Farming project tinkers with cows' diet to reduce dairy's environmental footprint

It's hoped feeding cows the plantain will have a positive environmental impact.
It's hoped feeding cows the plantain will have a positive environmental impact. Photo credit: Supplied

A trial aiming to improve the country's waterways by feeding cows plantain, a leafy herb, is set to be expanded.

Studies have shown incorporating certain varieties of plantain into cows' diets can reduce the nitrogen concentration in their urine. Because this nitrogen can leach through soil into groundwater it is hoped reducing the concentration will have a positive environmental impact.

A trial in the Tararua District, in the lower North Island, has been testing the benefits of this in local conditions. So far 50 farms in the area have started using Ecotain -  a blend of plantain cultivars developed by seed company Agricom - through the Tararua Plantain Project.

The project is being led by DairyNZ, with input also coming from the Ministry for Primary Industries. Now, Fonterra and Nestlé, a customer of Fonterra, have also come onboard and the trial is set to be expanded.

"This is helping to speed up the adoption of plantain by farmers. Ultimately it could be a real game-changer to reduce nitrogen from cows and help mitigate nitrous oxide emissions," Charlotte Rutherford, Fonterra's director of on-farm excellence, said on Monday.

The farms already using the plantain, along with new participants, will now start to increase the amount they grow with the aim of maximising the potential benefits.

Preliminary studies with Ecotain have shown it also has the potential to lower on-farm greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the reduction of nitrous oxide.

Nestlé's Robert Erhard said the company hopes using the plantain will help it reach its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

As part of the project, farmers will also have access to workshops, events and a national farmer network to share knowledge.

DairyNZ's general manager for new systems and competitiveness David McCall said the sector had high hopes for the seven-year "flagship project".

"It is delivering real, tangible results valued by farmers," he said.

"The project has community at its heart as it seeks water quality improvements, while ensuring the dairy sector continues as an economic pillar within the local community."