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Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica)


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Common names 

Prickly pear, Indian fig, opuntia, Barbary fig, prickly pear cactus, mission cactus, smooth mountain prickly pear, tuberous prickly pear, tuna cactus [English]; nopal [English/French]; figuier de Barbarie, figuier d'Inde, oponce [French]; tuna, chumbera, nopal de Castilla [Spanish]; tuna mansa [Spanish/Mexico]; tabaibeira, figo-do-diabo, figueira-da-barbária, figueira-da-índia, palma-de-gado, jamaracá, orelha-de-onça [Portuguese]; boereturksvy, grootdoringturksvy [Afrikaans]; Feigenkaktus [German]; fico d'India [Italian]; hint inciri [Turkish]; xương rồng Nopal [Vietnamese]; تين شوكي [Arabic]; 梨果仙人掌 [Chinese]; Φραγκοσυκιά [Greek]; צבר מצוי [Hebrew]; Опунция индийская [Russian]; భారతీయ నాగ జెముడు [Telugu]


Cactus decumanus Willd., Cactus ficus-indica L., Opuntia amyclaea Ten., Opuntia cordobensis Speg., Opuntia decumana (Willd.) Haw., Opuntia ficus-indica var. gymnocarpa (F. A. C. Weber) Speg., Opuntia gymnocarpa F. A. C. Weber, Opuntia hispanica Griffiths, Opuntia maxima Mill., Opuntia megacantha Salm-Dyck, Opuntia paraguayensis K. Schum. (USDA, 2009)

Related feed(s) 

The prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica) is a cactus species widespread in semiarid and arid regions of Americas, Africa, Asia, Southern Europe and Australia. It is a multipurpose crop and a valuable forage source of water and forage for livestock in dry areas.


Opuntia ficus-indica is a slow growing perennial shrub up to 3-5 m high. The root-system spreads horizontally. Stems (cladodes) are very thick, succulent, oblong to spatulate, 30-40 cm long (up to 70-80 cm) and 18-25 cm wide. The epidermis is very thick and waxy, thus very water repellent and sun reflecting. Leaves are generally reduced to thorns but may exist on young cladodes (they soon wither and quickly fall). Some varieties are spineless. Flowering occurs on 1-2 year-old cladodes. Flowers open in the late morning (Ecoport, 2009). The fruit is succulent, reddish, ellipsoid, 7 cm long and edible.


Cacti such as Opuntia are better suited for semiarid conditions and outyield most annual grain crops in such environments (Dubeux, 2011). The prickly pear is cultivated in more than 30 countries for its fruits and cladodes. Young cladodes are used as vegetables and mature cladodes are used for forage (Ecocrop, 2009). Opuntia cladodes are edible and Opuntia is used as famine food during drought periods. Opuntia plays an important role in sustainable agricultural systems in arid and semi-arid zones (Reynolds et al., 2001). It may be a very important source of water and feed for livestock in very dry areas in cases of emergency (Dos Santos et al., 2001). Many Opuntia cultivars have been created for their improved nutritional or agronomic characteristics, such as higher yields, higher protein content, resistance to cold, resistance to insects and absence of spines. Spineless varieties are particularly valuable for fodder (Mondragon-Jacobo et al., 2001). A review of the utilisation of Opuntia by livestock can be downloaded here: Dubeux, 2011.


Opuntia ficus-indica is native to Mexico and is widespread in Central America, Southern USA, Africa, Asia and Southern Europe (USDA, 2009). Although it is cultivated in more than 30 countries, it is considered a noxious weed in South Africa and Australia.

Opuntia thrives in drought conditions, erratic rainfall and poor soils subject to erosion but it cannot withstand salinity and waterlogging (Orwa et al., 2009). Opuntia ficus-indica is sensitive to freezing temperatures but extremely tolerant to high temperatures (Reynolds et al., 2001).


It is recommended to process cladodes before feeding them to livestock. Several feeding and processing methods have been described (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001):

  • Direct feeding: Opuntia plants are browsed whole, including spines, by cattle, sheep and goats. This practice is harmful to the animals.
  • Removal of cladode edge: the upper portion of the cladodes, where the largest number of thorns is present, is removed with a knife, allowing animals to feed on the plant. Its main disadvantage is the waste of cladodes.
  • Singeing-off of spines of whole plants: the plant is completely flamed with a propane or kerosene burner, and the animals are allowed to consume it down to the base. It is combined with grazing in the case of sheep and goats.
  • Extensive cladode cutting and superficial burning: this practice eliminates spines and allows animals to eat the whole cladodes directly in the field. The cladodes may be cut into small pieces.
  • Singeing and chopping in situ: the cladodes are harvested and their spines burned with firewood or gas torch. Then they are chopped and offered to animals.
  • Cladode harvesting from dense stands: cladodes are transported to the farm, their spines are burned off, and they are cut into small pieces.

Cutting the cladodes in small pieces facilitates their consumption, the preparation of a total mixed ration and the addition of urea and concentrates (Dubeux, 2011). The cladodes may be chopped manually or mechanically, as shown in the following videos (Brazil, Dubeux, 2011).


Forage management 

Opuntia ficus-indica can be harvested 3 years after seedling. Its productivity is between 5 and 6 t/ha/yr under water-limited conditions (Reynolds et al., 2001). In good conditions, 40 t/ha of dry matter can be achieved and fruit yields of up to 20 t/ha are feasible (Ecocrop, 2009). In Brazil, the carrying capacity of Opuntia was estimated to be as high as 4.8 animal units/ha/year, which is more than 50 times that of the native rangeland (0.8) (Dubeux, 2011).

Environmental impact 

Opuntia are a valuable source of forage that allows the incorporation of semiarid lands to production systems, thus increasing farm sustainability in these areas (Dubeux, 2011).

Opuntia species are used to prevent soil erosion (by providing cover) and desertification. Because they use CAM photosynthesis, they are ideal species for responding to global environmental changes such as the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. They also protect the local fauna by surviving in very arid conditions (Reynolds et al., 2001).

However, this capacity for adaptation and rapid spread is causing problems, particularly where prickly pears are able to thrive in the absence of natural enemies and without appropriate management. They have become a noxious weed in a number of countries, threatening native plants. Among other control measures, biological control has been particularly successful in Australia and South Africa (Reynolds et al., 2001).

Nutritional aspects
Nutritional attributes 

Opuntia ficus-indica cladodes are very rich in water (85-95%) and thus an important emergency source of water in semiarid areas for livestock (Dos Santos et al., 2001). However, the high level of water may decrease DM intake during the wet season (Tegegne, 2001). The protein content is rather low (4-15% DM) and depends on age and harvest season (Retamal et al., 1987) and also on N fertilisation and plant density (Dubeux et al., 2006). Young cladodes of prickly pears grown for commercial fruit production in Spain had 11-15% DM protein, while mature cladodes varied from 4 to 11% protein (Tegegne, 2001).

Potential constraints 

Prickly pear bear spines and glochids (stiff bristles on the surface of the cladode) that are responsible for mechanical irritations in humans (Greenberg, 2003). Spines cause injuries when eaten by livestock and must be removed by burning or by chopping off the most thorny parts of the cladodes.

Opuntia contains high amounts of oxalate crystals that cause mechanical trauma, make Ca less available and may have a laxative effect on animals (Barceloux, 2008; Nefzaoui et al., 2001). Cases of diarrhoea caused by excess Opuntia fodder can be successfully controlled by providing a source of fibre in the diet (Dubeux, 2011). Low Ca levels lead to unsuitable Ca:P ratios for livestock and must be counterbalanced by P and N licks (Nobel, 2002).


Opuntia cladodes are a valuable forage for ruminants. They should be supplemented with sources of protein and fibre in a mixed diet. They should not be fed alone due to the risk of diarrhea and weight loss, though Opuntia-only diets have been reported (see Cattle below). They are rich in soluble carbohydrates, which makes the addition of molasses unecessary and helps to reduce the amount of cereal grain in the diet (Dubeux, 2011).


Opuntia ficus-indica are used to feed cattle in intensive as well as extensive meat and dairy operations. While poor in terms of nutrients and fibre, Opuntia constitutes an important source of water in traditional production systems. There are reports of cattle being fed for 400 to 525 days exclusively on an Opuntia diet without watering, without serious side effects (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001). However, cattle fed Opuntia had to be supplemented with copper, molybdenum and zinc (Felker, 2001). Cattle can consume 15 to 40 kg of fresh cladodes/day, and up to 90 kg if the cladodes are abundant and conditions are dry. Opuntia consumption depends on the availability of other feeds, and may decrease during the rainy season when grass is more plentiful (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001).

Dairy cattle

The following videos show dairy cattle eating Opuntia in Brazil (Dubeux, 2011):


Since the early 1900s, it has been known that Opuntia-based supplementation can increase not only milk production, but also the quality of butter in terms of consistency and storage life, as well as adding an attractive golden colour to the finished product (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001).

However, it has also been reported that milk production in Holstein cows decreased when the amount of Opuntia increased in the diet. The optimal combination recommended to obtain a good balance between production costs and returns was 20 to 30% Opuntia (on a dry matter basis) supplemented with alfalfa hay, oats and sorghum (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001). The inclusion of Opuntia forage resulted in a decrease in nutrient intake, NDF digestibility, total chewing time, feeding and rumination efficiencies, and water intake (Oliveira et al., 2007; Carvalho et al., 2005). Increasing the intake of Opuntia also caused significant changes in the milk profile (Oliveira et al., 2007).

There were no changes in feed intake, animal performances and apparent digestibility of nutrients when dairy cows were fed roughage supplemented with Opuntia ficus-indica (Silva et al., 2007). Feeding lactating cows on spineless cactus + urea advantageously replaced Bermuda grass hay and increased energy intake and milk production (Cavalcanti et al., 2006; Cavalcanti et al., 2008). However, the nutritive value of urea-treated Opuntia forage was lower than that of soybean meal (Melo et al., 2003), and it was necessary to maintain Bermuda grass hay in the diet when replacing corn by spineless cactus alone, in order to maintain microbial production (Oliveira et al., 2007).

Storage up to 16 days was shown to have no effect on the DM intake and milk production of dairy cows in Brazil (Santos et al., 1998).

Beef cattle

In Brazil it was concluded that 60% of the total energy requirements for beef cattle could be supplied by Opuntia. In Mexico, Opuntia has been successfully used to raise beef cattle receiving a supplement of maize stover, molasses and urea (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001).


Sheep can consume between 3 and 9 kg/day of Opuntia. They can browse around 3-5 kg/day of burnt and chopped Opuntia, but less if it is raw (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001).

In Ethiopia, sheep were fed either 60% or 50% Opuntia ficus-indica forage mixed respectively with pasture or teff (Eragrostis tef) straw. These diets supported a weight gain of 33 g/day and reduced water consumption to negligible quantities (Gebremariam et al., 2006; Tegegne et al., 2007). In Brazil, 50% Opuntia mixed with 50% dried grape residues gave good production results at a low cost (Barroso et al., 2006). Opuntia was able to replace feedstuffs such as barley, pangola hay (Digitaria eriantha) and elephant grass hay (Pennisetum purpureum) (Abidi et al., 2009; Lopes et al., 2008; Bispo et al., 2007). Supplementing sheep fed Atriplex nummularia with Opuntia resulted in better organic matter digestibility and nitrogen balance (Ben Salem et al., 2005). Opuntia gave the best dry matter intake, crude protein digestibility and metabolizable energy when sheep were provided an organic N source in the diet (soybean meal, or to a lesser extent Bermuda grass hay) (Misra et al., 2006; Ben Salem et al., 2002). Good results were also obtained with urea-ammoniated Opuntia (Lopes et al., 2008).

In Southern Africa, sheep fed Opuntia alone survived for 500 days. However, a supplement of bone meal, common salt and urea (1:1:1) was recommended. Cactus meal can also be supplemented with 6.5% fish meal. Alfalfa, either meal or hay (100 g to 200 g), is the most valuable supplement for cactus meal ad libitum. Other legume hays may also be useful, provided that they are reasonably high in protein (De Cock, 2001).


The following videos show goats eating Opuntia in small and large farms in Brazil (Dubeux, 2011):


Opuntia is palatable to goats. Daily consumption ranges from 3 to 9 kg/day in the open field, and up to 11 kg when they are housed (Lopez-Garcia et al., 2001).

In Tunisia, feeding goat kids with Opuntia had positive effect on meat quality and especially on fatty acid composition (Atti et al., 2006). In Brazil, Opuntia replaced corn meal in the diet of dairy goat diets without altering milk production. Milk fat content decreased when the level of Opuntia increased and water intake was considerably reduced (Costa et al., 2009). A 15% (DM basis) dietary level of inclusion of Bermuda grass (Tifton hybrid) hay was recommended in order to maximise performance from an Opuntia-based diet (Vieira et al., 2008). In Chile, Opuntia replaced up to 30% of the alfalfa hay ration without significantly affecting consumption, live-weight and milk production. The presence of Opuntia cladodes in the ration of goats in the suckling period induced a higher intake and an increase in milk production (Azocar, 2001).

Nutritional tables
Tables of chemical composition and nutritional value 

Avg: average or predicted value; SD: standard deviation; Min: minimum value; Max: maximum value; Nb: number of values (samples) used

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Dry matter % as fed 9.1 2.5 6.2 14.0 17
Crude protein % DM 6.9 2.7 2.6 11.4 19
Crude fibre % DM 14.6 3.5 10.9 21.1 13
NDF % DM 25.5 6.1 21.4 37.7 9
ADF % DM 14.5 2.4 10.8 18.5 8
Lignin % DM 2.6 0.9 1.1 3.9 6
Ether extract % DM 1.9 0.4 1.2 2.5 13
Ash % DM 19.5 4.9 8.3 25.9 18
Gross energy MJ/kg DM 14.3 1
Minerals Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Calcium g/kg DM 38.8 12.9 16.5 52.3 11
Phosphorus g/kg DM 2.0 1.3 0.5 4.2 12
Potassium g/kg DM 48.0 43.0 53.0 2
Magnesium g/kg DM 10.4 4.4 5.0 14.2 4
Ruminant nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
OM digestibility, Ruminant % 62.9 10.6 48.0 72.0 4
Energy digestibility, ruminants % 55.8 *
DE ruminants MJ/kg DM 8.0 *
ME ruminants MJ/kg DM 6.6 *
Nitrogen digestibility, ruminants % 41.3 29.5 0.0 68.1 4
Pig nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Energy digestibility, growing pig % 67.2 *
DE growing pig MJ/kg DM 9.6 *

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Alibes et al., 1990; Arnaud et al., 2005; Atti et al., 2006; Boza et al., 1995; CIRAD, 1991; Gomez Cabrera, 2009; Groenewald et al., 1967; Maymone et al., 1961; Pozy et al., 1996; Tegegne et al., 2007; Tisserand et al., 1989; Tisserand, 1985; Vieira et al., 2008

Last updated on 24/10/2012 00:43:18

Main analysis Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Dry matter % as fed 84.7 1
Crude protein % DM 4.5 1
Crude fibre % DM 19.8 1
Ash % DM 18.1 1
Pig nutritive values Unit Avg SD Min Max Nb
Energy digestibility, growing pig % 59.0 *

The asterisk * indicates that the average value was obtained by an equation.


Gomez Cabrera, 2009

Last updated on 24/10/2012 00:43:18

Datasheet citation 

Heuzé V., Tran G., 2015. Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica). Feedipedia, a programme by INRA, CIRAD, AFZ and FAO. http://www.feedipedia.org/node/120 Last updated on October 2, 2015, 15:14

English correction by Tim Smith (Animal Science consultant) and Hélène Thiollet (AFZ)