NDSU Extension - Mercer County


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Sainfoin as a Forage Option

sainfoin, forage options

Submitted by Craig Askim, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources    

Sainfoin as a Forage Option

Many producers have been calling me the last few weeks looking for forage planting options to seed on some of their less productive soils. Sainfoin is a legume crop that has been around for a number of years but has just started being noticed in western North Dakota. Below are some common questions producers have on this forage crop.

What is sainfoin and what does it look like?
Sainfoin is a perennial cool-season legume used for forage production. It is an introduced species, brought over from Europe. It is a non-bloating legume suitable for hay and pasture.

It is a forb plant with erect stems up to 39 inches in height. Stems are hollow and appear coarse but are quite succulent, and grow from a root crown. The roots are deep, branched taproots; the main taproot is very stout.

Leaves are comprised of 11 to 29 leaflets. Flowers grow on a long, spike-like terminal head.  Plants tend to produce flowers and seeds starting from the bottom of the flower spike, working upward. The seed itself is large–kidney-shaped and greenish-brown–for a perennial forage legume.

Where does sainfoin grow best?
Well-drained, dry sites not subject to flooding at the root zone are ideal for growing sainfoin. In addition, soils must be of neutral to alkaline pH, weakly saline, calcareous (high calcium), and moderately fertile. Sainfoin is more drought tolerant than alfalfa.

Seeding requirements for sainfoin.
Seedbeds need to be well packed and uniform before and after seeding. Though sainfoin has large seeds compared to other forage legumes, it needs to be seeded shallow, no more than ¾ inches deep. Avoid fields with heavy trash-cover because the soft seedbed is more difficult to pack, it also reduces seed-to-soil contact. Inoculate sainfoin with the correct rhizobia species before seeding to allow nodules to develop.  Fertilize fields to soil test recommendations. Seed dryland sainfoin before the end of June.  Late-autumn seeding has also been successful after October 1.

 Seeding rate.
The seeding rate of sainfoin is based on pure live seed count (PLS). Assuming that PLS is 95%, a pure stand of sainfoin should be precision-placed at (27 pounds/ac). Suggested seeding densities are 12 to 18 seeds/foot of row, when row spacing is 7 inches. This spacing should be double if another legume is included, and the seeding rate halved.

Sainfoin usage.
Since sainfoin grows upright, it makes it easy to harvest for hay. It also has excellent leaf retention, better than alfalfa, and harvest cutting at 50% flowering to maximize yields. Sainfoin also yields 80 to 90 percent of alfalfa hay.
Sainfoin in a pasture system?
Sainfoin is best suited to a rotational grazing system that allows for significant amounts of residual leaf and stem material behind (such as in a take-half leave-half-grazing system). Frequent and severe grazing will quickly diminish a sainfoin stand, especially when grazed in its vegetative stage. Sainfoin needs to have an opportunity to reseed itself at least once every few years to be able to persist in a forage stand.  Sainfoin has good leaf retention and frost tolerance, making it ideal for fall grazing. Be sure to rest it four to six weeks before a killing frost in order to allow the plants enough time to build up their carbohydrate reserves to survive the winter.

What is the forage quality of sainfoin?
Sainfoin is highly palatable, with cattle often selecting it over alfalfa when grazing. Sainfoin has lower acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF) levels than alfalfa, along with increased digestibility. Sainfoin is a non-bloating legume.

Source: Alberta Department of Agriculture and Forestry

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