Friday, November 21, 2008

Tobacco as Fodder

I recently posted on the interesting research done on tobacco:

Following up on the subject of using tobacco as a biomass source, it appears that some good new work is happening. In particular there will be a field test this coming season in Spain in which cattle and pigs will be fed tobacco fodder. As I reported earlier, tobacco can make between 100 to 300 tons of biomass per acre cropped, primarily because it can be recut over and over again.

Since it is not woody, the fodder is apparently suitable as even pig feed. It is also possibly even tasty. This is certainly way more productive than other options such as corn.

It only remaining question is whether in its present form it may be eaten directly by livestock. I am surprised that this has not been answered for centuries. On other hand, folks thought potatoes toxic for a couple of centuries.

The dry portion of tobacco contains 2% to 8% nicotine which is a problem. However, if the fodder is eaten as is, the effect is perhaps minimized. It is also noted that radishes will neutralize the nicotine. I do not know proportions, but I recall that cattle used to be fed mangles which are a giant variety of radish.

All this is suggesting that while there may be some room to experiment with mixes of mangels that are high in vitamin C and perhaps other ingredients in combination with chopped green tobacco, we are still ingesting a not insignificant amount of nicotine. If it can be kept low enough, then is will be harmless but will still demand careful monitoring.

It would be nice to simply remove the problem. This can be partly done by plant breeding, except that you still want some left in the plant.

It is a good bet that be have bred for high nicotine content over the past few centuries. We need to check the nicotine content of wild tobacco. After all, the nicotine is nature’s insecticide.

Once the decision is made to exploit the food qualities of tobacco, it will be fairly easy to develop a convenient version. We may even develop a nicotine free version, but I suspect that it thus made far too attractive to pests.

This is potentially an extremely important source of cattle feed that can sharply raise the carrying capacity of agricultural land. The food value is very high and the production per acre is extraordinary if the right conditions prevail.


Nicotiana rustica L.

plant symbol = NIRU

Contributed by: USDA NRCS Rose Lake Plant Materials Center

Alternate Names

Aztec tobacco, Native tobacco, Zuni tobacco, Mapacho


Cultural Wild tobacco is a highly sacred plant in American Indian tribal culture. Although specific tribal uses may vary, it is integral to many ceremonies involving prayer, protection, reverence, and healing.


Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status (e.g. threatened or endangered species, state noxious status, and wetland indicator values).


Wild tobacco is an annual forb that grows to 5 feet tall but commonly shorter in areas north of its natural range. Leaves are alternate, entire, ovate to lanceolate, and up to 12 inches near the base but reduced gradually toward the top. Both the stem and leaves are pubescent. Pale yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers are approximately 1 inch long and borne in terminal panicles or racemes. The flowers also exude a rather unpleasant odor. The numerous, tiny, scarcely flattened, dark seeds form in capsules.

Adaptation and Distribution

Wild tobacco is native to the southwestern United States, Mexico and parts of South America. Given proper care, this species can be grown throughout the continental United States.

For a current distribution map, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Website.


If starting indoors seed can be planted as much as 10 weeks prior to last expected spring frost. Surface sow seed approximately ½ inch apart on firmed soil in a 2 to 3 inch deep tray. Press seed to soil but do not cover more than 1/16 inch. Keep soil moist and warm. Most seed will germinate within 20 days. Seedlings can be transplanted to individual pots when the second set of leaves appears (approximately 2 inches tall). Transplant outdoors in a sunny location at 18-inch spacings into rich, well-drained soil after any chance of frost. Harden plants by placing pots in a shady outdoors area for 3 or 4 days prior to transplanting. If seeding directly outdoors plant 4 or 5 seeds every 18 inches after the last expected frost. Thin to one when plants reach 4 to 6 inches. So as not to damage the roots of the desired plants, clip unwanted plants at ground level rather than pulling them.


Wild tobacco can be periodically fed with a dilute liquid or small amount of dry fertilizer. Manure can be added to the soil mix in addition to or in lieu of fertilizer. Irrigate if conditions become droughty but wild tobacco is susceptible to disease problems when the soil is keep too moist. Pruning flowers can stimulate leaf growth. Harvest the leaves before frost and dry in bundles to retain moisture as they cure.

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