Ahmed Bageel’s home country, Saudi Arabia, isn’t a big cattle-producing area, in large part because it’s difficult to grow enough of the right kinds of forage for them in its arid conditions. But the Molecular Bioscience and Bioengineering grad student is looking to change that.
He was drawn to Leucaena because the plant can grow under a wide variety of conditions, including near drought. Homeowners and natural resources managers alike are well aware of the tendency for koa haole, the most common variety of Leucaena in Hawai‘i, to do just that. But what they might not know is that this unassuming though tenacious plant is excellent food for cattle, sheep, goats, and horses…with some caveats.
Leucaena is highly nutritious, comparable to alfalfa, the gold-standard fodder, in terms of protein, minerals, and fiber. However, it also contains two toxic compounds, mimosine and tannin. Side effects of too much mimosine include hair loss; weight loss; enlargement of thyroid; and damage to kidney, lungs, and liver. Tannin also causes problems. Yet animals seek out Leucaena, and they can thrive on it—if they don’t eat too much of it.
Ahmed is looking not only at how much is too much, but also—and this is the interesting part—what growing conditions make the plant develop higher and lower concentrations of these compounds, and what conditions boost the forage’s nutritional profile. He’s testing Leucaena grown all over the Islands—koa haole as well as a different variety, with more leaves and fewer seedpods—in as many different areas as he can find. So far, he’s investigated soil pH and irrigation. He’s discovered that alkaline soil seems to foster both higher toxicity and higher nutrition, while more water leads to higher mimosine and less water to higher tannins. Now he’s checking elevation, temperature, soil composition, and other variables.
This research earned Ahmed the award for best oral presentation at the 7th International Conference on Sustainable Environment and Agriculture, which he recently attended. But the full economic and agricultural potential of his research may go far beyond a conference.