Introduction to Sainfoin

'Healthy Hay' - a forage legume with multiple benefits

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) has been grown by farmers across many parts of the world for hundreds of years. It is native to South Central Asia and was introduced into Europe in the 15th century. The name Sainfoin comes from the French saint foin or sain foin meaing 'holy hay' or 'healthy hay'. Over 360 sainfoin accessions were collected by the Heathy Hay project.

For farmers with dry, calcareous soils sainfoin is an ideal crop, especially in drought-prone areas. In the days when working horses were commonly used on farms, sainfoin was grown as a hay crop, providing high quality forage which would power heavy equine breeds.  It was traditionally grown as part of a three to four year rotation, used to feed animals and add fertility to the soil before arable cropping.

In the south of England, one in seven fields used to be covered with sainfoin and it is still widely grown in northern Spain, Italy, Armenia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

What is Sainfoin?

Sainfoin is a perennial legume herb with an erect growth habit, producing beautiful pink flowers. It is highly palatable to animals and has an excellent nutritional balance. It can be grazed, or fed as hay or silage.  It thrives on alkaline soils, provides its own nitrogen and needs very little phosphate.  Sainfoin has a tap root that grows down to great depth, making the plant highly drought resistant. These roots are also able to draw up minerals from well below the top soil.

Sainfoin for animals

Sainfoin provides a superb forage for grazing animals and voluntary intake of sainfoin by cattle and sheep is 20% higher than for grass.  Unlike many other legumes, it is non-bloating and is known to have anthelmintic properties, so reducing the problems associated with livestock worms.  Sainfoin contains condensed tannins, and it is these that protect animals against bloat. Sainfoin has also been shown to increase protein absorption. This, combined with its other health benefits, mean that animals grazing sainfoin have very rapid liveweight gains, so young stock can be finished sooner and with very good carcass grades. Sainfoin is therefore extremely useful to low input and organic farmers.

Sainfoin for the environment

Farming with sainfoin has excellent environmental benefits.  Before the advent of modern farming methods and the use of artificial fertilisers, sainfoin was commonly used to add fertility to the soil.  As a member of the legume family, sainfoin takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and transforms it into nutrients that boost its own and other plants' fertility.

It is thought that sainfoin also helps increase the sequestration of mineral nutrients, particularly phosphates, from the soil, so is largely self-sufficient as a plant. Potash is normally provided through farm yard manure.

Sainfoin, which flowers from June until September, is beloved of both bumble and honey bees. It is commonly used in 'pollen and nectar' mixes for headlands in arable farming, where it provides a great food source for insects.

Future for sainfoin

The use of all legumes - including sainfoin - started to decline in Western countries from the 1930s with the advent of cheap nitrogen and new strains of highly-productive grasses. However, with the current pressures to farm in a sustainable, low input way, a renewed interest in sainfoin is expected to see a renaissance in the crop's popularity.

Sainfoin Flower

Sainfoin Flower

Sainfoin hay and cattle

Sainfoin hay and cattle

Sheep grazing sainfoin

Sheep grazing sainfoin

Donkey in Crete

Donkey in Crete