichi Tokuno (council member from San Antonio ) for submitting this information for the August 2007 Newsletter.
HOW TO GROW FARM RAISED CACTUS LEAVES
1. Prepare an elevated, well drained fertile area for planting.
2. Cut leaves (pads) from adult plants.
3. Let leaves at least 4 days to heal before planting.
4. A single whole leaf can produce as many as 50 leaves in one growing season.
5. Place the bottom one-third of the cactus pad with flat sides facing East and West. Press soil firmly to the pad for faster rooting.
6. Water may be applied to this method of planting but isn't necessary.
7. Apply fertilizer after plants have started growing. An application of a formula such as 5-10-5 is adequate. Barnyard fertilizer is a good companion fertilizer because of organic content.
8. Research the botanical living conditions in which cactus grew. Duplication of these conditions plus temperature control and drip irrigation can produce outstanding results.