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OPUNTIA CACTUS

The Farming Opportunity Of The New Century


As Mother Nature takes center stage in the 2000's, farmers in the American Southwest have an opportunity to cultivate a crop which both protects and celebrates the wonders of our precious environment. Unfortunately, this new cultivar-prickly pear cactus-usually seems to be more of a problem than a solution to the sophisticated farmer. However, a look back to the ancient ways of the earliest American gatherers and a look south of the Rio Grande at progressive Mexican farmers has prompted some Texas farmers to reconsider this prickly plant. Beneath the prickly pear's spines lies a plant which thrives in the drought conditions that wither more traditional crops. The tender, juicy cactus leaves are a tasty, nutritious food for the American table, as well as succulent forage for the cattle and the wildlife which suffer in the summer's heat. The prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus is a native plant that knows the ways of our land. It can beautifully adorn our lawns and effectively reclaim our damaged land without making unbearable demands on precious water supplies. This cactus also offers natural dyes and bases for those in the cosmetics and clothing industries seeking alternatives to artificial substances. A choice to cultivate the Opuntia cactus is a choice to work in harmony with nature and a choice to meet the demands of the 2000's for foods and products which enhance health without squandering resources. Those who share this emerging vision will find that just as the thorns guard the beauty of the rose, the threatening spines serve only to protect the secret wealth of the Opuntia cactus.

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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.

Nutrition information

Cactus pear. The cactus "leaves" are mainly water (80-95%). Dried, they contain high levels of ash (up to 33%), low levels of crude protein, phosphorus and sodium, and levels of manganese, copper, zinc, magnesium and iron within the range generally acceptable in ruminant diets. Analysis has also found high levels of calcium and of oxalate salts - which may explain the laxative effect of the cactus when fed to animals.

 

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.

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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.

  GROWING INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Keep growing area free of weeds and grass. Roundup may be used by covering cactus plants while spraying.
  2. Allow plants to grow upright by harvesting some of the side tender pads.
  3. Leaves may be harvested for desired taste. Leaves cut in the morning have a slight sour flavor. Evening cut leaves have a mild taste.
  4. Commercial planting can be fertilized and drip irrigated for highest potential yield. A new crop of nopalitos from bud to eatable leaf can be harvested every 15 days. If harvesting is staggered, nopalitos can be cut in regular time intervals to fit the market demand.
  5. Planting a windbreak is desirable for better growth, less wind scar, and uniform leaf size.
  6. In preparation for winter, tall growth should be pruned back. (Whole branches of pads should be removed and be allowed to dehydrate in preparation for Spring planting).
  7. Variety 1308 will freeze in cold winters and must be protected.. When weather forecasts predict below freezing temperatures, plants and removed leaves should be covered with hay. In the event of imminent hard freeze, place a protective cover over plants with hay on top for extended protection.
  8. Cacti covered in this method will enter a dormant state caused by removal from sunlight and reduction of temperature below 80 degrees.
  9. Cutting leaves and storing them in a shelter is another method of freeze protection.