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Prickly Pear as an emergency feed

published: August 11th 2006
by: Dr. Joe Paschal

It has been dry in many parts of Texas, so dry in fact that many folks have gotten out their pear burners (some may have never put them up!). In fact one local ranch supply store told me that they were selling quite a lot of them until we got a little rain (10 inches in Corpus but not in the rest of the country)! Burning prickly pear cactus has been practiced since the times of the Conquista-dores when cactus pads were burned over mesquite fires to feed their livestock in dry spells.

In present times, many ranchers in the southern and southwestern parts of Texas burn “pear” as an emergency  livestock feed during the winter as well as during droughts to keep from purchasing expensive or nonexistent hay to feed them. Depending on one’s level of skill and expertise, you can burn enough pear to feed 3-5 cows per gallon of propane which may or not be economical for you, depending on your location, number of cows and amount of pear. The burner consists of a tank to hold the propane, a regulator to control the gas flow, a hose to connect the tank to a pipe 4 - 5 feet long (for ease of handling) that has a nozzle on the far end and a hood that surrounds the nozzle and contains the flame for accurate burning.

Before my time and even until the drought of the 1950’s pear burning was done with kerosene burners. The kerosene was put into an air tight container, like an air tank, pressurized by a hand pump, and then allowed to flow out slowly down the pipe to the metal hood that had been heated up over a fire. Now we just turn on the regulator and place a piece of lighted paper in the hood to ignite the gas. The hood formerly dispersed the vaporized kerosine as well as contain the fire but now it just channels the propane flame.

During the last severe drought in the late 1980’s Dr. Wayne Hanselka (the Extension Range Specialist in South Texas) and I did a lot of work on the utilization of prickly pear as an emergency feed. With Dr. Peter Felker we held a Prickly Pear Cactus Sym-posium at Texas A&I University, now Texas A&M University-Kings-ville that had over 250 attendees. From that work and the work of others, including a lot of practical information from an Alice area rancher, Alvin Streadl, and one from Cotulla, Bill Maltsberger, several points should be noted about the use of burned pear as an emergency feed.

Pear pads are actually the stems of the plant and the spines are the leaves. As it is a desert plant, it is designed to retain moisture (in the pads) and to keep it from leaving the plant (through the spines). It’s root system is extensive, extending many feet in all directions from the plant to acquire as much moisture as possible from all areas. It does take time to grow (and to replenish itself after burning) up to 5 or more years for a mature stand.

When burning it is important to select an area with many plants so that time is not spend walking around looking for plants to burn. It is also important to realize that in overgrazed areas, the pear plant itself protects plants such as grasses from overgrazing and provides an important seed reservoir for grass reseeding and recovery when it rainfall is more regular.

Pear also provides cover and resting habitat for wildlife including quail, nesting habitat for many species of birds and rodents, and hunting areas for snakes, especially rattlesnakes. You might want to select the pear mottes you burn (or don’t burn) based on one or more of these considerations (seed reservoir, wildlife habitat, etc).

Some ranchers have planted pear in fields that were previously cleared of brush and cactus so that they would have pear to burn in nutritional emergencies. Others have created “pear patches” of planted or native pear flats so that cattle can be turned into them and pear burned for them thereby saving their pastures from overgrazing. A few have tried spineless varieties (to keep from having to burn pear but few are successful since many species of wildlife (including white tailed deer) depend on pear as a food source.

When you burn, approach the pear with the wind behind you (to reduce the heat on you), holding the burner towards the ground and in front of you (to ward off any snakes that might be chased out of the pear motte) and burn from the ground up. Avoid burning pear mottes that are located in grassy areas to prevent the chance of wildfire. Burn the long spines from each side quickly and move to the next pad without over cooking the pads. Overcooking reduces the feeding value of the pad and makes it unpalatable.

Usually, cattle will begin eating pear slowly and then will readily consume it. Typically they will eat 60 or more pads (depending on the condition and size of the pads and the size of the cow) but they can consume much more. You should burn more pear than the cattle can eat so that they will not eat unburned pear. Cattle will generally eat burned pear that is one or two days old without any problem. The pear does get warm when it is burned but it cools off quickly so the cows can eat it.

Burned pear is one cure for “hollow belly” and although it may not be the best one it is a practical one. Prickly pear is low in protein (around 4-5%), low in energy (about the level of a poor quality hay), high in water, ash and fiber. On the plus side it is high in vitamin A (the green pads) and has a moderate level of phosphorus. We can supplement the cows diet with sources of protein and energy to create a more “balanced” ration. Cows consuming pear will also have a higher need for regular (white) salt due to the level of water in the pear.

It is very important that cows get adequate protein to reduce the occurrence and size of fiber or “pear” balls that form in the cow’s rumen as a result of the high level of fiber ingested. These pear balls can become quite large and can either cause the animal to have a feeling of fullness due to displacement created by their large size or can actually cause a blockage from the rumen to the opening of the small intestine. Cows on pear develop these pear balls anyway, the protein just retards their growth and effects. One other problem is that some cows become “pear eaters” and will eat green, unburned pear spines and all. The problem is that the spines get lodged in the mouth and tongue and can cause  injury. Often the tongues and heads of these cull cows must be condemned and reducing their value.

Burning pear has been practiced by South Texas ranchers for centuries to feed cattle drying the winter and droughts. Prickly pear as an emergency feed can supply some of the cow’s basic nutritional needs and fill her belly but supplemental energy, protein and minerals are recommended for a more balanced diet and to reduce the incidence of fiber or pear balls.


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