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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Chomping on Cholla Could Keep Cows Alive During Drought

LAS CRUCES -- New Mexico ranchers who have called the cholla cactus a pest in the past may have a change of heart, especially when it's hot and dry.

In a recent study, researchers at New Mexico State University found that cholla is highly digestible and a fairly good source of protein and carbohydrates for cattle.

"The most promising characteristic is how readily available it is on a lot of rangeland in New Mexico," said Lee Knox, a graduate student working with range scientist Gary Donart of NMSU's animal and range science department. "It's a succulent plant, and it remains green during drought conditions."

Knox and Jason Sawyer, another NMSU graduate student, began their study after ranchers attending drought workshops earlier this year asked whether cholla could be used as an alternative feed source. The two conducted their research under the direction of Mark Petersen, an NMSU animal scientist.

"During late spring and early summer -- before we got the recent rains -- there was very limited forage on the range. Most of the grass had already been grazed completely out," Sawyer said. "In some areas, especially near Silver City, there was no forage available whatsoever. The only things standing were juniper and cholla cactus."

The researchers compared 50 burned and unburned cholla samples from 25 plants. "To increase cattle intake of cholla, we used a propane torch to burn off the spines. Otherwise, the cattle wouldn't eat cholla in large enough amounts," Knox said.

The researchers found that the burned cholla provides about 11 percent crude protein, which would be enough to maintain cattle during drought conditions. That's compared to the 15 to 19 percent found in alfalfa and the less than 6 percent in mature, native grasses.

"The biggest limitation in a drought situation would be the cattle intake of energy or carbohydrates," Sawyer said. "Cholla would be a pretty good source, because it contains a lot of soluble carbohydrates."

Cholla's biggest drawback is its 85-percent water content. "That means for a cow to get 15 pounds of dry matter and not lose weight, it would have to eat 100 pounds of fresh cholla. That's quite a bit," he said.

Knox said ranchers can consider cholla a viable option in emergency situations, especially if supplemental feed prices are high. However, he said it would take a fairly good-sized stand of cholla to feed a large cattle herd, and ranchers should evaluate their situations individually.

The researchers cautioned ranchers to be careful to guard against starting fires when using an open flame on the range. "It's really simple to burn the spines. It doesn't take a whole lot of heat," Knox said.

Burned Cholla Cactus Compared to Selected Feeds
Feed Crude Protein % Neutral Detergent Fiber % Dry Matter % Digestibility %
Burned Cholla 11.0 31.1 12.7 76.8
Winterfat 11.0 --- --- 54.0
Alfalfa Hay 18.7 47.1 91.0 58.0
Blue Grama 5.0 67.3 93.8 54.0
Cracked Corn 9.8 10.8 90.0 90.0