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Getting Rid of Prickly Pear Cactus in the Chicken Yard

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

We have a large pasture where our chickens run, and they have picked it clean of everything green, so the prickly pear has no competition and is taking over. Any ideas about how to get rid of it? We garden/farm mostly organically so herbicides aren't an option.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Prickly pear isn't that hard to get rid of... just get after it with a shovel and maybe a machete. Lop the paddles off (you can eat those, you know) and cut through the taproot a few inches from the surface. They don't really come back from the root (at least mine don't)

On the other hand... why not just learn how to make prickly pear jelly? Ummm, yum... =0)

Or you can take a weed torch out and scorch the needles off and see if the chickens will eat it... that's how they feed cattle out here during droughts.

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

I wonder whether ours are the same as yours. The paddles have needles on both sides, so a weed torch would only get half of them. But maybe this is something we should try in the winter. You probably can't compost them because of the needles, huh?

I've looked at the fruit, but having had some bad encounters with the plant in my youth I always decide to leave it alone. How do you eat the paddles, though?

Thanks for the suggestions!

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Well, composting would probably be a problem... lol. Not only because of the needles, but the waxy coating would probably interfere too.

Ours have needles on both sides, too. And they can get plenty big 3' x 4' easy. Just turn the flame up. =0)
I'm not entirely sure how to prepare the tunas or paddles... if you google making nopales, you could probably find something. It uses tongs, and I think you filet the skin with needles off so the juicy, slimy center is left. You can buy them sliced in jars around here.

The pears... using tongs pick them when they're nice and red, drop them in a heavy paper grocery sack. Build a fire and let it burn to coals. Dump the pears into the coals and roll them around to singe off the little spines and bring up the sweetness. Pull them out while they're still red... don't want to roast them too much, just get the spines off. Cool and wash the ashes off. Slice them in half lengthwise... they're mostly seeds.

Oh shoot, I don't remember if I scooped the pulp out... I think so... and mashed it all together... probably needs a little water at this point... making a thick magenta juice. Taste it.... yummy! sort of like bubble gum.

At this point, I just made pancake syrup, but it's just a hop, skip and jump to jelly from this point.

Maybe AZ Grammie knows more... it's been years since I've done it. I keep meaning to make the syrup again, but they ripen the same time the chokecherries do.... and we'd have to drive down south a piece.

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

Perhaps this article can help. I especially liked the Elmer's glue technique for removing the tiny spines from your skin.

3-4 prickly pear paddles. You can buy these at many grocery stores but be careful of spines when you pick them up. You also can pick them in the wild, but don’t take too many. Chose the greenest, most unblemished pads. Watch out the long spines; grocery stores often get rid of those, but the smaller, almost fuzzy spines will remain. If you manage to get a spine in your finger, tweezers are helpful. But if they are too small, spread some Elmer’s glue over the area and peel off after it dries.

2 T vegetable oil
Salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder to taste

Use a fork to keep one end of the pad still while you use a knife or potato peeler to scrape off the spines and “eyes.” I usually trim off the rough edges.
After peeling, chop or slice the pads into stripes or into small chunks.

Put in a sauté pan with the oil, and then add spices you like. Sauté until tender—about ten minutes at medium/low heat.

You can serve this as a side dish, or mix with scrambled eggs, blend into salsas, top on a baked potato, add to tacos, or any number of possibilities.

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

I like the Elmer's Glue trick, too. That's a good thing to know.

We're wondering whether goats would eat prickly pear. We could always get a feeder goat for the pasture if they do. We used to raise milk goats along with our sheep, though, and I know that a solitary goat can be noisy!

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Thanks G_M, I've always wondered about how to prepare the tunas, and the SO really likes nopales. We'll have to try it this year.

Duct tape works well on those little spines, too. =0)
Before you buy the goat, scorch a few pads and take them to a friend's goat to see if they'll eat them.

I'm just surprised there are prickly pear in NJ!

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

We don't have any friends with goats. We'd have to cultivate that if we were interested in experimenting. When we raised goats of course we knew other people who had them, but that was years ago. Good suggestion, though!

Prickly pear is native to the Pine Barrens, which has sandy, acid soil and a mostly oak/pine or pine/oak cover. The rivers are brown due to leached tannins from vegetation as well as from the iron. There are lots of critters that are only found here because of the unique habitat. Unfortunately prickly pear seems to be one of 'em.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Well now, I was hoping you'd see it wasn't unfortunate, just underutililized. =0)

'Member, weeds are just flowers in the wrong place...

Anyway, enjoy ripping them out. It'll certainly be more rewarding work than trying to get ahead of bindweed... my nemesis.


North of Heber, AZ(Zone 6b)

I made prickly pear jelly once, back when I first had a yard full of cactus. It was fun but a challenge, and I quickly decided I didn't need to do it again! Since then, I moved up to northern AZ where there are not so many. In Phx I had been sort of a collector, getting cuttings from other people and even buying a huge type once. They all did super in Phx, of course, but when I moved up here I brought cuttings of all of them and most didn't make it due to our colder winters. The "bunny ear" with its long paddles has done well. Meanwhile, since we don't have very many, I just do like Jay suggests and dig them up with a shovel. (Use thick, folded sections of newspapers to handle them.) Then I plant them against my fence -- they do make a natural burglar-repellent! In fact, at my Grandma's house on the desert at Congress Junction, in the 50's, the little houses she rented out all had natural fences made entirely of living prickly pear.

PS, the prickly pear sometimes attracts a little beetle called the cochineal, I think. When squashed it makes a gorgeous purple dye -- and IIRC, it was taken back to Europe by the early conquistadores and presented to the royalty. Hence the "royal purple" garments worn by the royalty. It is still used by those who like to dye their own yarn with natural materials.

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

I wonder whether we have the cochineal here, although I thought that made a red dye and not a purple one. The purple dye came from a murex (whelk sort of thing) which was first used by the Phoenicians in Tyre.

I don't know what kind of prickly pear we have, but there's only one sort that's native to the Pine Barrens and we have it in spades! I don't think I'd want to mess with it any more than I had to. I had to chase a gander through the prickly pear this morning so we could catch it and clip its wings, and I got a little spine in my ankle just from that! They're not very nice!

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

No, cactus aren't for cuddling. LOL
Just be glad you don't have jumping cactus... aka cholla. Now there's a spiney nasty.

Working with the pears got a lot easier once I found out about rolling them around in the coals... before that I was singeing the spines off each fruit individually... now THAT'S a pain in the neck for sure. =0)

This message was edited May 3, 2009 11:16 AM

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

Hmmm. Interesting to know that there is a form of prickly pear native to the Pine Barrens. Presumably there was also some type of native animal or insect that used the prickly pear as food to help keep the plant populations in balance. Has this creature gone extinct? If you can figure out what evolved with the plant, that might help you figure out how to keep it in check.

A few videos of Jumping cactus. These make the prickly pears look tame:

When I do visit the desert, I generally don't wander around with bare skin exposed, in part to prevent sunburn, but mostly to prevent getting scratched by the spiny residents. This video has an excellent illustration of cholla versus skin:

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

I imagine that the vegetation kept it in check to some extent, but the chickens have taken care of that. I don't know of any other critter that feasts on it.

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

Can you rotate the chickens throug the yard so they don't completely destroy the competing vegetation? (I'm confident you'll get the prickly pear under control eventually). I'd try Jay's earlier suggestion of scorching the needles off and seeing if the chickens will eat the pads. You may need to use tongs to scorch both sides.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

It's not that hard to get rid of, and if you're scorching with a weed burner, tongs aren't necessary. Just adjust the weed burner to engulf the whole thing in flames.

Not a delicate operation at all, more slash and burn. LOL

North of Heber, AZ(Zone 6b)

I can't verify whether the cochineal beetles make red or purple dye or which critter was used to make purple dye for royalty. I may be old, but not THAT old! LOL

I just know that my fingers got purple when I squished the beetles. It washed off, tho.

This message was edited May 3, 2009 3:01 PM

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

Mermaid, we used to try rotating them into the garden in the winter, but I have a setup there now involving 30" wide rows and 18" wide paths that they would obviously destroy in short order. We have thought about doing a rotation, but fencing is a pain and we have too many chickens for a chicken tractor. Right now we've opened up another pasture for the chickens and the geese to use, and that may take some pressure off the chicken yard, but they can still wander around in it.

Jayryunen, maybe we'll try singeing the paddles and see whether the chickens will then discover how delectable (???) they are. Apparently goats will eat them, but I don't want to get a goat and find that it happens to be a finicky one. We really have no other use for one except to put it in the freezer eventually, since I don't feel like going back to twice a day milking again!

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Yes, goats can be very finicky! Mine would only eat the leaves of the alfalfa, wasting the stems. }=P It'll be interesting to know if the chickens will eat roasted prickly pear! Even if they don't, I think the flaming will destroy the plants ability to store water and it will die back, though it may come back from the root...

As for rotating sheeckeens... I've seen electric net fencing for poultry that allows the 'yard' to be easily moved...

Would something like that be feasible?

San Francisco Bay Ar, CA(Zone 9b)

We have some "rent a goat" operations in this area. Landowners, cities and counties rent a herd of goats to do the brush clearing. Most are whethers from the goat dairies. The goat herds are most cost effective and more efficient that human labourers......and they have no issues with poison oak! Perhaps you could rent or borrow a couple of goats to try on the prickly pear? If you find one that likes the plant, maybe they'll sell you that goat.

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

Good idea to try flaming the prickly pears to see if the chickens will bite. The electric fencing looks a bit pricey, but it's a thought. We have both geese and chickens, but I imagine it would work for both.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Yeah, the price kinda made me take a deep breath, too. But some long term investments are like that...

Priced a tractor recently? Hoo-haa, that's a head between the knees deal.

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

Talk about tractors - we're trying to sell a '50's Massey-Harris Pony right now - runs well and has lots of implements plus a new alternator, battery, rebuilt carburetor, a valve job and four new tires, but everyone wants a bargain. We've already come down in price considerably, but things are tight. Lots of bites so far but no takers. My husband had the opportunity to pick up a Ford 8-N with a front bucket, and we don't have room for three tractors - we also have an old John Deere 420. Plus a little John Deere yard tractor for mowing and pulling a small trailer. So you're preaching to the choir.

AND we just ordered one of those pre-built sheds for a new chicken coop, since ours was here when we bought this place in '72 and we're due for an upgrade.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

Boy, I wish I had my dad's old 8-N. =0( I think he traded it for his van...

Southern NJ, United States(Zone 7a)

Yeah, at first I thought it was way too much tractor for the size of our place, but after seeing my husband use it to drag huge logs out of briary wet woods or lift heavy objects with chains, I'm sold!

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Grrr... you couldn't run fast enough to give my DH another 8N or 9N. Gotta own one to appreciate it. Big bucks but it would really pay to have a 4WD with that front bucket. But I guess it just depends on how much and what you will use it for. Have you looked at possibly trading it in on what you are wanting?

I wonder how the prickly pear cacti spread ~ via seed or roots? That is going to have bearing on how to eliminate or control them.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

And the paddles/tunas will root too, I think, but I just don't see g_g leaving the tunas sitting just so in little puddles of mud. LOL

Prickly pear are slow growing, and not that hard to eradicate. Any new ones that start, just kick em out of the ground with the toe of your boot...

I don't think g_g will have any problems now that she knows about the flame thrower trick. LOL

This message was edited May 4, 2009 6:49 AM

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

A flame thrower could indeed be fun... but I live in the woods so I don't throw flames. Rather like the glass houses & rocks analogies.

Sapello, NM(Zone 5b)

You have prickly pear, too? Guess it's machete and shovel for you... not nearly as much fun, you're right.

Or I'll bet you could just loop a chain around the base and use a tractor to pull it out. Seeings as how you have one. Drag 'em all to a burn pile or bury them...

Deep East Texas, TX(Zone 8a)

Prickly pear in east TX too but no, I don't have any ~ thankfully! I too was surprised to hear of it in NJ.

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