Aerial spraying of prickly pear no cause for concern, officials say
An aerial spraying operation for prickly pear in parts of western Llano County recently raised concerns over social media, but residents shouldn’t worry, officials said. The spraying is over a limited area on private property.
Nearby residents might spot a yellow plane making low passes over the property to apply a herbicide on overgrown areas of prickly pear. The operation started Monday, Feb. 7, and should continue through Thursday, Feb. 10.
“Yes, there is aerial spraying of herbicide for prickly pear going on at this time,” said Whitney Whitworth, a Texas AgriLife Extension agent in Llano County. “This is the time of year spraying for this species is normally performed in efforts to try and control its spread.”
The State Plant of Texas is a natural part of the Hill Country landscape, but it can take over a pasture and cause issues for landowners, livestock, and wildlife. The cactus does provide cover and forage for smaller animals, but when widespread, the negatives can outweigh the positives.
“Prickly pear cactus is an incredibly invasive species,” Whitworth said. “Control of the cactus allows for forage species to grow in its place and allows additional forages for livestock and wildlife.”
Large expanses of the cactus can choke out grasses, forages, and even trees, which livestock and wildlife use for food and cover. Prickly pear colonies also can hamper movement of animals, causing injuries from spines.
Unchecked, the cactus can be costly for a livestock producer, making areas of their property unusable for grazing.
Landowners have options in removing and managing prickly pear, each with pros and cons.
Mechanical controls such as chaining, two-way chaining, disking, root plowing, roller chopping, high-powered mulching, and individual plant grubbing can be effective. However, some of these methods, particularly chaining, disking, root plowing, and roller chopping, can spread the cactus pads, causing an infestation in other areas. These methods are typically more effective during the summer as the broken-up pads dry out more quickly.
Prescribed burning is another option, but it usually takes “very hot” fires to destroy the plant, according to experts. In the summer, this method raises the risk of wildfires. Plus, prickly pear often recovers from fire and regrows, requiring burns every four years or so.
Herbicide is another option. The chemical can be applied to individual plants or broadcast by ground equipment or aircraft. A herbicide typically kills a plant down to its roots, limiting regrowth and spread. However, it could take weeks and even months for the cactus to completely die off after herbicide treatment.
Commercial herbicides used for prickly pear control include, but are not limited to, MezaVue, Tordon 22K, and Surmount. The primary active ingredients of most prickly pear control agents are picloram and/or fluroxypyr, which are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for such use. Commercial applicators must follow specific guidelines when applying these herbicides.
“The chemicals used cause very minimal damage to beneficial plants if the pear is sprayed at this time,” Whitworth said. “There is no harm to livestock or wildlife from the spraying.”