The answer to this question is definitely 'yes'. Two such candidates are the grazing herbs, chicory and plantain. Both species have a lot in common with broad-leaf weed species that are often found in pastures, but some lateral thinking by plant breeders, who recognised their potential as pasture plants, has led to the production of commercial cultivars of both species (e.g. ‘Choice’ chicory and ‘Tonic’ plantain).
Chicory is a leafy herb with a deep tap root, providing excellent quality feed from spring to autumn in warm, dry regions. It is best regarded as a long-lived summer crop, with an effective life of about two years under dairy cow grazing.
Narrow-leaved plantain is a perennial forage herb, capable of growing on a wide range of soil types, with a strong root system. It also produces high quality animal feed.
Both species can be used as part of a pasture mix at 1-2kg/ha, as a specialist sole crop, or mixed with white and/or red clover.
Total annual dry matter (DM) production can be close to that achieved with ryegrass based pasture, however, pastures with chicory and/or plantain grow better in summer and maintain feed quality over this period.
In recent research at DairyNZ, in the Waikato, chicory swards consistently produced better quality feed than plantain, sustaining between 12 and 13MJ ME/kg DM throughout the year. However, chicory yielded less DM than plantain and more plants died over an 18-month period. Both species really came into their own for animal production when the quality of ryegrass pasture dropped to 9.6MJ ME/kg DM in summer.
Feeding first year chicory or plantain to between 20 and 40 percent of the total diet increased DM intake of cows by about 1kg per day, and milksolids by about 17 percent compared with cows fed ryegrass pasture only.
An interesting finding from this work was that feeding either chicory or plantain reduced the concentration of nitrogen in cow urine, signalling a potential environmental benefit from these species through lower nitrate leaching.
(This article was originally published in Inside Dairy June 2012)