By Fred Afflerbach
Temple Daily Telegram
TEMPLE (AP) — The prickly pear cactus has been a thorn in the cattleman’s side since the Mexican vaqueros began pushing their stock across the Rio Grande well over two centuries ago.
This invasive species chokes out native grasses with its aggressive root system that spreads horizontally, sending up new shoots. It sucks up rainwater before the moisture can soak in, or run off and fill reservoirs needed for watering stock. The noted author O. Henry called prickly pear a ‘‘demon plant’’ because it could live without soil, or water, in a sparse landscape.
Ranchers have sprayed it with chemicals, scraped it with bulldozers, and in times of drought used it for cattle feed by burning the spines with propane torches.
Fast forward to the 21st century and meet the Kactus Krusher, aka Dave Gross, riding a red 1954 Farmall tractor pulling an odd-looking train of cutting and crushing implements pulverizing the cacti into green mush.
Gross says with the outer hide broken open, the moisture leaches from the large leaves, or pads. Once the pads have completely dried out, they crunch under your feet, like walking on potato chips, before they decompose into the soil.
Temple resident Don Ringler bought rural property infested with prickly pear outside Salado several years ago. Gross treated about 80 acres that Ringler said was so thick with prickly pear he couldn’t walk through it. About two years after Gross finished a series of treatments, Ringler said it was amazing how both native plants and wildlife have thrived.
‘‘It’s not like traditional methods where you lose a lot of top soil,’’ Ringler said. ‘‘He cuts them out at the roots and smushes them so they dry out.’’
Bell County Agricultural Extension Agent Dirk Aaron said prickly pear is a big problem in parts of western Bell County, where carrying capacity for cattle can be as little as one head for 25 acres.
He says new chemicals are ‘‘less invasive’’ than the previous methods of spraying diesel and other mixtures, and in particularly rough terrain spraying may be more practical. But he said that from a pure land stewardship aspect, crushing is a good choice.
‘‘If you are looking for a non-chemical approach, this is better than scraping them and piling them up,’’ he said.
Gross says it takes at least two, preferably three treatments, several months apart, to keep the prickly pear from coming back.
He has killed prickly pear on ranches from North Texas near the Red River, to South Central Texas near the San Marcos River, from West Texas near Abilene, to ranches here in Bell County.
Gross started crushing prickly pear several years ago when he met Gary Johnson of McGregor. Johnson had patented a 500-pound steel plate called a Kactus Kicker to be dragged behind a tractor. Gross took the simple technology with no moving parts and expanded on it.
Today, they remain close, always looking for ways to improve the odd-looking train of steel plates attached with chains and linked by a spider’s web of hydraulic hoses designed to lower and raise wheels to free the units from rocks and stumps.
‘‘Who would’ve ever figured you’d want retractable landing gear on a cactus killing tool,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘Without that, you have to stop, get down and move things.’’
The train of implements begins with a shredder to mow down the cacti. Two or more large steel plates that pulverize the pads follow. Gross makes two passes, attacking the prickly pear from both directions. He also uses an arrangement - he calls it the delta formation — to make a wide sweep up to 16 feet across.
Gross, 65, is a one-man operation, and he says he thrives working out in the field with his ‘‘toys.’’
He often camps out on the ranches where he works, bringing everything he needs to live remotely for several days at a time: tent, camp stove, barbecue pit and portable shower.
Gross brings a spare tractor tire, hydraulic hoses, fittings and a welding trailer to make onsite repairs.
‘‘When you drag iron across rocks, the rocks win every time,’’ Gross said. ‘‘You have to be aware of that, carry enough spare parts and supplies to take care of almost any situation. If you think it can’t happen, it will.’’
Gross, a former computer technician, said although he is a small business owner with a Web site, he is happiest when he is out in the field.
‘‘I wear a cotton facemask when I’m working, and it has two purposes: First, to keep the needles out of my lungs, the second it keeps the landowner from seeing me grinning because I’m having such a good time,’’ Gross said. ‘‘ It took me till I was 60 to figure out what I want to do when I grew up and this is it.’’