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Kenyan researchers reveal lifesaving properties of cactus for livestock

Cactus could sustain African livestock during drought, according to scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI)

A research paper by animal nutritionist John Kang'ara and Agraonomist Josiah Gitari at KARI stated that the prickly pear or paddle cacti (Opuntia) serve as excellent source of water and nutrition in harsh conditions.

The Opuntia variety remain green and succulent, contain about 90 per cent moisture, and are easily digestible even in times of extreme water shortages, the research revealed. It can be used for for water purification, and also as food for humans during famine.

Presenting their findings at the 'Pastoralism and Climate Change Adaptation in Africa conference', the scientists said, "Despite its fodder potential, cactus is an underutilised fodder resource in Kenya and other East African countries due to lack of information on its nutritive value and other benefits."

During a severe famine in 2008–2009, farmers who fed their cattle cactus paddles lost none of their cattle, they pointed out. In Laikipia East, the local farmers have frequently feed their livestock on cactus during drought.

Masai pastoralists, however, refused to use the cactus as feed and even requested the government to eradicate what they consider to be an invading weed.

Under programmes funded by the Kenyan government and KARI, farmers and agricultural extension officers were being educated about the benefits of cactus as fodder, Kang'ara and Gitari stated.

The next stage would 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, they said

The spiny types pose certain utilisation challenges due to the damage it can inflict on alimentary tract of the animal grazing on it. Therefore, spines have be removed by burning or scrapping them with a machete before feeding them to animals.

Using the findings, cultivation of cactus as livestock feed in marginal production areas, rangelands, arid and semi-arid areas should be encouraged, the Kenyan scientists stressed. The plant can produce a large quantity of green forage throughout the year if properly managed.

Kang'ara and Gitari also urged the regional governments to develop cactus plantations.