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Take control of prickly pear

published: July 15th 2019
by: Caitlin Richards
source: Southern Livestock Special Edition


Blooming prickly pear along highways and country roads paint a pretty picture, unless, they are within your fence line and scattered throughout your property. Especially if it is a grazing pasture, prickly pear is not a sight producers want to see.


“The problem with prickly pear is it takes up space on your landscape and the more prickly pear you have, the more space it takes up,” Charles Hart, Ph.D. a rangeland ecologist and market development specialist for Corveta Agriscience said. “It’s that simple.”


When it comes to having available forage for livestock, prickly pear quickly becomes a problem. While prickly pear doesn’t necessarily prevent forage production in the pasture, Hart explained, it does keep livestock from getting to the forage.


By reducing access to forage, prickly pear discourages grazing and can cause potential health problems for livestock. Some livestock will choose to eat the grass around the prickly pear or even the prickly pear itself, despite the risk of getting a nose full of needles.


“Once you develop a pear-eating animal, they are probably going to be a pear-eating animal,” Hart said. “And they are likely always going to have a ton of problems, with their nose and things like that. They’ve learned to just deal with it and they go ahead and eat it anyway.”


It is important to remember prickly pear takes up an area of land, which essentially becomes un-grazeable. For example, if a 180-acre pasture is 50% covered in prickly pear the available grazing is not 180 acres, it is actually more like 90 acres. Thus, the stocking rate should be for 90 acres.


“We can get into an overstocking situation pretty quickly,” Hart said. “We can easily get twice as many animals out there as we should with not enough grazeable acres. Where the prickly pear are located cannot be considered grazeable acres.”


Luckily, prickly pear can be controlled and managed with the proper tools and insight. According to Hart, there are three primary methods to manage prickly pear – fire, mechanical and chemical.


“Nine times out of ten you are probably better off to use multiple methods for control, instead of just relying on one method,” Hart said. “There’s no silver bullet out there. There is nothing that is going to solve your problem in one application, whether that is chemical, fire or mechanical. There is always maintenance or follow-up that needs to be done.”


An important fact about prickly pear to remember is the way the plant reproduces. When the pad of the prickly pear falls to the ground, it roots and makes a clone of the plant it fell off of. So, if a producer chooses to manage prickly pear mechanically or with fire, the pads need to be destroyed entirely to prevent regeneration.


For this reason, chemical application can initially lead to greater success in controlling prickly pear. Aerial and ground applications of a chemical are both great options to consider. The terrain and area size will determine whether an aerial or ground application would work best for your operation.


In most cases, if it is a small area with a high-density of prickly pear a ground application is best. If it is a large area with rough terrain, an aerial application would work better. Coverage is critical to the success of managing prickly pear. Therefore, choosing the right application to ensure the best coverage is key.


“Coverage, coverage, coverage,” Hart emphasized, “is an important factor, and in my opinion, probably the most important factor. If we don’t get the herbicide to the prickly pear, we don’t do a good job killing it.”


When thinking about coverage, producers need to consider natural obstacles that inhibit coverage, such as grass and tree canopies. Hart explained that if there is enough grass surrounding the prickly pear, where it is taller than the prickly pear, the grass will intercept the spray.


“My rule of thumb is, if I stand and look at a pasture from a side or horizontal point of view at ground level and I can’t see very much prickly pear, that’s telling me there’s too much grass out there to be spraying it,” Hart said.


It is important to either graze the grass down, burn it down, or wait out the season before applying a herbicide. Spraying with a significant amount of grass, Hart stated, can result in only killing the inside crown or exposed areas of the prickly pear, while the outside crown, hiding in the grass will remain alive, because it was protected.


In the same sense, if using an aerial application, a mesquite or other tree canopy can intercept the spray resulting in a similar situation where portions of the prickly pear remain alive. Therefore, it is recommended to spray when most trees are dormant.


While coverage is important, so is timing to ensure the spray is absorbed into the prickly pear. Late summer or fall application is the best time to spray prickly pear, if you don’t have grass or canopy coverage to consider. However, a winter or early spring application can be successful to prevent damage to other plant species.


“If we have other brush species that we want to limit the damage to, that’s when we switch to an early spring or winter application,” Hart said. “This is also before we have leaves on the mesquite trees, which again goes back to the coverage.”


The condition of the prickly pear is also important to consider. A damaged prickly pear is easier to kill, but there are a few exceptions Hart shared. When prickly pear has a fungus with mold and spores often either having a rust look or gray color, application is not ideal. The uptake of the herbicide, Hart explained, is inhibited because the herbicide can’t get through.


“If you have a situation where you have a lot of prickly pear that don’t look healthy because of these natural rusts and fungus, we need to consider that and let the plant get over that before we do any applications,” Hart said. “When the plant is in that condition, you’re not going to get as much herbicide into that plant as you would if it was greener and healthy.”


Currently, there are three herbicide options for controlling prickly pear - Tordon 22K, Surmount and MezaVue. Based on research from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, MezaVue has shown to be the most cost effective for getting a consistent level of long-term control based on studies by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Range Management Specialists James Jackson and Morgan Russell Treadway, Ph.D.


Hart recommends looking up Texas A&M AgriLife Extension publication ERM-1466, Chemical Weed and Brush Control Suggestions for Rangeland, which he considers the bible for chemical control on rangeland, for more information on specific products and herbicide options, as each herbicide has its own rates and guidelines. While prickly pear may be pretty to some, they aren’t for a producer. But controlling them can be simple keeping this insight in mind.



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