Prickly pear cactus (Optunia) could be used for food for animals and humans and for biofuel. To learn more, Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension have worked in partnership since March 2014 to test three different species of prickly pear cactus under three different irrigation regimes.
Due to its semi-arid environment and high temperatures, Moapa Valley is the perfect place for testing prickly pear cactus. So, the research is being conducted in a large experimental plot located at Extension, Clark County's Logandale Office which is also an Experiment Station location. The plot features over 200 cacti and is always open for self-guided tours.
For the project, a team of scientists led by John Cushman harvests, weighs and measures the growth of the cacti.
"Similar tests have been run in other countries, but the results were spotty," Cushman said. "We are running this experiment under strict supervision and taking detailed accounts to have reliable information. This is the first definitive study of this kind in the country. We are really excited and encouraged by the results so far."
The cacti are split into different groups depending on breed variety and amount of water received.
There are three types of cacti being grown: Opuntia Ficus-Indica, Opuntia Streptacantha, and Nopalea Cochillefera. This last type of cactus was recently renamed by Cushman to be Opuntia Cochillefera.
The watering regime is different among different sections of the cacti to test the effects of water usage on the mass of a cactus. Moapa Valley receives, on average, 108mm of precipitation a year. To show a dramatic and measurable change, Cushman and his team set the water regime to output 200mm, 400mm or 800mm over the course of the year.
The team is stationed in Reno, which makes it inconvenient for them to come and constantly care for the cacti. Because of this, Extension, Clark County's Logandale office has received a grant to hire local high school students as temporary workers to maintain the cactus field. Local workers include: Gavin Henrie, Brynne McMurray, Benjamin Muhlstein and Austin Stewart.
To learn more about the garden and the University research done there and elsewhere on cacti, visit the prickly pear cactus project's website. Or, read the Moapa Valley Progress article about it.