The role and value of herbs in lamb finishing systems

Kate Byrne, AusWest Seeds, Central West NSW

Chicory and plantain are a unique species of pasture, which offer a number of advantages for grazing stock, particularly finishing lambs. Tonic plantain and Choice chicory are short lived perennials which last 2-5 years. Herbs have a well-balanced protein to energy ratio and low levels of fibre, which improves digestibility and rumen degradation. Compared to straight legume pastures, chicory and plantain offer a high quality diet but are less prone to animal health issues. Choice chicory and Tonic plantain have been proven on farms and in research trials to improve the production of both per animal and per hectare performance, when compared to other pasture species. 

Plantain is suited to a wide range of soil types and fertility. It is predominantly autumn, winter and spring active, however due to its shallow but fibrous root system, it does respond to summer rain or irrigation.

Tonic plantain is a mineral rich perennial herb which supplies key minerals including calcium, sodium, copper and selenium to grazing stock. Due to its coarse root system, plantain is able to extract these nutrients from soils at higher rates than other pasture species. These minerals are essential in livestock diets and are required for bone and muscle growth as well as nerve, muscle and immune function. Rapidly growing lambs have an increased demand for these minerals and as it is only stored in the body for a short period of time, it needs to be supplied in the diet continually to allow for optimal animal performance (Erickson, 2017).

For more information on Tonic Plantain click here.
Lamb Finishing | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Tonic plantain
Chicory is an erect, warm season plant with the bulk of its growth from mid-spring through to autumn. Due to its deep (1.5-2m) tap root, chicory is drought tolerant and can seek water low in the soil profile. This allows it to continue to grow during the warmer months when other pasture species have slowed. This enables lambs to be finished in times when other species do not provide high quality forage.

Like plantain, chicory has an elevated mineral content compared to grasses and legumes and can supply zinc, copper, calcium, potassium and magnesium to grazing stock. These elements are utilised by stock for bone and muscle growth as well as several enzyme processes.

For more information on Choice chicory click here.

Chicory and plantain are both highly nutritious pasture species. Their high protein and energy content, paired with their low fibre content results in high animal performance. Live weight gains of 200-250g/head/day have been observed on lambs fed straight Tonic plantain diets (Moorhead, Judson, & Stewart, 2002).

Nutritional values of these grazing herbs can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1: Nutritional Values of Grazing Herbs

Forage Crude Protein (%) Digestibility (%) Metabolisable Energy (MJME/kgDM)
 Chicory 18-27 79 11.7
Plantain 19-28 78 11.3

A rapid rumen degradation rate is a strong advantage of grazing herbs. The time it takes for plantain or chicory to be digested through the animal is much faster compared to other pasture species. Some comparisons can be seen in table 2 below. Due to herbs quick degradation rate, large amounts of forage can be consumed by stock in one day. This allows more nutrients to be pulled from the diet, thus resulting in higher live weight gains/ day.

Table 2: Time to Digest Selected Pasture Species

Fresh forage (/hr) Hrs to 50%
 Perennial ryegrass 0.114 6
Paspalum 0.068 10
White clover 0.195 3
Chicory 0.260 2.5
Plantain 0.246 2.5

Herbs are very palatable and are often preferentially grazed by lambs. This is a benefit as it minimises the lag period when new stock are introduced to a herb pasture. Due to the structure of the leaf of chicory and plantain, almost 100% of the plant can be utilised. The oval structure of the leaf also enables animals to take large bite sizes, which in turn with the fast degradation rate increases daily consumption. As both chicory and plantain are highly palatable and easily utilised, if managed poorly, the plants can be overgrazed which will be detrimental to their persistence. Therefore, herbs are most persistence when grazed in a high intensity, rotational grazing system.

The below table outlines the best practice grazing management of Tonic plantain and Choice chicory.

Table 3: Best practice for grazing management of Tonic plantain and Choice chicory

  Tonic Plantain Choice Chicory
First grazing leaf stage   6 true leaves 7 true leaves
 Pre-grazing height  25 cm 25-35 cm
 Post-grazing height  5-10 cm 5-10 cm
 Re-grazing  4-6 leaves 2-4 leaves/25 cm tall
Lamb Finishing | AusWest & Stephen Pasture Seeds
Choice chicory at optimum grazing height
As a special purpose crop
A straight stand of Tonic plantain or Choice chicory is the best way to realise the potential of grazing herbs for finishing lambs. Monocultures also allow for best grazing management of either Tonic plantain or Choice chicory. This will help with the persistence of the pasture. If grass weeds are a problem, pure stands of chicory or plantain allow for grass weeds to be controlled with selected herbicide sprays.

Drilled into an old lucerne stand
Herbs are a great option for extending the life of a thinning out lucerne stand. Depending on when extra dry matter growth is required, herbs can be sown into lucerne to provide bulk in winter or summer and utilise the remaining lucerne for an extra 2-4 years. If dry matter is required in the summer months then Choice chicory would be the best option while Tonic plantain would be very suitable if forage was required in the cooler months.

Herb and legume blend
Both chicory and plantain are suitable to be sown with lucerne or clovers. This will produce a high quality pasture and can extend the growing season of the pasture. Including herbs in a mix with legumes reduces the likelihood of animal health issues such as red gut. The MAXImiser™ Lamb Finishing mix is an example of a mix which incorporates lucerne, annual clovers and both Tonic plantain and Choice chicory.

Herbs in a pasture mix
Chicory and plantain can be mixed with grass and legume pastures to increase the quality and production of a pasture blend. However due to their palatability, careful management must be taken to ensure the herbs are not grazed out. Including herbs in a pasture mix with grasses and legumes should only be done where paddocks are weed free, as there are little herbicide options when all the species are combined.

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