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Home / Smart Harvest

How farmers in drylands are using cactus as animal feed

Research student Lucy Ikanya cutting cactus for her research project at Doldol, Laikipia county. The researcher together with a team from JKUAT are undertaking the study to empower farmers. [Jenipher Wachie , Standard]

Every year when the sun got intense and the grass around Doldol in Laikipia started drying up, Josphat Nkiuki Lekuye would panick. As a farmer keeping camels and goats, he knew what it meant. His animals would die one after another, and he would sometimes be forced to sell them at throwaway prices to save himself from losses. It was time for middlemen from big cities such as Nairobi and Nanyuki to start thronging villages in Doldol asking to buy cattle for as little as Sh2,000. 

Dreaded season

“Farmers dreaded the dry season, but there was nothing we could do to stop it. We would pray and hope; then watch helplessly as animals died of starvation, “he says.

The starvation would also make his cattle vulnerable to diseases. The fact that they did not have a veterinarian in the area and had to source for one several kilometers away in Nanyuki made it even more frustrating. Most of them contemplated stopping farming altogether, a decision he says was depressing since they had grown up not knowing any other form of income-generating activities.

Sustainable solution

Little did they know that the solution to their problems would be found right at their doorsteps, in the most unlikely crop. Last year, they learnt that their hopes were on cactus trees, and they have not looked back.

“If someone had told us a few years earlier that our problems would be solved by cactus that we had treated as weeds since childhood, we would have said they are crazy,” he says.

When Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and other partners went to Doldol to do research in a bid to find a sustainable solution, the farmers were taught how to use cacti to feed their animals.

Dr Willis Owino, a lecturer in JKUAT’s Department of Food Science and Technology says changes in climate and the resultant water shortages made life difficult for farmers who kept cattle in Arid and Semi Arid Lands (ASAL). The impact fell on the farmers who could not find a way out of their troubles.  The research on using cacti as a supplement was based on availability of the plant and its nutritional value.

“Cactus can withstand water shortage, high temperature and poor soil fertility and has been used as a drought feed and as forage for cattle feeding since the early 19th century. In most instances, it is still used as an emergency feed during drought. However, prickly pear has to be processed by completely crushing the spines in the cladodes or pads to produce a thick pulp that is fed to animals,” he says.

He says the farmers have been sensitised on how to prepare the cactus for the animals and how to remove the spikes from the cactus to avoid bruising the mouth and tongue of the animals.

Lucy Ikanya, who was also involved in the project, says they teach farmers how to identify cacti that do not have a lot of spikes. They harvest a portion of the crops and mix it with salt to make the animals eat more of it.

She says their research has shown that cacti have a high digestibility rate compared to store-bought feeds.

“Sometimes when you mix the cacti with the store-bought feet, the camels will pick the cacti and leave the feeds. This shows they find it tastier and it is easy for them to digest it,” she says.

Yusuf Lukuye, one of the farmers trained on how to harvest cacti, says it took him one day to master it. He says what he looks for are crops that are softer and do not have well developed spikes. He says he has noticed that when the camels eat the cacti, they do not drink as much water which solves the problem of water scarcity.

“When it is dry, especially in the middle of the year, all rivers dry up and we sometimes have to walk with animals for many kilometres. Cactus seems to have the water that the animals need,” he says.

Dr Owino says one of the commonly used species of cactus is the prickly pear which has a high water content of 85-93 per cent, and it effectively reduces the cattle’s need for water.

Pastoralist communities have for many years struggled with finding feeds and this has not only affected lives of farmers, but it has also affected attendance rate of children going to school.

The researchers are hopeful that many farmers across ASAL regions will embrace using cacti to feed their animals and stop depending on conventional foods.

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