The unrelenting drought is taking its toll on South Texas cattle ranchers who are resorting to a centuries-old emergency method of feeding cattle, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent.

“Ranchers down here commonly refer to it as ‘chamuscando,’ the Spanish word for the process of burning off spines from prickly pear cactus so cattle can eat the pads for food and water,” said Omar Montemayor, an AgriLife Extension agent in Starr County. “For many of our aging ranchers, chamuscando (pronounced chah-moos-KAHN-doh) and hauling hay and water to their livestock are last ditch efforts to stay in the cattle business.”

Burning cactus is a practice that dates back to the mid-1700s when Spanish settlers moved here from Mexico City and raised cattle for sustenance along both sides of the Rio Grande, Montemayor said. The pioneers burned cactus over mesquite fires, which eventually gave way to kerosene burners until the 1950s when ranchers switched to butane then propane.

“In times of drought, when pastures have no grass or hay for cattle to feed on, ranchers use a propane-fueled torch to burn the needles off nopal, or cactus. The pads or stems of the plant contain moisture and fiber, but very little protein. Ranchers supplement their cattle’s diets with protein pellets called range cubes.”

Chamuscando and hauling supplemental feed, hay and water to cattle are costly measures, Montemayor said, but for many South Texas ranchers, time may be too short to sell their herds now and rebuild if and when the drought breaks.

“Many of our ranchers are in their late 60s and 70s,” he said. “If they sell their cattle and the drought ends next year, they’ll have to buy young cattle back. If a rancher pays $2,400 for a ‘pair,’ a cow and a young calf, he or she will have to wait four to five years to sell four or five calves just to recoup their investment.

“For a lot of ranchers, that’s time they think they may not have, so they’re doing everything they can to keep their cattle alive now. But it’s hard work and very expensive.”

Once cattle start eating burned cactus, a rancher has to have a plentiful supply on hand.

“When ranchers burn cactus, they have to burn at least a two-day supply because cattle used to eating cactus will eat it with spines and all if the burned cactus runs out. That results in mouth injuries, they stop eating and a rancher has a whole new set of problems.”

At an average cost of $3.50 per gallon of propane, a rancher with 30 head of cattle will spend about $35 per day just on the fuel to burn cactus, Montemayor said.

“Hopefully, a rancher has plenty of cactus on his ranch land. Then there’s the cost of the protein supplement. Some set out molasses tubs which help with the livestock’s hydration and digestive process.”