Research shows plantain can significantly reduce nitrogen leaching on farms

Innovative research from the School of Agriculture and Environment has shown that feeding cows the leafy herb plantain can reduce nitrogen leaching from dairy farms by 20 to 60 per cent.

Dairy cows grazing the leafy herb plantain.

The results, from the DairyNZ-led Plantain Potency and Practice (PPP) Programme, show using Ecotain plantain in pasture can significantly reduce nitrogen entering waterways.

The $22 million seven-year PPP Programme is funded by DairyNZ, the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Fonterra, working with six additional research and delivery partners.

Massey is running seasonal farm trials as part of the nationwide PPP research and development programme that partners with dairy farmers, industry and government.

Massey’s research dairy farm has a unique evaluation system for pasture systems that was used to assess the environmental benefits of plantain cultivars. The paddocks drainage system allows direct measurement of nitrogen leaching in the paddocks.

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 per cent in perennial ryegrass and clover pastures containing 30 to 50 per cent Ecotain plantain.

One of the pasture leaching measurement stations.

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 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 trial, with a 38-50 per cent reduction in nitrogen leaching from pasture containing 24 per cent Ecotain plantain. More data is being collected to confirm these results.

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,” Professor Kemp 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 research has shown that this pasture regime also decreases the greenhouse gas emissions of nitrous oxide, a key issue for climate change.”

DairyNZ Chief Executive Dr Tim Mackle says the results are exciting.

“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.

“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.”

PGG Wrightson Seeds Chief Executive John McKenzie says he’s 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.

For more information on the project or using plantain, visit