Impact of plantain (Plantago lanceolata) based pasture on milk production of dairy cows and nitrate leaching from pastoral systems : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Animal Science at Massey University, Manawatu, New Zealand

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In temperate dairy systems, the traditional perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne)-white clover (Trifolium repens) (RGWC) pasture often has excessive nitrogen (N) content relative to the N requirement of animals, posing a risk of nitrate (NO₃⁻) leaching into the environment. Recently, incorporating plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with RGWC pasture has been increasingly used to improve economic and environmental benefits for dairy farms. However, the impact of plantain incorporation on farm productivity and NO₃⁻ leaching at the farm level has not been fully understood. The objectives of this thesis were to quantify the effect of incorporating increasing rates of plantain in grazing swards on pasture production, milk yield and composition of dairy cows, and NO₃⁻ leaching from pastoral dairy systems. To address the objectives of the thesis, a grazing trial was implemented at a research dairy farm between September 2019 and December 2021. Pasture treatments were RGWC (perennial ryegrass cv. ONE⁵⁰ and white clover cv. Tribute), RGWC + low plantain (cv. Agritonic) rate (PLL), RGWC + medium plantain rate (PLM), and RGWC + high plantain rate (PLH). Pastures were established with 20 experimental plots and four adaptation areas in April 2019 and were rotationally grazed by dairy cows over 22 grazing events during the experimental period. In each grazing, 60 or 80 cows were assigned to graze for 6 days in their adaptation areas and 1.5–3 days in the experimental plots. The experimental cows were managed under a typical practice, milking twice daily, offering grazing pasture and approximately 25% supplementary dietary feeds. Measurements were conducted to quantify the yield, botanical composition and nutritive value of the pasture, milk yield, milk composition and N excretion of dairy cows, and NO₃⁻ leaching from the pastoral system. The results showed that, over the first two lactation years after sowing, plantain-based pastures have a similar dry matter yield and contain higher water content, non-structural carbohydrates, minerals, and bioactive compounds than the RGWC pasture. The average plantain proportion in the swards over the first two years after sowing was 32% in PLL, 44% in PLM, and 48% in PLH, which increased in the first 15 months and declined to 20% in PLL and 30% in PLM and PLH at day 705 after sowing. Cows grazing the plantain-based pastures had a similar milk yield, composition and yield of solids, protein, fat, and lactose as those grazing the RGWC pasture. Furthermore, when 25% plantain was included in the diet of cows in late lactation, it resulted in a 44% increase in urine volume and a 29% reduction in urine N concentration by 29%. By incorporating an average of 30% and 50% plantain with RGWC pasture, NO₃⁻ leaching was reduced by 32 and 52%, respectively, over two drainage years after establishment, with a greater reduction in the first year than in the second year. Among sowing rates, PLM resulted in the greatest decrease in NO₃⁻ leaching, with 64% in the first year and 41% in the second year. The decreased NO₃⁻ leaching was associated with increased plantain content, enhanced herbage N uptake, reduced UN excretion of dairy cows and a lower N load in urine patches. In conclusion, in a typical practice, as in the present study, incorporating 30–50% plantain with RGWC pasture decreases NO₃⁻ leaching from pastoral systems without adversely impacting farm productivity for at least two years from sowing. However, the reduction of plantain content in the second year suggests further measurements to determine the effectiveness of plantain-based pasture in the longer term. In the conditions and time scale of the present study, the medium plantain rate treatment (PLM) is suggested to achieve a high effectiveness of plantain incorporation in reducing NO₃⁻ leaching.
Plantago, Pasture plants, Dairy farming, Milk yield, Soils, Leaching, Nitrate content