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Publication | 7 January 2019

Cactus (Opuntia spp.) as Forage

Global Food and Nutrition Security

The cactus Opuntia has been used in Mexico from pre-Hispanic times, and along with maize (Zea mays) and agave (Agave spp.), played a major role in the agricultural economy of the Aztec civilization.

In recent years there has been increased interest in Opuntia species for the important role they play – and are likely to play – in the success of sustainable agricultural systems in marginal areas of arid and semi-arid zones.

Opuntias are well-adapted to arid zones characterized by droughty conditions, erratic rainfall and poor soils subject to erosion, having developed phenological, physiological and structural adaptations to sustain their development  in  these  adverse  environments.    Notable  adaptations  are  their  asynchronous reproduction, and their Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, enabling them to grow with very high efficiency under conditions of limited water.

While opuntias may particularly contribute in times of drought, serving as a life saving crop to both humans and animals, they also regularly provide livestock forage in arid and semi-arid areas.  They provide highly digestible energy, water and minerals, and when combined with a source of protein, they constitute a complete feed.

In 1995 FAO published a book on Agro-ecology, cultivation and uses of cactus pear, prepared through CACTUSNET, the international cactus network, with only one chapter devoted to the use of opuntia as feed.  The present publication, also prepared through CACTUSNET, focuses primarily on the use of opuntia as forage and presents many recent research and development findings.

The preparation of this book was coordinated by Enrique Arias and Stephen Reynolds of the Horticulture and Grassland and the Pasture Crops Groups of the Plant Production and Protection Division, and by Manuel Sanchez of the Feed Resources Group of the Animal Production and Health Division.