“Forage plantain and chicory are popular in New Zealand, both as straight crops and in grazing mixtures,” says Sinclair McGill’s grass seed manager Ian Misselbrook. “Many UK producers could take advantage of these ‘hidden gems’ that can extend the grazing season, improve the supply of minerals and trace elements, and boost live weight gains when it comes to raising youngstock or finishing lambs.”
But especially relevant this year – and one reason why Mr Misselbrook has seen significant increases in seed sales of these two crops – is their drought tolerance.
“Both crops have fibrous roots that provide a degree of drought tolerance,” he adds. “And UK producers find both plantain and chicory as reliable as grass but with extended grazing through July and August when grass growth has slowed due to lack of rainfall.”
Plantain and chicory are easy to grow. They can be established on a range of soil types, but a free draining soil is preferable. “Fields prone to waterlogging should be avoided,” says Mr Misselbrook, adding that a firm, fine and weed free seed bed is required and it is best sown into warm soils above 10OC. Sowing is best through spring and up to July, and at a depth no greater than 10mm. Drilling the seed is best, but broadcasting the seed and then rolling can also be successful.
“Both can be added to a grass and clover seed mixture and established in a similar fashion with fertiliser applications as required.”
Forage Chicory will reach full production in 14 to 16 weeks. It is then best rotationally grazed every five to six weeks to prevent flowering. Recovery post grazing is rapid and the crop is a rich source of trace elements and minerals and doesn’t produce any bloat problems – it will even tolerate low pH soils of 5.0.
Plantain should not be grazed until the plant has six fully grown leaves – by then the root system will be fully developed. Like chicory, forage plantain can be rotationally grazed and provides a highly palatable feed rich in minerals, especially calcium, sodium, copper and selenium.
Trial work carried out by Dairy NZ compared intakes and milk production of groups of cows grazing a typical summer ryegrass with 9.6ME, leys with between 20% and 40% chicory and leys with 20% to 40% plantain. Cows in the latter two grazing systems had intakes 6% above those on the ryegrass ley with 17% greater milk solid yields.
When pasture of higher dry matter was compared with chicory and plantain mixtures there was no difference in milk production. “This work demonstrates the benefit of plantain and chicory in a grass mixture as a longer term crop option that can withstand drier conditions, is easier to manage and offers flexibility,” says Mr Misselbrook.
UK trials have shown that ewes and finishing lambs will selectively graze both plantain and chicory in a mixed pasture. “These forages provide variety in the grazing diet and encourage intakes. We have seen swards with plantain support weight gains in weaned lambs of 250g to 350g per day at high stocking rates,” he adds. “And swards of chicory have been shown to increase both ewe milk production and the rate of live-weight gain in finishing lambs.”
The performance of ewes with triplet lambs aged between nine and 10 weeks old and grazed on Tonic plantain was also compared in New Zealand work with ewes and twin lambs on grass and on lucerne leys. The average lamb weight at finishing in the lambs on the Tonic leys was 37.5kg, compared with 31kg and 32kg respectively for the lambs on the lucerne and on the grass.
“This work demonstrates the potential of chicory and plantain mixtures. Following the exceptionally dry spring, livestock producers can consider these crops with a degree of confidence – knowing that they can produce high quality feed even in drought prone conditions.”