Plantain grows throughout New Zealand, however it has a high tolerance to summer heat and in warmer regions can provide valuable summer growth. It is best suited to dairy farm situations where the amount and quality of summer feed limits milk production.
Plantain is an herb with a fibrous, coarse root system that produces 10-19 t DM/ha/year. Despite the moderate drought tolerance, plantain still requires moisture to grow well, and under severe drought growth will be reduced. Under these conditions plants will wilt; however, they recover quickly following rain or application of irrigation or effluent.
Plantain tends to be more persistent than chicory, often remaining productive for 2-3 years. Plant numbers will decline over this time, with the rate of declined depending largely on weed control, nitrogen fertiliser application and grazing management.
Plantain can grow on a range of soils; however, it performs best when grown on free draining soils. Plantain has adapted to a wider range of soils than chicory however growth will be maximised on high fertility soils which free-drain and are not prone to waterlogging or treading damage in wet weather.
Well-managed plantain (0-25% stem) generally has a lower dry matter content than ryegrass pasture and contains less fibre. The metabolisable energy (ME) content is similar. Yet, plantain may be better quality than ryegrass during hot, dry summers. The milksolids response to plantain appears to depend on the quality of the pasture diet: if pasture quality consistently drops away in summer, then including plantain can increase per cow milksolids production.
Plantain in a pasture mix
Where plantain is in a pasture mix the paddock should be managed as a normal grass/clover pasture, grazing to residuals of 1500-1600 kg DM/ha.
Plantain as a special purpose crop
Target covers are:
Pre-grazing 25 cm height (generally about 2-4 weeks’ regrowth)
Post-grazing 5 cm height
- These are the heights of the leaves, ignoring the stems.
- Letting the leaves grow beyond 25 cm will not accumulate any more leaf, just increase growth of the lower quality stem.
- Dairy cows will readily graze lower than 5 cm and management strategies need to be in place to ensure this does not occur.
- Grazing should be avoided when soils are wet as treading damage has a major impact on plant survival.
Aim to feed 20% of the cows’ daily diet (3-4kg DM/cow) in plantain over a sustained period as the rumen requires time to adjust to plantain. This requires about 5-6 ha of plantain per 100 cows. This is around 0.3 ha per 100 cows each day, offered as a 2 to 3-hour break with back-fencing to ensure good regrowth.
This system provides for a 21-day grazing rotation, but may need to be adjusted if growth of plantain is unusually slow or fast. It provides a daily diet of plantain, which is important as it reduces any rumen adjustment needed if cows are switched from ryegrass to plantain part-way through a rotation. Plantain management (Farmfact 1-78b)
Plantain should be first grazed no earlier than the six leaf stage (i.e. the plants have six fully grown leaves). This is normally 7-8 weeks after spring-sowing.
Special Purpose crop: The recommended seed mix is 8-10 kg/ha plantain with or without clover.
Grass/clover/plantain mixed pasture: Plantain can be added to a pasture/clover mix at 1-4 kg/ha depending on the content required.
Plantain is more sensitive than ryegrass to sowing depth and soil temperature. It establishes best when sown into warm soils (10-12°C) at no greater than 10 mm depth and where there is little competition from other plants in the first three months.
Spring sowing is preferred as plants develop quickly, although sowing in early autumn can still result in successful establishment. Late autumn sowing is not advised as plant development is slower during cooler weather, and July and August are not ideal for the first grazing.
A Waikato trial looked at establishment methods for chicory and plantain crops sown into non-cultivated ryegrass pastures in spring. Establishment methods included direct-drilling or broadcasting seed into existing pastures, with or without herbicide application. The results indicate that growth and survival of both chicory and plantain was maximised when swards were established by applying herbicide to existing pasture and direct-drilling the seed.
The increased cost of spraying and direct drilling is more than compensated for by the increased herbage yield.
Where cultivation is appropriate, using a roller drill, pre-emergence insecticide and treated seed are all still recommended. For more information, Plantain establishment (Farmfact 1-78a).
Estimating yield and feed allowance
The dry matter percentage of plantain ranges from 9-20% so yields can vary by more than 50% if DM is over- or under-estimated.
Three methods for yield estimating and allocating feed are suggested in the plantain management farmfact Plantain management (Farmfact 1-78b)
Weeds and pests
Weeds should be thoroughly eliminated before sowing as there are few suitable post-establishment herbicides for plantain. Talk to local seed representatives for herbicide recommendations. Withholding periods for residual hormone herbicides (e.g. clopyralid, MCPA) must be adhered to as plantain is very sensitive to these herbicides.
In late February to mid-March, holes may begin to appear in plantain leaves. These are caused by caterpillars (e.g. common carpet moth, white butterfly, diamondback/cabbage moth).
As the caterpillars do not feed on roots or growing points, their impact is largely aesthetic. If damage is severe, however, the caterpillars can be controlled with an approved insecticide. See AgPest for identification and control.
Reduce nitrate leaching
Plantain based pastures may be useful for reducing nitrate leaching while maintaining or increasing milksolids production.
The urine patch is the major source of nitrogen loss to the environment on dairy farms and different forages can be used to reduce nitrate leaching, either by lowering the nitrogen loading in urine patches or increasing the nitrogen uptake from the urine patch.
- Research in Canterbury and Waikato (Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching (FRNL) programme) has found urine-N concentration of cows grazing plantain was 56% lower than those grazing perennial ryegrass/white clover pastures, and 33% lower for cows grazing 50/50 pasture-plantain. More information in the DairyNZ Technical Series 32: page 11-13
Farm systems modelling helps researchers estimate the effects of changing farm practices.
Within FRNL, diverse pastures that include plantain were identified as a promising tool for reducing N leaching.
Modelling estimated that, at commercial scale, N leaching could be reduced by 10 and 20% when the area of the farm sown in diverse pastures was 20 and 50%, respectively. This was because of lower total urinary N excretion and lower urinary N concentration (Beukes et al. 2014; Romera et al. 2016).
Further research and co-development with a team of ten monitor farms will establish how farmers can capitalise on the benefits of improved plant/crop N uptake and reduced urine-N concentration to improve farm N use efficiency and reduce nitrate leaching.
This information on this webpage is based on NZ trials and experiences growing the plantain cultivar Tonic under dairy cow grazing.