To feed livestock spineless cactus or nothing (Willem Van Cotthem)

The publication of an  article on the SciDev website:

led to 2 comments from Australia and Germany, both with a warning that Opuntia ficus-indica (the prickly pear cactus) is an aggressive, invasive species.  It would have almost ‘brought Australian agriculture to a complete standstill in the 1920s‘ and ‘in Latin  America and the SW USA Opuntia are a real pest‘.

2000-06 – Spineless Opuntia ficus-indica plantation in the Nordeste of Brazil (Photo WVC)

Are we speaking about the spiny Opuntia ficus-indica (Prickly Pear cactus) or about the spineless variety of it ?

I am convinced that there is no reason whatsoever to introduce this cactus (neither the spiny, nor the spineless variety) in agricultural lands or in rangelands, where sufficient fodder can be produced with a huge number of species. However, when it comes to deserts or desert-like areas, where almost nothing is growing that is really edible for the cattle, I believe that the spineless Opuntia ficus-indica is a fantastic solution for the nomadic herders or the refugees in their camps.

It is obvious to me that the spiny prickly pear is an aggressive invader, as no animal or human being will easily touch the paddles full of very sharp spines.  Where the species appears, it will continue its growth undisturbed and flourish abundantly.  On the contrary, the spineless variety will eagerly be eaten by many animals.  Some poor families in Brazil do even cook the paddles to make a fine soup.  The fig- or pear-like fruits are eaten all over the world, even those of the spiny varieties.

2000-06 – Leaflike paddles of the spineless Opuntia ficus-indica are ued as cuttings. They swiftly produce a number of young racket-like paddles which can be fed to the livestock, leaving one or two paddles on the cutting to keep the plant growing (Photo WVC)

When I first visited the extremely dry Nordeste Province in Brazil and discovered the splendid Opuntia plantations, I understood the importance of these enterprises.  Local smallholders are growing this cactus, cutting the racket-like paddles and feeding them to their cattle, or drying them in the sun before grinding them into a powdery meal, which is also used as fodder.

2000-06 – The young paddles first form some soft, needle-like, green epidermal extensions. Later on, these fall off, leaving the surface of the palatable paddles smooth and easy to handle (Photo WVC)

If the Brazilians in the desert-like areas of the Nordeste are continuously extending their spineless cactus plantations there must be a number of good reasons to do so: for them it is not a noxious, invasive weed, but a source of juicy, vitamin-rich fodder.

2000-06 – Spineless Opuntias (even the very young plants) produce flowers and edible fruits (fig-like pears) just like the spiny Opuntias do (Photo WVC)

Let us be clear: we are not discussing the possible use of the aggressive spiny prickly-pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), but the cultivation (in controlled areas or plantations) of the spineless variety, which can easily be harvested, handled and fed to the cattle.

Imagine you are living in the desert with your small herd, no vegetation whatever around, your goats, sheep or camels eating all day long littered pieces of paper, cardboard or even plastic, or once a day a bit of meal with some water.  And now comes an opportunity to grow in your part of the desert a spineless cactus, a variety of a desert plant, typical species of the desert ecosystem.  Should you try to grow that spineless cactus in a sort of ‘desert garden‘, protected by a fence, or should you fear that this desert species could invade the whole desert?

You rest your case too?

Let us end this introduction in beauty, reading the final paragraph of the authors’ full article:

Exploiting fodder potentials of Cactus (Opuntia spp) in Kenya for pastoral livestock feeding under a changing climate

J.N.N. Kang’ara1* and J.N. Gitari2

1 Animal nutritionist KARI-Embu, P.O. Box 27-60100, Embu, KENYA.

2 Agronomist KARI-Embu, P.O. Box 27-60100, Embu, KENYA.


Way forward

‘Both the spiny and spineless cactus occurs in Kenya therefore an exploratory survey should be conducted to identify and characterize the Opuntia species and varieties available in Kenya and a database created.  Their agronomic requirement should be determined on station and the effect on animal when fed on these cactus be elucidated.  Using this information, promotion of cactus for livestock feeding by pastoralists in marginal production areas, the rangelands arid and semi arid areas should be zealously encouraged.  The spineless cactus should be bulked as a source of propagation materials since they are very few in the country. There is also need to conserve in situ and ex situ the cactus genetic resource for further research and use in future. A combined effort between the three ministries of Livestock, Agriculture and Northern Kenya and Arid Lands is needed to develop, promote and commercialize cactus for both livestock and human food.’


I wish the pastoralists of Kenya and all the pastoralists of the drylands good luck and success with the ‘spineless, Non-Prickly Pear‘.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

%d bloggers like this: