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Integrating chicory and plantain as alternative forages

Deidre Harmon for Progressive Forage Published on 30 August 2019
Bahiagrass, white clover, chicory and plantain

What comes to mind when the words “alternative forages” are mentioned? I often think of warm-season annuals of sorghum and sudangrass hybrids, pearl millet, and forage sorghum; or cool-season annuals of wheat, barley, ryegrass and crimson clover, just to name a few.

However, with cool-season perennial forage establishment season quickly approaching us in the Mid-Atlantic region, my current focus is on alternative forages that can add diversity to tall fescue, orchardgrass, and white clover forage systems.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the American Forage and Grassland Council’s Tour of New Zealand. This trip was one of those life-changing, eye-opening events that really triggered my interest in alternative forage systems. In New Zealand, many perennial ryegrass and white clover forage systems are interseeded with forbs to help extend the grazing season, provide high-quality forage and promote soil health attributes.

Plantain and chicory were the primary forbs used in New Zealand, but these perennial forages have not been widely adopted in most parts of the U.S. The lack of adoption could be the result of a combination of factors, including the lack of information on their performance in the U.S. and their close resemblance to commonly found weeds. Nevertheless, both chicory and plantain are useful alternative forages for cool-season perennial pastures.

Chicory

The first improved variety of forage chicory was developed in New Zealand and released in 1985. It is a perennial herb that has proven useful as both a feed for livestock and as a nutrient scavenger tool to reduce nutrient leaching into waterways. Chicory is rich in minerals due to its deep taproot that helps it reach and absorb nutrients deeper in the soil profile. This taproot also helps the plant be somewhat drought-tolerant. Chicory is best adapted for moderate to well-drained soils with a pH of 5.5 or higher. In new forage stands, chicory can be established by broadcasting or drilling at a rate of 2 to 5 pounds per acre in spring or fall and at a depth of 0.25 inches. When establishing chicory into existing forage stands, suppression of existing vegetation is critical to success and can be done in late winter or early spring when the soil surface is in a freeze-and-thaw cycle.

Good grazing management is key to stand longevity. Continuous grazing systems often lead to overgrazing which can result in a decline in chicory plants due to the exposure and damage of taproots. Forage should be grazed to no more than 2 inches in stubble height, and livestock should be removed for a rest period of 25 to 30 days. Chicory has been shown to yield as much as 3 to 4.5 tons of dry matter per acre. Digestibility and protein levels are also high in this forage with reports of crude protein ranging from 10% in mature stands to 32% in young vegetative stands, and digestibility of dry matter usually over 80%. This high nutrient content has led to animal gains in New Zealand of 0.4 to 0.7 pounds per day in lambs and 0.9 to 2.6 pounds per day in cattle, depending on forage system and level of management. This combination of yield and quality makes chicory an excellent alternative forage for livestock systems.

Plantain

Improved forage varieties of plantain were developed later than forage varieties of chicory. The first improved variety of plantain was released in 1993 in New Zealand and was primarily bred from plants collected on roadsides that were promising seed and vegetative tissue producers. Unlike many of our common weed plantains, improved varieties produce forage that grows more erect with a greater number of leaves. However, some states still recognize forage plantain as a noxious weed since it carries the same scientific name. Check with your local state extension service to see if forage plantain is available in your state.

Like chicory, plantain has a basal rosette arrangement of leaves and has a deep taproot that helps with drought tolerance and nutrient scavenging. However, plantain is winter active and can tolerate a wider range of soils than chicory but does not perform well in wet soils. Plantain can be drilled at 0.25 to 0.5 inches or broadcasted during the early spring or fall at a rate of 7 to 9 pounds per acre in a pure stand or 2 to 4 pounds per acre in a mixed grass and legume stand. The key to successful establishment is to control existing vegetation and weeds by either herbicide application or close, intense grazing.

The first grazing of plantain can occur after plants have at least six fully grown leaves to ensure acceptable root development has occurred. Little forage yield and animal performance information is available from U.S. studies, but research from New Zealand and the UK is promising. Researchers have found season-long production to range from 3.6 to 7.8 tons per acre with crude protein levels mimicking that of white clover. Additionally, multiple reports indicate that the addition of plantain as a pure stand or in a mixed stand can exceed the nutritional requirements of growing lambs, allowing them to gain 0.2 to 0.7 pounds per day.

Advantages and disadvantages of alternative forages

Many reports have indicated that chicory and plantain may have potential health benefits when included in the diets of grazing animals. In particular, lower fecal egg counts in lambs grazing chicory or plantain have been reported in the UK and New Zealand, but the science behind this is not fully understood. Unfortunately, like many other forages, chicory and plantain have their fair share of flaws. Many reports indicate persistence problems with these forbs and decreased longevity is likely the result of poor grazing management, weed competition, and fertility that favors rapid grass and legume growth.

In spite of that, these forbs have great potential in the U.S. to extend the grazing season, provide high-quality forage, and promote weight gain in growing and finishing livestock. If you are interested in trying something different, I encourage you to look into chicory and plantain as compatible alternative forages to your cool-season perennial systems.  end mark

PHOTO: A newly established stand of bahiagrass, white clover, chicory and plantain in the coastal plains of North Carolina. Photo provided by Deidre Harmon.

Deidre Harmon
  • Deidre Harmon

  • Extension Assistant Professor and Mountain Livestock Specialist
  • North Carolina State University, Department of Animal Science
  • Email Deidre Harmon

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