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Researchers explain benefits of sainfoin as a forage legume for beef cattle

Written by Saige

Legumes are beneficial in pastures because they generally contain more protein and minerals than grass plants, as well as adding nitrogen to the soil. One of the legumes that has had a lot of study lately for livestock forage is sainfoin.

Andrea Hanson, Beef Extension beef specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has been working on a study with producers across Alberta on a two-year project looking at sainfoin. 

The study was called the High Legume Pasture Project.

Inside the study

“The first year was spent establishing sainfoin as part of a high-legume pasture mix at 12 sites across Alberta, and the second year we looked at grazing those sites,” Hanson explains. “Some of the producer cooperators had very good success on the first year of establishment, while others did not, either because of two much or too little moisture, weeds or some other reason.”

She adds, “Grazing the second year provided a variety of experiences.”

The research showed some producers had better forage establishment the first year and were able to graze those pastures effectively the second year.

Benefits

Sainfoin reduces the risk for bloat, even in pastures that also have alfalfa because sainfoin contains tannins that bind excess plant protein, which is often associated with alfalfa, Hanson explains. 

“The tannins precipitate these excess proteins out of the rumen fluid, preventing the creation of stable foam that is formed in pasture bloat,” she continues. 

Many producers or their neighbors have had bad experiences with alfalfa and bloat and don’t want to add alfalfa to a pasture, but sainfoin added to a pasture mix, even if it contains alfalfa, greatly reduces risk of bloat. 

Grazing research has shown 95 to 98 percent reduction in bloat when sainfoin makes up 25 percent of a sainfoin/alfalfa stand.

“With weather pattern changes, having a more diversified pasture stand allows for different plants to thrive in different conditions, and we get more drought resistance,” Hanson adds. “Legumes have a deep taproot and can penetrate deeper into the soil profile where there is more moisture.”

She further notes, “Poor-producing pastures with few or no legumes run the risk of depletion earlier in the grazing season and the producer has to feed hay earlier.” 

Without legumes, producers may have less pasture and lower quality forage for the cattle.

Varieties

“The sainfoin we used for this project is a variety developed at the Lethbridge Research Station of Ag Canada by Dr. Surya Acharya called AC Mountainview Sainfoin. It has a growth pattern more like alfalfa and can withstand grazing better than previous varieties,” Hanson says. 

“One concern with sainfoin in the past is that it would be grazed out too quickly, and then, the risk of bloat is back again with the alfalfa that remains,” she explains, noting the new variety of sainfoin is better for grazing.

Grazing

“Our focus in this project was to have 60 percent or more legumes and 40 percent other forage species. The cooperating producers chose whatever else they wanted to put with the legumes. They could use grasses or more legumes, like birdsfoot trefoil or alfalfa,” Hanson says.

The 12 study sites are located in different climates, elevations, soil types, etc. 

“From our grazing experience, one of the most notable observations was the importance of seed set for the longevity of a high-legume forage stand – the need for some recovery time and regrowth for natural reseeding,” Hanson comments.

Because 2017’s growing season was very dry in parts of Alberta until fall, when they did receive moisture, one site was left ungrazed until after the seed set. 

“They found evidence of sainfoin seeds that had fallen to the ground and were germinating,” she says, noting under the right conditions, sainfoin will reseed itself, if given a chance. 

When grazing sainfoin, producers should leave adequate growth, so the forage plants can produce seed, in which case the stand will perpetuate itself forever.

Growing conditions

In some conditions, sainfoin doesn’t regrow as well as alfalfa, however, and if producers are using it for hay rather than pasture, it is often best for only one cutting. 

Anowar Islam, University of Wyoming Extension forage specialist, is conducting a number of research trials on legumes and grasses in various locations around Wyoming, including some studies with sainfoin. One of those studies is ongoing at Sheridan, using alfalfa, sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil as the legumes and meadow brome as the grass. 

“In one study at Sheridan, we used similar seeding rates to normal pasture mixes but used sainfoin instead of alfalfa. We used 100 percent sainfoin, a 50-50 mix and a 30-70 mix,” Islam explains. “The test plots using meadow brome at 70 percent and alfalfa at 30 percent in the Sheridan’s conditions produced the maximum yield and maximum economic returns, compared to sainfoin.”

Islam continues sainfoin doesn’t have a high regrowth rate, compared to alfalfa, and if it has too much pressure from the grass, sainfoin slowly disappears. 

“Our four- and five-year studies showed a 50-50 mix of sainfoin or alfalfa still do okay, but compared to alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil, the sainfoin is lower,” he says. 

Feed comparisons

  Islam continues other legume options are also available that may be better under irrigated conditions, suggesting, “Birdsfoot trefoil seems to do very well and provides nutritive value very similar to alfalfa.”

“The sainfoin didn’t do as well, in comparison. This was in irrigated conditions,” he says. “Sainfoin does not tolerate too much water. If the water table is too high, it doesn’t grow very well either.”

Islam further explains, “It also doesn’t have the ability like alfalfa and birdsfoot trefoil to tolerate some root rot diseases. It starts slowly declining in growth and disappearing in an irrigated system over time.” 

“Sainfoin does best in a dryland system or in conditions with frequent but small amounts of water,” he says.

Hay sainfoin

Sainfoin is often grazed rather than put up as hay because there is no problem with bloat. 

“Bloat with alfalfa is always an issue unless we have at least 30 percent grass in the mix. This will significantly reduce a bloat problem. If the mix is 50-50, there should not be an issue with bloat,” says Islam.

“Sainfoin can be readily grazed with no problems,” he says.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..