Let them eat leucaena

Let them eat leucaena


Laurie Peake, Cherwondah, Wandoan, has been fattening his Wagyu cattle on leucaena over the past decade.

Laurie Peake, Cherwondah, Wandoan, has been fattening his Wagyu cattle on leucaena over the past decade.

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IT'S not cheap, it's not always easy to get right - but Laurie Peake wouldn't change it for the world.

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IT'S not cheap, it's not always easy to get right - but Laurie Peake wouldn't change it for the world.

The beef producer from Cherwondah, Wandoan, has been finishing his Wagyu cattle on leucaena over the past decade and the dividends are paying off.

"We'd be lost without it. We don't have a stitch of colour left - it's all gone to leucaena and the only cultivation I've got is in the garden, but that suffers from lack of care and attention."

Mr Peake and his wife Gwen have converted all the cultivation area of his 1000-hectare property to leucaena, and he credits this with a bank balance that is now a little more healthy.

Over the summer months, they grow 120 wagyu feeder steers and heifers to get them to 380-420kg and finish a couple of decks of bought cattle on leucaena pastures.

"If we get winter rain the leucaena is off like a rocket from the end of August, which puts us a long way ahead of planting summer grazing crops."

However, getting to this stage has been a long process, fuelled by many trials and perhaps the odd error or two over the past 13 years.

"I don't know if we will get brown points for saying this, but I was told farmers can grow it but graziers can't. Not sure if you should say it but it's sort of true," he said.

"Anyone who has had row-cropping experience grows it really well, so get a farmer to plant it for you. Because it is a life-time crop, the key is plenty of preparation at the start and ensuring it is weed-free for the first six months.

"It needs to get through winter and start growing vigorously through summer before you put grass with it.

"If it gets stunted at the beginning, it is stunted for life so you need to plough it up and start all over again."

Mr Peake first heard about leucaena from a local agent and grazier when he and Gwen returned in 2001 to "clean up" the family property after spending 12 years working for the Presbyterian inland mission through central Australia.

"The agent said, 'Laurie, if you decide to grow leucaena it will be like having oats for nine months of the year!'

"The local grazier said, 'The only problem with leucaena is that we only have half enough of it'," Mr Peake said.

The grazier's acreage of leucaena was well over 1000, and that was enough information for Mr Peake. He got in and started to grow it. Each year we planted another wheat paddock to leucaena."

At times, Mrs Peake was alarmed, especially when her husband announced he was going to plant their best wheat paddock, 'Speedy Jack', to the legume. This, Mr Peake announced, was now going to be their best leucaena paddock.

In 1978, a patch of this paddock went two tonnes to the acre of wheat.

"We were paid $120 a tonne and 23 years later we grew good quality wheat in this same paddock for $150 a tonne.

"We have now converted all of the 450 acres (182ha) of our wheat country to leucaena plus 200ac (81ha) of our grass country and we have not regretted it."

The Peakes initially carried out weighing to see what sort of gains their cattle were achieving, but this is now ancient history.

"We know we are ahead with it big time. DAFF trials are showing that leucaena in pastures doubles the dry matter yield per acre and doubles the production of kilos of beef. That's enough knowledge on the subject for us."

The leucaena paddocks have been divided into 23 paddocks, which means they do not have the problem of the plant getting out of control and requiring pruning on a regular basis. The cattle mow it down at least once a year to overcome the problem, too. There are benefits to growing leucaena that go beyond fat cattle.

"We have just begun noticing that the grass in leucaena planted about 2005 is starting to look more healthy the closer it is to the row of leucaena.

"We expect this pattern to increase as time goes by as leucaena is a legume and produces nitrogen for the benefit of its companion, the pastures sown with it six months or more after planting."

What has been most notable, Mr Peake said, is that leucaena that is zero planted into stubble in a long-term wheat paddock far outperforms leucaena planted into grass country, even following the planting of an oats or barley crop.

"Any time that have been near-failures has been in grass country, but we haven't had any failures planting it in wheat country."

In October 2007 the University of Queensland wanted to carry out a fertiliser trial on the leucaena planted in the original cultivation paddocks that had been cleared in the early 1960s.

Mr Peake said yes to be agreeable, but believed the only fertiliser this country needed was water. Part of cultivation was set aside and Alex from the university used several times more fertiliser than normally recommended to secure a result - if there was going to be one.

During the first summer there was poor rainfall and no result. Next summer, there was good rainfall and in late autumn, Alex came out to measure the results.

"I hadn't even bothered to look at the trials until he turned up. My eyes popped out of my head. With half a glance you could see that there was twice as much on the fertilised rows. The data we collected showed that to be exactly the case."

Mr Peake bought eight tonnes of fertiliser and fertilised 65ha (160ac) using a fertiliser broadcaster, but stopped when his agronomist nephew said it would use up his moisture more quickly.

However, with several years passing, the university trial plots treated with super are now producing about three times as much, judged by sight, as the untreated plots, which are now struggling to survive.

"I also began hearing people say that super needs to be ripped in to get proper results. I have since engineered my own two-row fertiliser box mounted on my 3PL chisel plough and have sown another 23t of fertiliser into 230ac (89ha) of leucaena."

Mr Peake has also done a trial patch with varying rates of fertiliser from 1t/0.4ha to 1t/8ha, including one strip that is only broadcasted.

"Rain came too late this summer to get a result but, hopefully, next year will tell the story for us."

The Peakes credit their succesws to the help of Alex, Drs Max Shelton and Scott Dalzell and all the other dedicated workers from University of Queensland together with grower pioneers.

It has also been thanks to the MLA for assisting the Leucaena Network in selling the leucaena story and the knowledge of establishing this crop to all the growers, Mr Peake said.

Leucaena has meant an amount of freedom for the Peakes, who don't have to be on-property every time it rains to plow, spray or plant.

It has left them free to do a little global roaming."And with the cattle running with anticipation every time we open the gate into a fresh paddock, saying 'Moo, moo!', I get the definite feeling that they just happen to like what we have done for them."

The story Let them eat leucaena first appeared on Queensland Country Life.

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