Joseph Ole Morijo lost his entire herd of 152 goats and sheep after he fed them spiny cactus. So he was baffled to hear researchers proclaim recently that cactus can be used as animal fodder during a drought.
Mr. Ole Morijo is from Laikipia in the northern drylands of Kenya. He says, “It is a dangerous plant. I know it well and I have seen it ruin our livestock. It has to be eradicated completely.”
Experts from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI, studied the potential of cacti with the scientific name of Opuntia as a fodder crop. In May, they released a report which shows that if the right species of spineless cacti are selected, they offer much needed nutrition for livestock during extreme dry seasons.
Mr. Ole Morijo is not convinced that the spineless species exists, and that it is safe as fodder for his animals. “I cannot believe it until I see it,” he says.
John Kang’ara is one of the lead researchers at KARI. “There are two main types of Opuntia: those with spiny fruits, and the spineless type. Though both of them have similar nutritional value, the spiny type poses a challenge to the farmers,” he explains. “It means that if the spiny types are to be used as animal fodder, then farmers must take their time to remove the spines by burning or scraping them with a machete before feeding them to animals.”
Interest in cactus as a potential fodder plant grew after the 2008-2009 drought. Farmers in the Central Province of Kenya fed their dairy cattle on spineless cactus paddles. “Paddles” is the name for the large, leaf-like parts of the plant. The farmers did not lose any of their animals. Their cattle produced milk and bred normally.
In contrast, residents of Laikipia North say that most of their livestock that fed on spiny cacti developed internal wounds, especially in the mouth, which caused them to starve to death.
Mr. Kang’ara said that during their study, “…we noted that most farmers in Central Kenya were practicing zero grazing, making it easier for them to select safe species of the cacti for their animals. But in Laikipia where the animals were herded on the rangeland, they fed on any cacti plants they came across, including the prickly ones.”
Both spineless and spiny cacti can survive harsh climatic conditions. They multiply naturally, but in some circumstances are viewed as an invasive weed.
The researchers suggest that farmers should embrace the spineless Opuntia species. But few spineless species remain in the country. And they are getting scarcer due to high demand.
The researchers say that using plants that grow naturally in dryland areas is one of the best methods to adapt to the changing climatic conditions. Mr. Kang’ara says, “Having cacti for animal feeds will save our animals from starving to death during droughts. Sheep, for example, can survive on cacti for 500 days without supplementation of any other pasture or even water.”
KARI is funding training for farmers and extension officers on the benefits of cacti as fodder. Mr. Kang’ara says, “We need to educate communities that have already given up on cacti after the bad experience with the spiny species.”