Sainfoin: a new forage legume for Ontario livestock producers

Its non-bloating qualities make it a perfect companion to long-standing favourites, or it works well on its own

Mention the term “forage legume” in Eastern Canada, and just about any producer will mention alfalfa or clover. Livestock producers can likely name off another 10 or 12 species, like birdsfoot trefoil, alsike, timothy, orchardgrass or meadow bromegrass.

But few will mention sainfoin, well-known in Western Canada but a relative newcomer to Ontario and Quebec. It’s a perennial forage legume, typically taller than alfalfa up to a height of three feet. The plant has hollow stems with leaves that are divided and look similar to vetch leaves. It also has a deep and branched taproot.

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Sainfoin’s origin is unclear, although it’s known to have been cultivated in parts of Europe and Asia for several centuries. It was introduced to North America in the early 1900s, with early varieties from Europe displaying poor winter hardiness and low yields. It wasn’t until varieties were developed in Russia and Turkey that improved winter hardiness became part of the plant’s genetic makeup.

Despite a 90 per cent yield index relative to alfalfa, tests at Winnipeg, Man., and Lacombe, Alta., have showed yields comparable or better than alfalfa.

Growers in Western Canada have been the benefactors of breeding efforts by Surya Acharya at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alta. His varieties include Mountainview, Nova, LRC 3900, LRC 3519 and LRC 3432. Acharya’s colleague, Tim McAllister, who specializes in ruminant nutrition and microbiology at the Lethbridge station, has also worked with sainfoin.

Moving east?

One of sainfoin’s vocal supporters in Eastern Canada is Tarlok Singh Sahota, director of research and business at Ontario’s Thunder Bay Agricultural Research Station (TBARS). Sahota planted his first trials in 2014, and says he will have a better handle on its particular attributes in the year to come. Yet he sees no reason why the legume can’t work as well in Eastern Canada as it does in the West, regardless of concerns over heat or humidity or soil types.

“It should do well,” says Sahota. “I’ve seen it do well here at the research station, and I was happy with what growth I saw.”

Some of the other positive attributes of sainfoin include its adaptability, digestibility and health/nutrient benefits. There are also some reported agronomic advantages that make it a compelling supplement or replacement for alfalfa. To start, sainfoin can be grown on its own or as a blend, and is suitable for hay, ensiling or for pasturing.

“The one key difference between alfalfa and sainfoin is the hollow stem similar to clover,” says Sahota, noting that the plant retains its leaves longer than alfalfa. “When it’s hollow, you can harvest it at any stage and you get consistent levels of protein. That’s why we like the hollow stem — because it remains soft; it will not gather much fibre as compared to alfalfa, which has a solid stem.”

It’s tasty

Sainfoin has a higher “voluntary intake level,” which means it’s preferred by ruminants. Some research puts it as much as 25 per cent higher than other forage sources. Tests have shown weight gain at more than 400 grams per day in sheep. In cattle, feeding alfalfa plus sainfoin (without a specific percentage mentioned) resulted in weight gain of 1.2 kilograms per day.

According to the research, the condensed tannins in sainfoin protect the protein and enable it to pass through the rumen and into the lower gut, where more of the protein is digested and retained. Research has also shown sainfoin has lower acid detergent fibre (ADF) and neutral detergent fibre (NDF) levels compared to alfalfa.

If there’s a drawback to its palatability, it’s that sainfoin is also preferred by wildlife as much as by cattle, horses, sheep or goats.

Cutting and grazing

The general accepted practice is that sainfoin can only be cut once, as it doesn’t regrow as vigorously after a first cut as alfalfa. On the other hand, it also starts growing earlier and faster in the spring than other legumes, often blooming up to two weeks ahead of alfalfa. If it’s to be cut for hay, the literature recommends it be done at 50 to 100 per cent bloom or it can be grazed at bud or early bloom to encourage the best regrowth.

In spite of what the earlier research indicates, Sahota plans to test those “standards” in 2015.

“They say you can take two cuts, but sometimes it won’t give a good yield on the second cut,” he says. “But when we are growing it here, we’ll be planning on two cuts, just like with alfalfa.”

One of the more attractive benefits of sainfoin, adds Sahota, is its non-bloating property. In blends of just 15 to 25 per cent with alfalfa, sainfoin can overcome most bloat in livestock.

Weeds, pests and diseases

As a relative newcomer, there hasn’t been a herbicide registered for sainfoin yet. It does, however, show a natural resistance to glyphosate, and its growth is competitive enough in its establishment year that it can easily provide a weed-free stand the following year. It’s also immune to alfalfa weevil and, to date, there are no mentions of disease issues in the crop.

Sahota says the field trial at TBARS will be closely monitored in 2015. Based on work done in Western Canada, it’s advised that seeding be done early in the spring, at eight to 10 seeds per foot-row at 1/4- to 3/4-inch depth in soils that are firm and moist.

In the fall, the plants have a rosette appearance and will remain green under a snow cover in winter, exhibiting a high tolerance to frost in either fall or spring. Although it’s said to do well on deep, well-drained soils (pH 6.2 and up), sainfoin also performs adequately in shallow or gravelly soils, which is another property that sets it apart from other forage legumes.

Foundation seed was lost in 2014 for Mountainview, the highest-yielding of the four varieties bred at AAFC Lethbridge. It’s projected that it won’t be available in large commercial supply until 2016. Sahota says that Nova and the three other Lethbridge varieties are well suited and available for 2015 and beyond.

This article first appeared in the 2015 Forage & Grassland Guide.

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CG Production Editor

Ralph Pearce

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