Opuntia (nopal): Increased income, reduced soil erosion, improved rangeland productivity, improved animal feed security, drought mitigation (IFAD)

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Opuntia spp: a strategic fodder for arid and semi-arid areas

Source of technology and funding National agricultural research system (NARS) of Tunisia; Mashreq–Maghreb Project (M&M); International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA); International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); funded by IFAD and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD)
Expected Benefit: Increased income for resource-poor farmers, reduced soil erosion, improved rangeland productivity, improved animal feed security, drought mitigation
Targeted Groups: National and international institutions; development planners; project implementers; extension agencies; farm communities
Production Systems: Rangeland, livestock in low rainfall areas, alternative crops
Agro-ecological zones: Arid and semi-arid, frost-free zones of the world
Target region and countries: WANA, Latin America, South Africa, Eastern Africa, Southern Europe, Sahel
Keywords: Low rainfall areas, Opuntia, rangelands, erosion, and livestock feeding
2010-03-12 : Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica var.inermis) - (Photo WVC)


The establishment of sustainable production systems based on cactus may contribute to the food security of populations in agriculturally marginalized areas and to soil improvement. Cacti are some of the best plants for the reafforestation of arid and semi-arid areas because they can resist scarce and erratic rainfall and high temperatures.

They present various alternatives for exploitation:

  • As forage,
  • As a vegetable where young cladodes are consumed fresh, mainly by Mexicans,
  • As a fruit where a sustainable horticultural system is achieved in several countries (Italy, Tunisia, South Africa, Mexico, Chile),
  • For producing carminic acid, the natural red colorant from cochineal, accepted by health authorities worldwide.
  • Processed foods: with a potential market for fruit and nopalitos to produce concentrated foods, juices, liquors, semi-processed and processed vegetables. Food supplements and the cosmetics industry might be a significant source of income.
  • Medicinal Applications: promising results for the treatment of gastritis, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and for obesity.

Cacti as a fodder bank

Opuntia species used for animal feeding are abundant, easy and cheap to grow, palatable and can withstand prolonged droughts. Such characteristics make these species a potentially important feed supplement for livestock, particularly during periods of drought and seasons of low feed availability. The majority of Opuntia plant biomass is pad material rather than fruits and it can be fed to livestock as fresh forage or stored as silage for later feeding.

The importance of cacti became evident when research results showed cacti are capable of developing high productivity in water-stress regions, because of their high water-use efficiency and their above-ground productivity.

In Tunisia under rainfed conditions and with no fertilizer application, spineless cactus yields were between 20 and 100 tonnes of cladodes per year, for an average rainfall of 150 and 400 mm per year, respectively. In Central and South Tunisia, cactus plantations provide a large amount of fodder for livestock and play a key role in natural resources conservation.

2010-03-12 : Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica var.inermis) – (Photo WVC)

Use of cacti for livestock feeding

Cactus is not a balanced feed and should rather be considered as a cheap source of energy. Cladodes have a low crude protein content and consequently need to be supplemented by protein sources. They are also low in phosphorus and sodium. The combination of spineless cactus (Opuntia ficus indica var. inermis) with cereal straw is a nutritionally satisfactory solution for maintaining small ruminants in arid zones. Generally cacti are highly palatable. The gut fill value is low but, unusually, feeding cactus enhances intake of fibrous feeds (straw). This result is highly interesting because straw is the main feed source in arid environments of WANA. It is well established that besides its low feed value, straw intake is low. Combining straw with cactus increases straw intake and consequently animal performance.

Feeding cactus helps resolve the problem of watering animals in arid environment

Water is scarce in arid zones of the WANA region. Watering animals during summer time and drought periods is a real problem. Animals spend a lot of energy to reach water points. Moreover, rangeland degradation in the area surrounding water points is a serious problem. Therefore, the high water content of cactus pads is a positive criteria, and feeding this species helps water animals in dry areas.

The research results show clearly that water intake is nil when cactus intake by sheep is about 300 g of dry matter. Sheep fed for a long period (400 to 500 successive days) with large amounts of cactus stopped drinking.

Some practical considerations

The method of utilization of spineless cactus will differ from farm to farm according to circumstances such as available labor, facilities, quantity of spineless cactus etc. It is often recommended the following ways of utilizing cactus pear for feeding livestock:

  • Grazing of cladodes in situ. Although this is the simplest method it is not the most efficient and care should be taken so that the animals do not overgraze and deplete the plants.
  • Cutting of the harvested cladodes into small pieces or strips and feeding them in a confined area to limit unnecessary wastage.
  • Supplementation in case of emergency. Cactus, fed in any form, will keep the animals alive for long periods.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

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

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