A succulent, wild-growing cactus that has been widely dismissed as a noxious weed could sustain African livestock during drought, according to scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
A paper by John Kang'ara and Josiah Gitari, animal nutritionists at KARI, concludes that Opuntia species — the prickly pear or paddle cacti — have extreme tolerance to drought and remain succulent and easily digestible even in times of extreme water shortages, which makes them an excellent source of water and nutrition in harsh conditions.
They found that during a severe drought in 2008–2009, farmers who fed their cattle the cactus paddles (the large, leaf-like parts) lost none of their cattle to drought.
Meanwhile, some farmers, such as the Masai pastoralists in Laikipia North refused to use the cactus as feed and even pleaded with the government to eradicate what they consider to be an invading weed.
Farmers in East Africa lack information on the cactus's nutritive value said Kang'ara, who presented the paper at the Pastoralism and Climate Change Adaptation in Africa conference, in Njoro, Kenya (24-28 May).
Opuntia is used for human food during famine and one species can be used in water purification.
Kang'ara, said there is a need for intensive education of more farmers on the importance of the cactus in arid districts in Kenya. He added that farmer groups and agricultural extension officers — intermediaries who liaise among farmers and the research and policy communities — were being trained about the benefits of the cactus as fodder under programmes funded by the government and KARI.
The next stage, said Kang'ara, will involve research on the best agronomic practices for wide-scale planting of the cactus and characterisation of the spiny and spineless varieties growing wild in Kenya to determine which are most suited for farming in the country.
The researchers are now asking regional governments to encourage cactus plantations to help livestock survive drought.
But Ben Lukuyu, an animal nutritionist at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, said the cactus's low protein and dry matter content limit its importance as a source of forage to periods of extreme drought.