Plantain Project

May 2023

A future-focused dairying approach with plantain at LUDF.

The Lincoln University Demonstration Dairy Farm (LUDF), alongside its partner, the South Island Dairy Demonstration Centre (SIDDC), has adopted a future-focused approach to dairying. And the work being carried out is not simply responding to current or imminent regulation, nor thinking 2-5 years ahead, but is aiming to prepare its production systems to be sustainable more than thirty years into the future of dairy production. 


The SIDDC is an industry-funded partnership of six leading dairy sector organisations who are collaborating to promote the sustainable development of South Island dairying through demonstration activities, research, education, and farmer training. The Lincoln University Demonstration Dairy Farm operates as a commercial unit with several strategic objectives around increasing productivity without increasing the farm’s total environmental footprint and operating within definable and acceptable animal welfare targets. What sets LUDF apart from many commercial operations is the ambition to remain relevant to South Island dairy farmers (particularly in Canterbury) by demonstrating practices achievable by leading and progressive farmers.


In 2015 the LUDF instigated a ‘low footprint farm approach’. It has resulted in a variety of programmes all aimed at delivering high cow production from a grass-based farm program with minimal supplement use. The Grazing Plantain Plan is one such project and is part of several investigations underway around the country on incorporating plantain into dairy farming systems.


Plantain has been promoted as one piece of the pasture/feed puzzle to solve the problem of nitrogen leaching from grass-based farm systems and is of particular interest to dairy farmers in Canterbury, who are under pressure to significantly reduce nitrogen losses from their farms. The pasture option presents an opportunity for LUDF to reduce N leaching while maintaining current farm performance and profitability.


The Farm has begun a planting program of plantain with the goal of reaching 30% or more of intake for grazing cows. LUDF has sown a minimum of 10% of the farm in plantain every year for five years. Challenges such as competition from ryegrass, weeds such as dock, and pasture management and allocation. In response to these hurdles, a slightly different approach of planting 30% of the farm in a 100% plantain crop was begun in 2022.


The research on plantain, according to a paper produced by consultancy group, Macfarlane Rural Business, indicates that with cow intakes of 30% plantain or higher, significant reduction in N leaching can be achieved. The Overseer model suggests it could drop N leaching from 35 to 26 kg/Ha of N. Research has also indicated that some plantain cultivars are more effective than others at reducing N leaching, through increased dilution of N in cows’ urine, reduction of dietary N excreted by animals, and restricted nitrification - resulting in a slower rate of conversion of ammonium to nitrate - as a result, allowing plants to take up more N before it leaches out of the root zone and into waterways or aquifers. The plantain project is using Agricom’s variety, ‘Ecotain’ which has been assessed using lysimeter studies at LUDF.


Peter Hancox is LUDF’s farm manager. For the duration of the Plantain Plan he is responsible for the execution of the plan, monitoring, and communicating outcomes, including the difficulties and challenges encountered for the duration of the project. While LUDF delivers high per cow production, there is an ongoing ambition of continuous improvement, and the communication of what ‘works’. 


Peter says of the project, “It's definitely high interest, as all farmers are looking at ways of reducing their nitrate leaching. So, this is certainly one of the tools in the toolbox that farmers are going to be able to use.”


Kirsty Thomas is the demonstration lead at Dairy Farm Management Services. She explains the questions currently being addressed and those remaining to be answered include the most effective establishment techniques, encouraging the persistence of plantain, the control of any weed or pest burdens, potential combinations of pastures including plantain (for example clover, or ryegrass), protein levels of plantain compared to ryegrass pasture, the response of plantain to application of N, irrigation requirements, the timing of grazing (once the plants are properly established and not prone to pulling) and the amount of supplement feed that might be required to maintain profitable production levels.


Also needing confirmation is the optimum grazing schedule. The current goal is to have cows on plantain for 8 hours a day, alongside work being done on variable milking schedules of 10 in 7. Other variables to be noted are calcium levels (as plantain is high in calcium), water intakes, and twice or once a day milking schedules.


Kirsty says Focus Days are an important part of the work being done at LUDF. She explains the information shared and discussions held, such as the challenges of the Plantain Project, are not about presenting everything as perfect, but rather to share all information for the benefit of all in the industry.