Researchers report that feeding cows the leafy herb plantain can reduce nitrogen leaching from dairy farms by 20 to 60 percent.
Results from the DairyNZ-led Plantain Potency and Practice (PPP) Programme prove that using Ecotain plantain in pasture can significantly reduce nitrogen entering waterways.
Farm trials at Massey University and initial results from a trial at Lincoln University are showing similar trends. The trials are part of the nationwide PPP research and development programme that partners with dairy farmers, industry and government.
“These are exciting results – we now have robust scientific evidence that Ecotain plantain is an effective solution to help dairy farmers further reduce farm footprint and continue playing their part in improving water quality,” says DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle.
“Plantain can bring significant benefits to local waterways and communities – we all want healthy freshwater to swim and play in, and dairy farmers can confidently use Ecotain plantain on-farm to support that.
“These research findings are part of a broader programme of work to continue delivering on dairy’s commitment to reducing its environmental footprint in our local communities, while maintaining profitable businesses.”
The $22 million seven-year PPP Programme is funded by DairyNZ, the Government (through the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund), PGG Wrightson Seeds and Fonterra, working with six additional research and delivery partners.
The programme uses Ecotain environmental plantain from Agricom because it has proven effectiveness. An evaluation system is available to assess the environmental benefits of all plantain cultivars sold by a range of providers.
At the Massey University farm trial, scientists are measuring nitrogen leaching from paddocks grazed by 80 dairy cows. After two years, the trial results have shown reduced nitrogen leaching by 20 to 60 percent in perennial ryegrass and clover pastures containing 30 to 50 percent Ecotain plantain.
The results are compared to traditional perennial ryegrass and clover paddocks (the most common pasture types in New Zealand). There was no difference in milk production between the plantain and control pastures in the trial.
The amount of reduced nitrogen leaching depends on the quantity of plantain in the pasture, the soil type, climate and farm system. The Massey University trial will continue for a further two years.
Initial results from the programme’s Lincoln University study in Canterbury, on lighter soils under irrigation, show similar trends to the Massey University trial, with a 38-50 percent reduction in nitrogen leaching from pasture containing 24 percent Ecotain plantain.
More data are being collected to confirm these results.
Massey University Professor Emeritus Peter Kemp and his team have been researching the effects of plantain over several years and the experimental plots were established at the university in 2019.
“Building on decades of pastoral research at Massey, our team have designed an innovative drainage system that uses the soil structure on the farm to enable measurement of all the nitrogen leaching from each paddock,” he says.
“The four-year trial has had incredible success so far and our trial site allows the results to be directly transferable to current farming systems in New Zealand. Importantly for farmers, transition to plantain pastures results in no loss of production, while simultaneously reducing nitrogen leaching significantly from farms into freshwater.
“This supports current initiatives to protect our natural environment and improve waterways. Significantly, Massey University research has shown that this pasture regime also decreases the greenhouse gas emissions of nitrous oxide, a key issue for climate change.”
PGG Wrightson Seeds (PGW Seeds) chief executive John McKenzie is pleased with the results.
“We are delighted to see these larger scale trial results support the earlier work we undertook in developing and commercialising Ecotain environmental plantain. With the numerous challenges farmers face, being able to provide an effective tool to help reduce nitrogen leaching is something we are immensely proud of.”
Ecotain environmental plantain reduces nitrogen leaching by increasing cows’ urine volume, therefore diluting the nitrogen in urine and reducing the total amount of nitrogen excreted in urine. It also retains nitrogen in the soil, preventing it entering waterways.
DairyNZ, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Fonterra are collectively investing $10.47 million in cash and $2.8 million in kind in the programme.
The Government via MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund is investing $8.98 million.
The Plantain Potency and Practice Programme is working with farmers to develop management strategies and demonstrate how plantain can be successfully integrated into farm systems. This includes investigating how farmers can successfully establish and maintain high proportions of plantain in pastures, across a range of different climates.
The aim is to achieve widespread adoption, with resulting economic and environmental benefits.
DairyNZ says plantain use is expected to save farmers more than $1 billion per decade, by farmers spending less on more expensive nitrogen reduction solutions. This will have flow-on benefits to local economies.
The PPP programme partners with 21 farmers in Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Manawatu, Canterbury and Southland, and will share learnings across all dairy farmers.
Farmers can use plantain as a component of their pasture species mixture when sowing a new pasture, or sow it alone as a special-purpose crop. Plantain is a nutritious and palatable herb for cows to eat.
The PPP programme builds on previous work by the DairyNZ-led Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching programme, and a five-year DairyNZ-led Tararua Plantain Project supporting farmers in the Tararua area to adopt plantain on their farms. It also follows a PGG Wrightson Seeds and Callaghan Innovation-funded project, which identified the four mechanisms by which Ecotain environmental plantain reduces nitrogen leaching on dairy farms.
- For more information on the programme, visit dairynz.co.nz/plantain-programme
- For more information on how plantain works, visit: dairynz.co.nz/plantain-benefits