Farming with Sainfoin

A health-giving legume for alkaline soils

Sainfoin is a silage or hay crop that can also be grazed.  It is drought-resistant, needs no nitrogen fertiliser, does not cause bloat and is a natural anthelmintic. In these times of rising fertiliser, feed and veterinary drug prices, it is a crop that can be of huge benefit to farmers, and the environment.

Soil types

Sainfoin thrives on free draining, alkaline and calcareous soils (pH6.2 or above).  It is not suitable for moisture-retentive or acidic ground.

Persistence and temperature tolerance

Sainfoin will last up to five years or more and will thrive in a wide range of temperatures from the very hot to the very cold.  Sainfoin also has a long tap root which makes it drought resistant.  It is best to avoid heavy grazing and poaching which can damage these roots. Although Sainfoin may be grown for just one year it seldom produces enough yield to justify the expense of the seed. Therefore the first year should be seen as an establishment phase. 

Altitude tolerance

Sainfoin will grow at altitudes up to 1500m

Place in rotation

Many dry soils are unable to support the growth of shallow-rooted crops such as ryegrass. On these soils sainfoin can take the place of a grass ley, providing valuable livestock feed and enabling the farmer to build soil fertility for subsequent crops. Sainfoin has deep, penetrating roots and can draw moisture from a great depth. Being leguminous (able to fix N) it can leave huge quantities of N in the soil, making it ideal ahead of cereals or brassicas in the rotation. 

Sowing rate and depth

Seed should be applied at 65-90 kg/ha depending on whether it is sown with or without companion grasses. Many farmers in southern Europe prefer to sow pure sainfoin. However others, further north, opt to sow with non-competitive grasses such as meadow fescue and timothy at 7 kg/ha. In this situation the lower sowing rate of sainfoin is used. Sainfoin should be drilled to 2cm and rolled afterwards to increase soil moisture contact with the seed.  

Sowing method and time

Sainfoin seed should be drilled as it is relatively large. It may be planted with a narrow spaced drill (10-14 cm) or cross drilled in wider rows. Seed can be sown in spring, where it may be undersown to a low rate cereal (100 kg/ha) or in summer/autumn provided there is sufficient moisture.  In cold regions, autumn sowing is not recommended. 

Grazing and conservation

Sainfoin provides bloat-free forage for ruminants and this is a real advantage over other legumes such as clovers and lucerne which can cause fatal bloat. Only a relatively small quantity of sainfoin in the diet is required to prevent bloat. Sainfoin is palatable to horses, sheep, cattle, goats and all commonly farmed animals. There is considerable concern that drug resistance is costing farmers serious economic loss accross Europe. Sainfoin is proven to be anthelminitic which is useful to reduce the routine use of expensive wormers.

Sainfoin is considered to be one of the healthiest forage plants available and this is demonstrated by many livestock breeders who choose to grow the crop. It has a 25% higher voluntary intake than grasses and clovers and provides greater liveweight gain than grasses and clovers too. In sheep for example it is possible to acheive in excess of 400gms per day. This is thought to be due to the tannins which the plant contains which protect the protein, enabling it to pass through the rumen and into the lower gut where more is digested and used by the animal.

Silage and hay is made in the same way as for other crops. The only differences are that the mown material needs handling carefully as it dries so as to minimise leaf loss, especially during hay making. When made into silage it is best to use an additive/inoculant to kick start the fermentation process. Farmers wishing to make silage should wilt to around 50% dry matter.

Livestock farmers are increasingly under pressure to reduce the methan produced by their ruminant animals. Work currently being undertaken shows that sainfoin may cut the emmisions of this dangerous greenhouse gas. 

Sainfoin may be included in seed mixtures in the same way as clovers are grown with grasses. A typical inclusion rate would be 12 kg/ha.

Fertiliser requirements

Sainfoin is, without doubt, a low input crop. As a legume the rhizobial bacteria that live on its root nodules fix free nitrogen from the air and make it ready as a nutrient to the sainfoin and to other plants. In addition, arbuscular mycorrizas are often present which increase the sequestration of mineral nutrients, especially phosphates, from the soil. Therefore the only requirement is for Potash (K) which is needed at levels similar to other crops and can be found in farm yard manure.

Sainfoin can benefit from 25 kg/ha N in the seed bed to facilitate establishment.

N fixing potential

Sainfoin is thought to fix between 150 - 200 kg N/ha.

Weed control

Sainfoin can be slow to start growing but produces enough ground cover to compete against weeds once established. There a few herbicides with clearance for use on sainfoin. One in the UK called 'Belmac Plus' provides control of small broadleaved weeds.

Pest and diseases

Sainfoin does not suffer from any major pests or diseases.  It can be susceptible to crown rot, which can reduce its persistence.

Varieties

At the moment there are no new varieties available but it is hoped that, as a result of the Healthy Hay project, breeding objectives are now much clearer.

Pollen and nectar

The flowers of sainfoin attract huge numbers of insects. According to studies, sainfoin can attract ten times more bees than white clover. There are many bee keepers who consider sainfoin honey to be superior to that from any other source. 

Sainfoin seedlings

Sainfoin seedlings

Cutting sainfoin

Cutting sainfoin

Making silage

Making silage

Grazing sainfoin

Grazing sainfoin