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Strategic fodder – cactus to the rescue as livestock feedStrategic fodder – cactus to the rescue as livestock feed

Cactus use for livestock feed may have some drawbacks, but its water use efficiency is high, grows in harsh conditions, and it yields well.Cactus consists of 90 percent water and 10 percent dry matter, making it a dual source of liquid intake and feed.

January 15, 2016

6 Min Read
<p><strong>The prickly pear cactus (pictured) and others are emerging as an economical, high-energy forage option for livestock producers in arid lands.</strong></p>

If it’s true that we are what we eat, we could be talking about cactus cattle here. Whether it’s Angus in Arizona or cows in California, drought has made foraging more difficult. 

Adding to a paucity of protein in the field, the price of commercial fodder continues to rise.   Although it has lower protein content, cactus is emerging as an economical and high-energy forage option for livestock producers in arid lands.

The basic cattle feed of hay and forage --- standing in a pasture, rolled into a bale, or packed into a bunker - still reigns king, although new forage realities are being forged. On a cost-per-unit-of-energy basis, hay is usually the most expensive cattle feed.

“Differing situations are bringing forth unique challenges that are being addressed in a variety of ways, often with trade-offs,” reports

Industry reports show research experiments conducted on things including sprouted barley, high-nutrient algae, and sawdust mixed with other ingredients to produce a nutritional value equivalent to grass hay.

Cactus may have some drawbacks, but its water use efficiency is high, grows in harsh conditions, and it yields well. Cactus is 90 percent water and 10 percent dry matter, making it a dual source of liquid intake and feed.

In addition to its bulk and supplied nutrients, a cactus lunch reduces water consumption.

According to Joe Paschal, livestock specialist at Texas Cooperative Extension, “Normally a cow will drink 10 to 20 gallons of water daily depending on weight, temperature, and physiological status, while cows fed heavy levels of prickly pear drink far less.”

In arid countries like Brazil, dairy cattle producers incorporate fresh cactus as 60 percent of an animal’s diet with the remainder made up of hay, legumes, soymeal, wheat middlings, cottonseed hulls, or other forms of protein content. In those percentages, dairy cattle yielded about 25 liters of milk per day.

Reduce feed costs

Even though the protein content of cactus is only 5 percent and its energy value is only three-quarters that of maize, a cactus option can substantially reduce feed costs.

“When coping with a forage shortage, a cost-effective strategy needs to be developed to include the use of alternative feeds, sourcing of forage resources, and least-cost ration formulation,” according to the Animal Sciences Department at Purdue University.

Since periods of drought have always been a part of the normal production cycle for beef producers, alternative feeds to cover the shortages during dry periods and decreased supplies have traditionally been a part of a comprehensive contingency management plan. 

Author Peter Felker, writing in Utilization of Optuntia for Forage in the U.S., notes that during the Civil War, teamsters scorched cactus with burning brush and chopped it with an axe to feed their oxen.

“As early as 1905, opuntia (with spines removed) was successfully fed to dairy and beef cattle, oxen, sheep, and pigs as emergency livestock feed,” Felker said.

Totally native to the Americas, prickly pear cacti have traveled to many parts of the world including Europe, Australia, the Middle East --- any place with the right climate.

Mexico is the largest commercial grower of the plant that flourishes there and is utilized in many ways from the coloration of clothing to helping lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels.

And while it’s also used in candies and jellies, the cactus is not just utilized as an edible or in medicine, prickly pear has been used for centuries as a forage substitute for cattle and other grazing livestock in the Southwest. 

Englemann species

In fact, the most common and widespread species, the Englemann (Opuntia engelmanni) is used as cattle feed by 20 percent of ranchers on Texas rangelands.

The Texas Cactus Council cautions that while “the prickly pear cactus is a native plant that knows the ways of our land, (it) does not provide a balanced diet and should be fed in association with fibrous foodstuffs (straw, hay), supplemented with nitrogen.”

The United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development calls opuntia “abundant, easy and cheap to grow, palatable, and able to withstand prolonged droughts. The majority of its biomass is pad material rather than fruits and can be fed to livestock as fresh forage or stored as silage for later feeding.

Cheap energy source

The group says cactus is not a balanced feed, but should be considered a cheap source of energy.  And since water is scarce in arid zones, the high water content of cactus pads is a “positive criteria.”

Lest one cactus variety get all the credit, the Journal of Range Management does give a shout out to cholla cactus (Optunia imbricata) as another emergency feedstuff for livestock.

“Cholla is a suitable replacement in emergency situations. It’s a highly degradable source of energy that contains adequate crude protein to maintain productive animals with little or no additional protein supplementation. One drawback is its ash content and excessive moisture that dictates that large amounts of cholla must be provided to achieve adequate levels of dry matter intake.”

All of this is good information for members of the California Cattlemen’s Association Feeder Council which represents the interests of commercial cattle producers across the 38 million acres of private and publicly-owned family rangelands throughout the state.


According to, the state’s rangelands are classified as Mediterranean, intermountain, or desert (primarily the southeastern region) where rainfall is erratic and shrubs provide livestock feed during dryer periods.

That’s also valuable insight for the Arizona Cattle Feeders’ Association, the oldest state cattle feeders association in the U.S., assisting cattlemen since 1934. Arizona is the 12th largest feeding state in the country, marketing over 350,000 fed cattle per year and generating upwards of $3 billion in economic impact for the state.

Although cattle will eat the green prickly pear pads au natural, advises:

“Plants are fragile and should not be grazed directly by animals, but harvested and cut into small pieces before distribution. While heifers in food tests preferred cactus pads with the glochids (minute, hair-like spines) singed off, those that escaped the burning didn’t upset the process of consumption.”

Pears are burned with propane torches and an experienced individual can burn enough in one day to feed 200 cows.

Author Felker, writing for the Center for Semi-Arid Forest Resources at Texas A&M, noted, “The difficulties in use of cactus as cattle feed seem to be due to the level of efficiency of harvesting and burning off spines. If a machine were developed that could harvest cactus for the same cost as corn or sweet sorghum, the cost of 100 pounds of cactus required per-animal per-day could be reduced to about five cents.”

California cactus farm

Cactus as forage holds enough of a promising future that researchers in California’s San Joaquin Valley are cultivating their own cactus farm as part of an on-going research project, that USDA plant and soil research scientist Gary Banuelos believes one day could become a cash crop for commercial farmers. 

Working on a 15-acre trial plot on John Diener’s Red Rock Ranch (with funding from the California State University (CSU) Agricultural Research Institute and the California Department of Water Resources), testing has been conducted to determine salt-tolerance and selenium accumulation, soils that have become too harsh for growing conventional crops. 

A CSU- Fresno State College of Agricultural Sciences report notes, “The ability to grow opuntia in drainage-impacted regions with a minimum of water, and to produce fruit with nutritive and productive value, makes it potentially a high value crop for farmers to economically survive prolonged droughts or reductions in water allotments.”


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