West-Central Forage Association

Sainfoin: Non-Bloat Legume

Sainfoin (Onobryschis spp.) is an introduced, ancient, perennial forage legume that has been grown in Europe and Asia for centuries. Traditionally known as “healthy hay”, this cool-season legume can be used as hay, silaged, or grazed in pastures-alone or in a grass-legume mix.

Sainfoin is high in protein, and highly palatable to sheep and cattle; it is often preferred grazing over alfalfa. It matures early and gives yields that are comparable with alfalfa (up to 90% under a one-cut/graze system). Sainfoin has good leaf retention and is (reportedly) highly frost tolerant. The autumn rosette type growth pattern may remain green under snow cover for most of the winter, making it ideal for fall grazing.

The plants’ deep taproot makes it highly drought tolerant, and these roots are also able to draw minerals from deep below the topsoil. As a member of the legume family, sainfoin fixes its own nitrogen, (though at a lower rate than alfalfa), boosting its own and other plants’ fertility.

Reports indicate that the crop is also relatively free from serious disease and insect problems. It is immune to attack by the alfalfa weevil, and is highly attractive to pollinating insects, especially honey bees and it makes excellent honey.

The main interest in sainfoin has been its qualities in resisting bloat. Condensed tannins in the plant bind to protein in feed, allowing it to be digested as a bypass protein, avoiding the problem of large amounts of protein being quickly digested in the rumen–the leading cause of bloat. Studies shows that 20-30% sainfoin in an alfalfa pasture can, in certain cases, eliminate the risk of bloat. Those same tannins also make sainfoin an excellent fodder for young livestock because of the anti-parasitic effects.

Development of the new cultivar, tested as LRC 3902, was led by Dr. Surya Acharya of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Lethbridge. Acharya announced the variety and its proposed name of Mountainview at the Alberta Forage Industry Network AGM, Feb. 5, 2013 in Ponoka, Alta. 

“This new sainfoin cultivar is truly one of a kind and represents an exciting new opportunity for cattle producers,” Acharya said in a release. “It is the first sainfoin cultivar that will survive in alfalfa pasture and grow back at the same rate after cutting or grazing. It will prevent bloat in mixed stands to provide producers with their first real, economically viable option to allow for highly productive, bloat-free alfalfa pasture grazing.”

Sainfoin has previously only been grown for the purpose of research in the brown soil zones of the province, so one of the main reasons for this research trial is to determine suitability to gray wooded soil. Beyond determining the suitability of this crop for this region, varieties are being tested for yield and winter survivability over a number of years..

For this trial there are four varieties being grown with Nova being used as the check. Three experimental sainfoin lines have been developed by Dr. Surya Acharya and are designated LRC05-3900, LRC05-3901, and LRC05-3902. The plots were seeded in alternate row mixtures with AC Grazeland alfalfa, at a rate of 15lb/ac and 6lb/ac respectively, for a ratio of 20% sainfoin to 80% alfalfa. Four repetitions were seeded.