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A Prickly Problem: Too Much of a Good Thing?

       
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When to keep and when to kill the prickly pear

Like most things in life, the prickly pear cactus has it pros and its cons. For anyone who has ever had a brush with prickly pear glochids, those tiny, barbed spines that can inflict a world of hurt, it might be difficult to envision particular positives at that moment. But fans of the slightly tart, almost citrus flavor of nopalitos, made from the tender young pads of the cactus, are happy to extol the prickly pear's culinary virtues. The brilliant magenta fruit of the prickly pear - the tuna - can also be eaten raw (once denuded of its spines and peeled) or used to make sweet jellies or syrups. In his accounts of experiences in the area now known as Texas, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca noted the prickly pear as a staple of the native peoples' diet. During times of drought, the prickly pear has long served as an emergency source of food for livestock. Ranchers have often initiated controlled burns or used "pear burners" to rid the cactus of its painful spines, making it easier for cattle to eat.
 
But while a plate of fajitas con nopalitos washed down with a prickly pear margarita is all fine and tasty, what about prickly pear and wildlife?
 
In moderation, prickly pear is an excellent plant for whitetail deer, javelina, and other wildlife. As a bonus non-nutritional benefit, bobwhite quail and small mammals utilize the cactus for screening and protective cover. It can also serve as a protective "nurse plant" for more desirable woody and herbaceous plants. Like many other native plants, it has its wildlife-beneficial features, as long as it is limited on a property. It also occupies an aesthetic place on the Texas landscape, particularly during the spring when its delicate pink buds blossom to showy yellow flowers. However, when landowners have too much of a good thing and prickly pear density and abundance suppress native grass, forb, and shrub diversity, then it needs to be controlled. In addition to crowding out other native plants, over-abundant prickly pear can also limit some wildlife management practices such as mowing and discing due to concerns about spreading the prickly pear.
 
Unlike other cacti which tend to grow slowly, the fast growing prickly pear can spread at a sometimes alarming rate. This tends to happen in pastures that have been subjected to long-term overgrazing. Once prickly pear gets established in dense stands, the only way to reduce its dominance is to kill it. Options for doing so include digging out the plants (roots included) by hand or with equipment, which is labor intensive, and the plants must be gathered to prevent creating new plants from loose pads. Prescribed fire followed by immediate grazing can reduce its dominance and has other benefits, but the most practical, long-term solution for problem prickly pear is to have it professionally treated with a herbicide.
 
It takes a strong herbicide to take down prickly pear and, if not carefully applied, it can kill other desirable plants. Herbicides that control prickly pear are almost all controlled use herbicides, which means you must have a license to buy and use them.
 
Because many landowners do not have a controlled use license for prickly pear herbicide, or the experience to assess the value of leaving some prickly pear for wildlife, Plateau offers prickly pear removal as one of its many Wildlife Management services. Plateau takes the time to thoroughly treat each plant individually to get the best possible kill without wasting expensive herbicide, and to make sure that only the target plants are treated.
 
The best time to treat prickly pear is when the invasion is still limited to small, but abundant, plants. Select plants should be retained for the positive benefits they provide, including cover and food. While prickly pear control can be done year round, the best seasons to do so, if a herbicide is used, are spring to early summer, and then in the fall, as post-treatment rainfall is important to move the herbicide into the soil. But, as we all know, Mother Nature doesn't always follow the calendar, so ideal windows can shift from year to year. Summer applications can also be very effective if soil moisture levels are adequate and rainfall is expected.
 
Because successful herbicide application takes planning, landowners in need of prickly pear control - or those in need of an assessment of their prickly pear situation - should contact professionals like Plateau prior to the ideal treatment seasons so a treatment plan is at the ready when the time is right. 

Early summer is also the only good time to do foliar herbicide applications for mesquite. Half-cutting mesquite is best done during the spring/early summer period as well.

Article From Plateau Land and Wildlife Management

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