With El Niño predicted to bring rain this fall and winter to the southern portion of the United States, you can’t ask for better conditions for burning cactus. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to lower your feed bill and improve pastures?
Burning the thorns off cactus will give cattle something green to eat with more protein than dried grass and a lot cheaper than feeding only hay. When grass is in short supply during the winter months, cactus can go a long way towards putting something in their stomachs. Next to cubes, I don’t think there is anything they like eating more! Cattle will fight each other and line up at the fence waiting for you to come burn each morning. Burning cactus can reduce grazing pressure on pastures during the winter months and increase herd carrying capacity. So take advantage of El Niño, get your torch out and get after it.
The most important thing to remember before burning cactus is to check the weather conditions. I have several websites that I have fine-tuned to give local conditions hour-by-hour and weekly. The two critical things to look at are wind speed/direction and rain. The most ideal condition for burning is after a rain when the grass is wet. You can burn cactus in drizzle, snow or even sleet. When the ground is wet, many times the cattle will pull the cactus out roots and all. Always remember if you are in doubt or the conditions aren’t right, don’t do it; there will be other days when you can burn. Also remember the wind can dry out the grass real fast so make sure the wind speed is no more than 3 mph so it doesn’t get away from you.
If necessary, split the cattle into smaller groups to make them more manageable. I carry a 1-gallon bucket and an old pair of tree clippers to pick up the seed pods. This will help keep them from spreading by seed. After you have finished burning for the day, walk around and check again that there are no signs of smoke/fire. DON’T BURN MORE THAN YOU CAN SAFELY MONITOR!
Equipment You’ll Need
Your local propane dealer will sell torches along with the propane tanks if you don’t have one. I use a five- and 10-gallon propane tank and a torch from Harbor Freight. The torch is lightweight and has a relatively short hose so you don’t get tangled up with a cow. Whatever you do, don’t use your dad’s old system from the ’50s! Shop around for the best prices on propane. Many dealers will give discounts on purchases; you just have to tell them it’s for burning cactus. Make sure to test the torch connections with soap every time you connect to the tank after refilling it. Also, inspect the hose and all connections. If you have a dolly, you can use a bungee cord to strap the propane tank to the dolly. This makes it much easier to haul it around in the pasture while burning. It would also be wise to replace the torch and hose when they start to show signs of wear. Buy a good striker or lighter and keep it in your coat pocket or pants to avoid getting it wet should it be sprinkling or damp.
How Much to Burn
If you’re looking to replace the cactus with grass, burn the thorns all the way down to the ground. The cattle will eat what is burned, most of the time. If it is an old cactus and the stump is thick, they may leave it. If that’s the case, use an ax or shovel to chop down what remains. When it comes to eating cactus, cattle are like pigs. They will fight each other for it and go for the most tender pads first. You also don’t have to worry about cattle eating the remaining cactus that still has the thorns. If they are getting plenty to eat, they won’t touch it. Don’t be too concerned if they are dropping a lot on the ground, they will come back later and eat it, or the “shy” ones will eat it when the others move on. When the cattle stop chasing after the next pile of cactus to eat, they have had enough and you should stop burning for now. One thing to watch for – if a pad isn’t totally removed of thorns and it’s on the ground, it will grow into a new plant. Therefore, be as thorough as possible when burning the thorns or go back through and use a shovel and pick up the pads that aren’t eaten and stack them in a pile. You can use molasses from a nursery and spray it on the pile to help it decompose and return to the soil as compost. Make sure to turn the pile from time to time.
Even though you will be burning during wet conditions, it is good to follow appropriate safety precautions.
- Always have your cell phone programmed to the local fire department.
- Have your tractor hooked up to a disk with plenty of fuel and ready to go.
- Have either a fire extinguisher or hand sprayer with water in it.
- Keep a shovel handy.
- Never do more than you can handle.
- Watch what you’re doing; you don’t want to set your pants on fire.
Cactus can provide at least 5 to 10% protein and is an excellent source of fiber. It should be considered a supplement and not the only source of protein. Supplementing cattle with cactus and feeding an occasional bag of feed along with hay will provide an excellent source of nutrition for both the cows and their calves. There are a lot of informative articles and research about cactus burning. I think if I ever run out of cactus I will probably plant more. It’s a good winter “crop” and not just for droughts. In fact, in Brazil, there are actual cactus plantations growing feed for dairy cows. They’ve found that a diet of 20-30% prickly pear is optimal for milk producing dairy cattle, and for beef cattle up to 60% of their diet could be prickly pear as long as they were supplemented with maize stover and molasses urea. And the cattle love it, choosing cactus over other feeds as shown in the video below:
Planting Grass to Improve Your Pasture
Both improved and native grasses are good forage sources in pastures. Do some homework for the best varieties for your area. Having a carpenter pouch around your waist is a good way to carry seeds to sprinkle on the ground after burning the cactus. The cattle will trample it in. If you prefer to wait until they have eaten the cactus down to the ground and remove the stump, you can sprinkle seed then and use a rake to sift it into the soil. Try to do it before a rain. You will not believe how nice the pasture will look the following spring. Next thing you know, you’re baling hay instead of buying it, and you didn’t spend thousands of dollars to chemically treat the cactus and end up with lots of dead plants in the pasture and no grass in its place.
Now is the time to prepare. Take advantage of El Niño to get pastures back into shape and a step closer to healthier livestock.