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4.5 The Role of Leucaena in Improving the Productivity of Grazing Cattle

R.M. Jones

The Effect of Leucaena on Liveweight Gain
The Role of Leucaena in Improving Milk Production
The Effect of Leucaena on Reproduction in Cattle
Grazing Management of Leucaena


Agronomists and farmers have recognised for decades that leucaena (Leucaena leucocephala) offers considerable potential for improving the productivity of cattle. Trials carried out by the University of Hawaii in the 1930s showed the value of feeding leucaena to both beef and dairy cattle (Henke 1933, Henke et al. 1940).

There are a number of reasons why leucaena has obvious potential for use in improving the productivity of grazing cattle:

· It is a very persistent legume under cutting or grazing. Planted on appropriate sites and given reasonable management, plants can survive for decades (Jones and Harrison 1980).

· Its productivity is frequently higher than that of alternative legumes. For example, in southeast Queensland Hutton and Bonner (1960) measured 11,000 kg/ha of edible dry matter over a 9 month (spring to early winter) period. This yield cannot be approached by other legumes in this region.

· Leucaena recovers rapidly from defoliation.

· Leucaena has high quality forage (Section 4.1), with the exception of the problems associated with mimosine (Section 4.4), and is readily eaten.

· Leucaena growth can be managed to accumulate high quality feed to meet the varying feed needs of different farm enterprises. For example, Isarasenee et al. (1984) and Addison et al. (1984) measured 4 and 5 t/ha of edible material of cv. Peru in southeast Queensland after 3 and 6 month growing periods respectively.

· Leucaena is grazed with minimal losses due to trampling or fouling and plants are not unduly damaged by grazing animals.

· Until the advent of the psyllid (Section 6.1), leucaena was relatively free of pests or diseases.

· Leucaena grown in rows combines well with companion grasses grown in the inter-row.

With these advantages, it is not surprising that many studies have been carried out on the effect of feeding leucaena, in pens or in situ, on a wide range of animals including cattle, sheep, goats, buffalo, pigs, deer, rabbits and poultry. Although this discussion is restricted to grazing cattle, much of the information will apply to 'cut-and-carry' feeding systems. Three areas of cattle production will be considered: liveweight gain, milk production and reproduction. Within each of these areas, there are occasional difficulties in interpreting studies where no information was provided regarding health problems associated with mimosine or, more importantly, DHP (see Section 4.4). As these problems can now be avoided, the benefits of leucaena may have been underestimated. In some cases, the carrying capacity of leucaena may have been over-estimated as the intake of individual animals normally increases following inoculation with DHP degrading bacteria.

The disadvantages of leucaena, including slow establishment, intolerance of waterlogging and acid soils, presence of mimosine and susceptibility to psyllids are discussed in Chapter 3, Section 6.1 and by Anon. (1989).

The Effect of Leucaena on Liveweight Gain

Studies of liveweight gain from leucaena or leucaena/grass pastures fall into two groups. The first group comprises studies where leucaena pastures have been used as a supplement to grass-only pastures. The second group of trials comprises studies where cattle grazed mixed leucaena/grass pastures throughout the year. These two groups will be considered separately.

Leucaena pastures as a supplement

The results from 13 experiments of this type, primarily from Latin America and Australia, have been summarised in Table 4.5.1. In most cases the objective was to improve liveweight gain during the 'dry' or 'cool' season by using leucaena pastures as a supplement. This was achieved by having a proportion of the total land area established to leucaena or by controlling the number of hours per day that cattle grazed a small area of leucaena. In some cases it was not stated if the leucaena was an additional land area to the grass pasture; if this was the case, cattle grazing the leucaena plus grass treatment would have been on a slightly larger area than when grazing the grass only treatment.

The increases in liveweight gain of animals given access to leucaena varied widely. This was expected in view of the differences in the quantity and quality of the base grass pasture and the amount of leucaena on offer. Other limiting factors in the experiments could be plant related (e.g. low sodium concentrations) or animal related (e.g. worm infestation restricting liveweight gain). Overall, there was a 70% or higher increase in liveweight gain in eight out of the 15 comparisons listed in Table 4.5.1. There was only one experimentwhere there was no advantage from the leucaena supplement (Carvalho Filho et al. 1984) and this was attributed to the high protein content of the base pasture and the low availability of leucaena at the end of the trial. In contrast, replacing 20% of Dicanthium caricosum pasture by leucaena in Fiji more than doubled liveweight gain (Partridge and Ranacou 1974). Falvey (1976a) reported an advantage from grazing of leucaena as a supplement but this comparison is not listed in Table 4.5.1 as the base pasture included a vigorous legume, Townsville stylo (Stylosanthes humilis).

Table 4.5.1. Liveweight gains (LWG) of cattle grazing either grass pastures with or without access to leucaena.

Grass species

LWG (kg/head/day)

Access to leucaena

Period of year (days)




Native pasture



25% leuc. on area basis

sp,su (130)


Native pasture



4 hours/day

win (100)


Native pasture



25% leuc. on area basis

win,sp (160)


Native pasture



25% leuc. on area basis

aut,win (180)


Native pasture



6% leuc. on area basis

sp,sum,aut (224)


Native pasture



25% leuc. on area basis

year (365)


Native pasture



100% leuc. on area

year basis (365)


Cenchrus ciliaris



10 or 20 hours/week

cool season (200)


Brachiaria decumbens



4 hours/day

dry season (120)


Hyparrhenia rufa



10% leuc. on area basis

dry season (155)


Cynodon plectostachyus



4 hours/day

dry season (252)


Dicanthium caricosum



20% leuc. on area basis

year (365)


Pennisetum clandestinum



3 hours/day

aut,win (90)


Panicum maximum



30% leuc. on area basis

rainy season


Panicum maximum



30% leuc. on area basis

dry season


* References: 1. Quirk et al. (1988); 2. Gandara et al. (1986); 3. Foster and Blight (1983); 4. Addison et al. (1984); 5. Zoby et al. (1989); 6. Quirk et al. (1990); 7. Carvalho Filho et al. (1984); 8. Paterson et al. (1982); 9. Paterson et al. (1983); 10. Palomo et al. (1980); 11. Partridge and Ranacou (1974); 12. Zacharias et al. (1991); 13. Castillo et al. (1989)

The general conclusion from these studies is that supplementary grazing of leucaena can substantially improve liveweight gain over that from pure grass pastures. The increase will be greatest when the base grass pasture is low in quality and when the intake of leucaena is high (assuming that DHP degrading bacteria are present). A doubling of liveweight gain is a reasonable target.

Liveweight gain from leucaena based pastures

Several experiments were carried out in northwest Australia and Papua New Guinea during the 1970s when there were obvious harmful effects of DHP on animal health associated with grazing leucaena with corresponding low liveweight gains (e.g. 0.29 kg/head/day reported by Blunt and Jones (1977)). In Papua New Guinea, even though animals were showing obvious toxicity symptoms, they still gained at 0.38 kg/head/day, only slightly lower than on buffer grass (0.44 kg/head/day) (Holmes 1979).

In situations where there have been no clinical signs of DHP toxicity, animal production from leucaena/grass pastures was appreciably higher than that from pastures of the same grass species (Table 4.5.2). Even higher liveweight gains have been reported for shorter periods, e.g. 0.8 kg/head/day over 115 days (Cardoso 1986), 0.9 over 200 days (Jones 1979), 0.9 over 168 days (Clem et al. 1993), 0.7-1.3 over 57-146 days (Rakuita et al. 1992) and 1.1 over 90 days (Wildin 1986). These gains are higher than those listed in Table 4.5.1, none of which was above 0.7 kg/head/day. They generally reflect use of leucaena during the growing season, with high levels of leucaena on offer, as compared with the restricted access to leucaena, usually during the dry season, in the experiments listed in Table 4.5.1.

In one study, year-long grazing of leucaena/grass pasture on 100% of the area was compared with both grass-only pasture and with year-long grazing on 25% leucaena/75% grass pasture (Quirk et al. 1990). Results showed that although 25% of leucaena on an area basis improved liveweight gain, 100% of leucaena/grass pasture gave even better gains.

Several authors have noted that gains from leucaena pastures compare favourably with those from other grass/legume or even nitrogen fertilised pastures. Wong and Devendra (1983) reported gains from leucaena/Guinea grass (Panicum maximum) pastures in Malaysia equal to or greater than those from nitrogen fertilised pastures or from a Guinea grass/herbaceous legume mixture. Jones and Jones (1982, 1984) found that in subtropical southeast Queensland, leucaena/grass pastures produced from 310 to 430 kg liveweight gain/ha. These gains were approximately double those from Siratro (Macroptilium atropurpureum) based pastures on the same soil type, Siratro being the best alternative commercially available tropical legume, and equal to those from nitrogen fertilised pastures on the same soil type (Jones and Jones 1980). Following inoculation of cattle with DHP degrading bacteria, irrigated leucaena/pangola grass pastures in northwest Western Australia have produced 1,420 kg of liveweight gain/ha/year compared with 1,330 kg from irrigated pangola grass fertilised with 330-600 kg/ha/year of nitrogen (Jones and Megarrity 1985). As shown in Tables 4.5.1 and 4.5.2, the consistent increases in liveweight gain achieved by including leucaena in grass pastures have been obtained from a wide range of grass species.

Table 4.5.2. Liveweight gains (LWG) from cattle grazing grass only and leucaena/grass pastures (stocking rate as head/ha in brackets).

Grass species

LWG (kg/head/day)

Duration of experiment


- leuc.

+ leuc.


Native pasture

0.25 (0.7)

0.56 (0.7)



Imperata cylindrica

0.22 (0.75)

0.36 (1.5)



Digitaria decumbens

0.39 (3.3)

0.49 (3.3)



* References: 1. Quirk et al. (1990); 2. Moog (1983); 3. Garza et al. (1978)

There have been differing reports about yellow pigmentation in fat of cattle that had grazed leucaena prior to slaughter. Markedly yellow fat was observed in carcasses of Hereford cattle that had grazed leucaena/grass pastures at Samford, southeast Queensland (RJ. Jones, personal communication). In contrast, carcasses of crossbred cattle that had grazed irrigated leucaena/grass pastures for 11 months prior to slaughter in the north of Western Australia had a fat colour score of only 2.6 on a scale of 1 (white) to 6 (dark yellow) (Pratchett et al. 1992). In a similar study from this environment, only 4% of carcasses were rejected because of yellow fat (Ryan et al. 1992). The meat from carcasses in both these studies was rated by both quality measurements and consumer testing to be suitable for the Western Australian table market.

The Role of Leucaena in Improving Milk Production

Leucaena has considerable potential for incorporation into feeding systems for dairy cows in the tropics and subtropics. Leucaena is suited to cut-and-carry operations or, given adequate labour or mechanical equipment, can be harvested and fed in pens. Alternatively, small areas of leucaena can be grazed as convenient, e.g. for a specified time after morning milking. Grazing can be controlled by electric or temporary fencing, by herding or by careful tethering. One limitation of feeding leucaena to dairy cows is that it has been reported to produce a taint in milk (Henke 1958) which is not removed by pasteurisation (Stobbs and Fraser 1971). However, Hamilton et al. (1969) found that the taint could be removed by pasteurisation.

The results of experiments, primarily from Latin America, where leucaena has been fed to dairy cows are summarised in Table 4.5.3. In each case, the base grass pasture was fertilised with nitrogen. In some experiments, the leucaena was grown in an additional area to that of the main grass pasture, whereas in others (e.g. Milera and Santana 1989) the areas of the grass and grass + leucaena treatments were equal. Base concentrates were fed in some experiments, but not in others.

The average increase in milk production obtained from feeding leucaena was 14% (range of 2-33%). Where recorded, there was usually an increase in fat and protein % as well. In Malaysia, Hassan et al. (1989) measured a higher milk production/from grazed Brachiaria decumbens/leucaena pastures (6.1 kg of milk per day) than from cows on 'cut-and-carry' feeding of the same pasture mixture (4.8 kg/day). Milk production from the grazed Brachiaria/leucaena pastures was also higher than from grazed Setaria sphacelata fertilised with 300 kg/ha of N (4.9 kg/day).

Milera and Santana (1989) mentioned other advantages of leucaena viz. cows fed leucaena ate less concentrate and nitrogen fertiliser requirements were reduced. Saucedo et al. (1980) also recorded higher liveweight gains from cows and calves grazing the grass pasture supplemented with leucaena

Table 4.5.3. Increases in milk production achieved in experiments where leucaena was fed as a supplement to pure grass pastures.

Grass species

N rate

Increase in milk prod'n from leucaena (%)

Experimental details


Cynodon plectostachyus



3-4 h leucaena grazing


Chloris gayana



fresh leucaena fed in pens (2-4 kg/day)


Panicum maximum



morning grazing of leucaena


Cynodon dactylon



6 h leucaena grazing


Digitaria decumbens



2 h leucaena grazing


* References: 1. Ruan and Pino (1981); 2. Flores et al. (1979); 3. Milera and Santana (1989); 4. Saucedo et al. (1980); 5. Suarez et al. (1987)

However, even with the provision of leucaena, milk production is likely to be limited by feed quality. For example, Suarez et al. (1987) recorded a 33% increase in milk production from supplementary grazing of leucaena, and a 57% increase from supplementary feeding of 6 kg of concentrate per cow per day.

There are few reports where milk production was measured from cows whose main feed supply was leucaena/grass pastures or leucaena alone. Stobbs (1972) measured 6,290 kg of milk and 272 kg fat per hectare from Jersey cows grazing a leucaena/green panic (Panicum maximum var. trichoglume) pasture. In Hawaii, Plucknett (1970) reported that Friesian cows grazing leucaena/Guinea grass pastures, with some supplement, produced 9,780 kg milk/ha. Also in Hawaii, Henke and Morita (1954) produced 5,130 kg of milk per cow over a 305 day lactation from cows fed an average of 28.5 kg of fresh leucaena a day with an additional low protein supplement. Henke (1958) compared the financial returns from milk production of cows fed cut leucaena or nitrogen fertilised Napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum). Both systems were profitable, but their relative superiority depended on factors such as the costs of nitrogen fertiliser, protein concentrate and land.

As for liveweight gain, the additional benefits from feeding leucaena will obviously vary with the nutritional status of the base pasture and the amount of leucaena fed. For example, the response to leucaena obtained by Milera and Santana (1989) could be anticipated as their associated grass had only 13% crude protein in the leaves and 8.5% in the stems compared with 24.5% in the leucaena; c. 13% crude protein is marginal for dairy production. However, Flores et al. (1979) recorded benefits from feeding leucaena where the grass contained 18% crude protein and the intake of leucaena was only 0.82 kg DM/cow/day.

Flores et al. (1979) concluded that leucaena provided some protection of protein against degradation in the rumen. Hence the benefits of feeding leucaena are, in part, similar to those achieved from feeding protected protein such as formaldehyde treated casein. However, the possibility of leucaena providing a higher intake of digestible energy should not be overlooked.

The Effect of Leucaena on Reproduction in Cattle

Grazing studies on the effect of leucaena on reproduction of cattle in Australia and Papua New Guinea, carried out in the absence of DHP degrading bacteria, contrast markedly. Holmes et al. (1981) recorded a very detrimental effect in Papua New Guinea where only one out of ten heifers grazing leucaena became pregnant over a 7 month mating period. In northwest Australia, where DHP toxicity was severe, most cows which grazed leucaena during the wet season had stillborn calves (Jones et al. 1976). Jones et al. (1989) in southeast Queensland recorded a much less severe depression, with a calving percentage of 66% for cows grazing leucaena/grass pastures year-long compared with 88% in an equivalent herd grazing grass-only pastures. Falvey (1976b) recorded a slight reduction in calving percentage from 75% (six out of eight heifers) to 63% (ten out of 16) in animals that had access to leucaena, while Cooksley et al. (1981) recorded a calving percentage of 71% from cows grazing native pasture supplemented with urea/molasses and 76% from cows grazing native pasture with some leucaena. There have been reports of calves from cows fed on leucaena having a lower birth weight (e.g. Hamilton et al. 1971).

These differences are best ascribed to the proportion of leucaena in the diet, particularly during early pregnancy (Holmes et al. 1981). The studies of Holmes et al. were carried out on almost pure leucaena stands. In the trial of Jones et al. (1989) leucaena comprised c. 40% of the diet during the summer months, the main period of leucaena growth, and cows grazed leucaena/grass pastures year-long and were mated in late spring. In the study of Cooksley et al. (1981), leucaena was grazed only from June to November (winter and spring), when mimosine levels were low and cows were not mated till December when they were not grazing the leucaena pastures.

Preliminary evidence from northwest Australia suggests that inoculation with DHP degrading bacteria prevented abortion which otherwise occurred in heifers grazing a diet high in leucaena (Pratchett et al. 1991). Moreover, in the early Hawaiian studies there was no adverse effect on reproduction (Henke 1958, Henke and Morita 1954, Plucknett 1970). Presumably DHP degrading bacteria, later isolated from Hawaiian goats (Section 4.4), were present. This also suggests that the adverse effect of leucaena on reproduction reported by Holmes et al. (1981) could be attributed to DHP.

Grazing Management of Leucaena

Conceptually there are two ways to graze leucaena. Trees can be allowed to grow above the grazing height of cattle. The lower parts of leucaena trees can then be grazed continually and cattle can also graze seedlings which develop from seed set above grazing height (Wildin 1986). The forage above grazing height can be kept as a drought reserve. However, this forage may lose quality through senescence and from infestation by mould. In some situations, tree leucaena has weed potential due to the high amounts of seed set.

Alternatively, plants can be grazed as hedgerows to keep the whole canopy within grazing height (Figure 4.5.1). The inedible framework of woody stem is kept to approximately 1.0-1.5 m in height and cattle graze the edible material developing from this. Hedgerow leucaena is a more efficient way of utilising leaf than tree leucaena. Where there is full utilisation of leucaena from high stocking rates, some form of rotational grazing with rest periods of 4-12 weeks may be necessary for part of the growing season.

Fig. 4.5.1. Leucaena grazed as a hedgerow is kept within grazing height.

In practice, most commercial stands of leucaena in Queensland are now kept within grazing height. Some are rotationally grazed (Clem et al. 1993) while others are continuously grazed for extended periods of time. This may follow a period of spelling which enables the yield of leucaena to accumulate. Provided that thick stems, greater than c. 2 cm, are not allowed to develop, cattle seeking out edible material at the top of the canopy can break stems and keep the leucaena at grazing height. Bulls are particularly effective at breaking down thick stems. If there are too many thick stems bearing edible material above grazing height, these stems can be cut back mechanically or by hand.

In frosted areas, leaf and sometimes above-ground stem may be killed in some or all years. This will influence when the stand should be grazed; edible material should preferably be grazed in autumn before the onset of frosts. Stands should then be leniently managed in spring and early summer to allow the inedible framework to form again.

In subtropical Queensland, leucaena is frequently used to fatten animals from the middle to the end of the growing season. Later grazing using weaners or breeders over winter is a common practice (Wildin 1986). The area of leucaena required to make an impact on farm production will depend on factors such as the number of animals to be fed, length of grazing period, productivity of leucaena and the target growth rates of animals.

In the dairy industry in subtropical Australia, the potential role of leucaena is probably to provide high protein feed in autumn, before irrigated ryegrass is available and when the quality of tropical grasses is low. It is possible to estimate the area of leucaena that may be required to make a useful impact. Assume, for example, that there are 100 dairy cows which are strip grazed and consume approximately 8 kg of fresh material (c. 1.6 kg of dry matter) per day over a 2 month period. This requires 1.6 x 100 x 60 or 9,600 kg of leucaena. Given that leucaena can accumulate to give 3,500 kg of edible dry matter per hectare, which is harvested with 80% efficiency, this requirement could be met by 3.4 ha of leucaena. The same form of calculations can be used to estimate areas for a beef cattle property, but in that situation there is much less scope for controlling the daily intake of leucaena.


All the evidence presented demonstrates the high potential of leucaena to improve meat and milk production from grazing cattle. There is no need for further formal research work to document this general finding about the role of leucaena in animal production. However, further 'developmental' or on-farm research, experience or demonstration will often be required to develop ways to utilise leucaena most efficiently in commercial practice and to encourage farmers and graziers to use it (e.g. Clem et al. 1993). The optimum procedures will vary with many factors from farm to farm, region to region and country to country (see Chapter 7).


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