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A RIVAL OF ALFALFA

THE COMMERCIAL POSSIBILITIES OF CACTUS AS CATTLE FOOD

The right of introduction of certain of the first of my spineless cactus productions in the southern hemisphere was sold to Mr. John M. Rutland, of Australia. Mr. Rutland had come to Santa Rosa to observe my experiments, and desired to take back with him the Spineless Cactus along with certain other of my new products, including the first of the Plumcots. He very gladly paid one thousand dollars for a single slab of the most important of the new Opuntias, named the "Santa Rosa," and somewhat smaller sums for slabs of several other varieties, including the "Sonoma", "California", "Fresno", and "Chico". He purchased the privilege also of introducing the new plants throughout the southern hemisphere. This was the first financial return for the work on the Opuntias. It practically paid for the building of my new home, but, of course, fell far short of the sum expended on the cactus experiments. A little later a company, formed to control the introduction of the plant in the northern hemisphere, paid me a large sum for my interest in the entire stock, including one or two hardy hybrids that had value for further experimental purposes. The original sale included individual slabs of the different varieties just named, and a few others. The later deliveries included more than fifty tons of slabs and plant bodies, constituting the tangible results of the long series of experiments. My experiment garden, however, still has a large quantity of Opuntias in various stages of development, but particularly those that are being developed for their fruiting qualities. Not less than five hundred tons of forage-as nearly as can be estimated-are now standing on less than half an acre at Santa Rosa. As forage plants, the spineless Opuntias already developed have attained a degree of perfection that leaves little to be desired.

PROPAGATION OF THE SPINELESS OPUNTIAS

It should be understood that the new varieties of Opuntias, while as a whole they may be regarded as constituting a new species, are individually comparable to the different recognized varieties of any given orchard fruit, like the best apples, or pears, or plums. That is to say, they may be indefinitely propagated by division, and all the plants grown from the original individual will retain the essential characteristics of the original. But, like apples, pears, and plums, they cannot be depended on to transmit their best characteristics unvaryingly from the seed. With the new Opuntias, as with the orchard fruits and so many cultivated plants, the various hereditary factors are blended in more or less unstable combinations, and this unstability will be revealed in the offspring grown from the seed. So the recognized method of propagating the Opuntias is to plant a slab, and to let this serve as the foundation from which roots and branches will grow. The slabs that develop on each plant may of course be similarly cut off and planted, so that a large territory may be rapidly covered with cactus plants, all precisely like the original. Mention was made in the preceding chapter of certain cases in which an individual cactus slab that was practically without spines might develop other slabs that would be spiny. This could only occur, however, in case the slab in question was an individual variant which owed its lack of spines to some local condition of altered nutrition. A slab growing as a part of a plant that is spineless throughout will produce only spineless plants, with the exception of very rare bud sports which appear on all plants from time to time. The case of the Opuntias in this regard is precisely comparable to that of the orchard trees that are propagated by grafting. In each case the entire crop of plants, although multiplied until the offshoots of a single plant may cover hundreds or thousands of acres, really constitutes essentially one plant with divided personality, rather than successive generations of plants.

SPINELESS CACTUS FROM THE SEED

Yet the important question has arisen as to what will take place when the transplanted Opuntias, once they have come to populate the arid places, produce fruit, and scatter their seeds. The answer is that no bad results will ensue. The reason is that the new hybrid Opuntias have been found to be seedless; or, where the seeds are not entirely eliminated, they are reduced in size and have lost vitality. In my experience, then, when the improved species have ripened and dropped to the ground, under the most favorable possible circumstances, no seedlings have been seen; whereas, when the fruit of the wild ones drops there are abundant seedlings. The case is comparable to that of the Shasta daisy, which never spreads from the seed, unlike its wild prototype. When the Shasta was first introduced, one of the western states passed a law forbidding its growth in the state. At the present time the Shastas are grown by the millions in that state, as well as in all other regions of the world, and no one has ever complained. With care in propagating, and reasonable protection, the new spineless Opuntias constitute a race that gives every assurance of permanency. Yet it should not be forgotten that this race has been developed under conditions of artificial selection, and may need man's protection while it is establishing itself in any given region. The new spineless Opuntias represent a race that has been permitted, through the fostering influence of artificial selection, to develop, notwithstanding its loss of the protective spines. Now that it has been developed, and the spineless condition combined with the traits of prolific growth and abundant bearing, the race which could never have made its way under natural conditions may be sent back to the desert to provide forage for browsing animals in almost unbelievable quantity. But even now it will be necessary to protect the young plants from the herds. It is only after the Opuntia has attained a fair growth that it could withstand the attacks of the herbivorous animals, which find its succulent slabs altogether to their liking. Some uninformed newspaper reporters have unfortunately given the impression to the public that the seed of the improved varieties could be sown on the desert land like wheat, and grown without fencing or other protection. Let us ask, what crop that man values in any country is not fenced? The more valuable the crop, the more carefully must it be protected. The very fact that all herbivorous animals relish these new creations proves their value and the necessity for protecting them.

BOTH FOOD AND DRINK

So thoroughly appealing, indeed, is the flesh of the cactus plant to the palate of the herbivorous animals that many of them will feed on it even when the slabs are protected by spines. There are regions in Mexico and Hawaii where the cattle feed habitually on wild species of Opuntias, even though this involves the habitual ingestion of millions of spines and spicules with which the slabs are protected; resulting quite often in sickness or death of the animals. The manager of a ranch in Hawaii, writing to the editor of the "Butchers and Stockgrowers Journal," of California, under date of April 17, 1905, declares that on his ranch there is a paddock of 1,200 acres covered very thickly with cactus or prickly pears, with only a slight growth of Bermuda grass. In this paddock, he tells us, are pastured all the year round 400 head of cattle and about 700 hogs. For both cattle and hogs the cactus furnishes the chief food. The hogs receive only a slight ration of corn, fed to keep them tame, and for the rest live exclusively on the young leaves and fruit of the cactus. Both cattle and hogs thrive wonderfully. But when the cattle are killed, it is found that the walls of their first stomach are filled with myriads of small spines. The manager adds that he has never known an animal to die from the effects of these spines. This is a half dwarf, partially spineless variety, which is sometimes found in tropical islands. Yet it is obvious that the spines cannot add to the health of the creature, and it is hardly to be doubted that the animals will appreciate the spineless varieties when they have access to them. But the most remarkable part of the story remains to be told. This is the fact that the cattle have water to drink only during the rainy season, which usually includes the months of December and January. During these two months there is a certain amount of grass and they have water to drink. But during the other ten months of the year the cattle subsist exclusively on the fruit and young leaves of the cactus. They receive not a drop of water except as they find it in the succulent cactus slabs. "Yet," the narrator continues, "it is a remarkable fact that during the dry months of the year we get a higher percentage of fat cattle from that paddock than from any of the others." He adds that he considers the cattle fed in this way on cactus to make as well-flavored beef as any that he has tasted in San Francisco and New Zealand. Another record of the same sort is given by Mr. Robert Hind, a millionaire sugar planter and ranchman of Honolulu, who declares that on his ranch in Hawaii he has horses that "do not know what water is and will not drink it if it is brought before them. They have never tasted water." "I have good, fat cattle," Mr. Hind continues, "that have never seen water and would not know how to act if water touched them. I have other cattle that I have imported from the United States which have not tasted a drop of water since being turned out on my cactus and blue grass pastures. They have lived for years without water, and are as fat as any grass-fed cattle in the United States. They make just as good beef as you can get in any restaurant." To any one who knows the prime necessity of a water supply for cattle and horses under ordinary conditions of grazing, such statements seem almost incredible. But they are thoroughly authenticated arid, indeed, they need excite no surprise in the mind of any one who appreciates the succulent quality of the cactus slab. In point of fact, the entire cactus plant is a receptacle for holding water. It was doubtless because the leaves of the cactus transpired water, as do all leaves, that these appendages were given up, so that the cactus of today is a leafless plant. A plant that grows in the desert finds it necessary to conserve water. So through natural selection the cactus developed the custom of dropping its leaves when they were only tiny bracts, at the very earliest stage of its growth, developing chlorophyll bodies in its slabs to perform the functions usually performed in the leaf of the plant. These present a relatively small surface to the air in proportion to their bulk, and conserve in large measure the water that would be transpired from an ordinary leaf system. This, combined with the habit of the cactus of sending its long, slender roots deep into the soil, accounts for the power of the plant to grow in arid places. It is not that the cactus can perform its life functions without water any better than can another plant. It is only that the cactus has learned how to seek a water supply in the depths, and to conserve it after it has been found. What the cactus does then, essentially, is to bring water from the depths of the parched earth, and to store it in its flat slabs, along with nutritious matter, so that these constitute both food and drink for the animal that eats them. It is obvious that a plant that has such characteristics, now that it has been robbed of the spines that were hitherto its greatest drawback, and quadrupled in productiveness-with a good prospect of increasing it one thousand percent-constitutes a forage plant that is in a class quite by itself. The importance of this forage plant is already widely appreciated, but it will be more and more fully understood as the years go by.

ENORMOUS PRODUCTIVITY OF THE NEW OPUNTIAS

Not only is the quality of forage produced by the new species of Opuntias of a character to recommend it most highly, but the quantity of forage produced by a given acreage is altogether without precedent. Moreover, being available throughout the year in a succulent form, it is peculiarly valuable for feeding milk cows, producing a greatly increased flow of milk. The plants grow rapidly from cutting, and only a few months are required to produce a growth that begins to present forage possibilities. Of course it will be better to allow the plants to grow for two or three years, and thus attain large size, before slabs are cut away. But after that the new growth may be removed from time to time as required, and the plant will be a constant forage producer for a century at least. The different varieties of new spineless Opuntias vary a good deal as to size, but all are plants that on good land attain a growth of six or ten feet during a few seasons, and some of them grow much larger. There is a good deal of difference also as to size and weight of the individual pads or slabs. Many of these weigh eight or nine pounds, although the average is from two to six pounds for the improved varieties. Some of them weigh as high as eighteen to twenty-two pounds, but these are exceptional. But the varieties having largest slabs do not usually produce by any means the greatest amount of food. One of the new varieties of the gigantic Tuna type has produced a slab four and one-half feet in length. This, of course, is something quite out of the ordinary; but slabs from twelve to eighteen inches in length are by no means unusual. The growth of the plants is so prolific that the total weight of the new slabs grown in a single season, under favorable conditions, has been estimated at almost one hundred tons to the acre. On the best agricultural grounds, as on my own grounds at Santa Rosa, the plants have produced quite five hundred tons per acre in their first four years of growth. This is from some of the most highly improved varieties, on the best of land, but without irrigation or special fertilization. Of course this growth would not be duplicated on all soils or under all conditions, but even in inferior soils the growth of the Opuntias is phenomenal, and the amount of forage produced each season is greatly in excess of that produced by any other forage plant, not excepting alfalfa. When the extraordinary weight of fruit that is borne by some varieties is further taken into consideration, it becomes evident that the new spineless Opuntia is the most productive plant ever cultivated. It is within the possibilities that a field of Opuntias, under ideal conditions of cultivation, might yield in new slabs and in fruit an aggregate edible product approximating five hundred tons to the acre. This has already been attained in smaller areas. As to soil, the Opuntias grow everywhere. They may be planted on rich level land, or on the steepest and poorest rocky hillside, along old riverbeds, and among rock piles. But it must not be inferred from this that the plant is oblivious to good treatment. The growth and succulence of the slabs are greatly increased by good soil. Reasonable cultivation of the soil is also of benefit, and, under semi-arid conditions, a very slight irrigation once during the dry season will be highly beneficial, but not absolutely necessary, as the plants will live where not a drop of rain falls for many years, if the soil is not too fiercely sunbaked. By such treatment, the fruit is greatly increased in size and improved in quality, and the slabs for forage are doubled in weight. In a word, no plant responds more promptly to good treatment than does the Opuntia. Yet, on the other hand, the plant retains the primeval capacity of its ancestors to make its way under the most unfavorable conditions.

MAKING A FORAGE AND FRUIT FIELD

Unlike most other plants, the Opuntias root best during the heat of summer. This is also the best time to transplant them. In fact they should not be moved at other seasons. No one who is familiar with the Opuntias would undertake to root or transplant them during the cold, damp weather, such as would be best for other plants. But if transplanted during May, June, July, August, or September they will thrive under almost any treatment. The leaves, blossoms, buds, half grown fruit, or any part of the plant will take root and grow under the most discouraging circumstances. I have seen them develop on the floor back of a cook stove, in the pocket of a winter overcoat, lying on a writing desk, and in similar unlikely places. The Opuntias differ from nearly all the other plants in that the cuttings must first be wilted before they will grow (unless in the dry, heated part of summer); after which, nothing grows more readily. When you receive cuttings, place them in some warm, sunny place, and allow them to remain a week or more, after which they will readily form roots and start to grow almost anywhere. They may best be planted so that about one-third of the cutting is below the soil. The cutting may be planted in an upright position, or at any angle, such details make no difference to the Opuntias. On fairly good soil, to provide a forage field for stock feed, the giant Opuntias should be planted two rows together at intervals of three or four feet, according to variety, and then a space of ten or twelve feet left, and another pair of rows planted in the same way. This has been found to be the best way to plant the cactus, as by this arrangement space is left for general cultivation and for gathering the crop; otherwise the plants would too completely cover the ground. The young plants must have protection from marauding beasts. Squirrels and rabbits are particularly fond of the young slabs, and in a country infested by these creatures it may be necessary to fence in a young field of cactus until it attains a considerable growth. Needless to say, it must be protected from the encroachments of farm animals, as they would destroy the young plants utterly. When the Opuntia attains a reasonable size, it becomes, as already pointed out, a perennial source of forage. The plants live to an indefinite age, and year by year they put out new slabs, which may be cut at any season for feeding purposes. It is best to cut the forage, and not to give the animals access to the growing plants, as in the latter case they would waste the feed and seriously injure or destroy the plants. The central stems of the old plants, however, attain a woody character that protects them against extermination by stock. In practical feeding, it is desirable, where possible, to combine the Opuntia slabs with straw, hay, bran, and other carbonaceous and especially dry foods, like straw, hay, and the like. The Opuntia slabs may be fed as an exclusive diet, and in this case farm animals will have no craving for water. But in fact the cactus is not a complete food, and it is always more economical to feed some dry food with it, alfalfa hay being one of the best, to complete and round it out as a nitrogenous diet. Almost without exception, herbivorous animals are fond of the cactus. Cattle prefer it to almost any other food, and it makes a superior quality of beef, and exceedingly rich milk, which is not surprising considering the succulence of the cactus and the fact that it contains a relatively large percentage of the salts of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. A very superior quality of pork is produced from pigs fed on the cactus fruit. The fruit is used also with success as a poultry food. The plant has been fed to horses, which, however, are said as a rule not to relish it until they become accustomed to it. But the merits of the cactus as a food for animals have too long been recognized to require extended comment. The wild thorny cactus is frequently prepared for stock feeding by burning off its spines, and in Australia the leaves and fruit are boiled to make them available as food for hogs, especially in long seasons of drought. Such facts sufficiently attest the value of this plant, as well as its palatability. The spines which have hitherto constituted the one perennial drawback having now been removed, and the plant itself having been made to reveal new capacity for growth and for the production of flesh and fruit of peculiar succulence and food value, the cactus, as represented by the new races of spineless Opuntias, must take a leading place among forage plants in all arid and semi-arid districts, where the climate is semi-tropical.

-There is no reason why the cactus should not compete on something more than equality with any other forage crop-not excepting alfalf aeven in regions admirably adapted to the growth of plants of less hardy character.

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 8 Chapter 7