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Sainfoin makes a comeback

The ancient legume may find new markets with livestock producers

By Edna Manning

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Although sainfoin was introduced into North America over a century ago, the legume forage crop has only recently gained some interest as a healthy hay alternative. (In French, sain means healthy and foin is for hay.)

John Husband, however, has been growing sainfoin since the late 1970s. The organic farmer from Wawota, in southeast Saskatchewan, feels it has much to offer agriculture and the honey industry for healthy food and a healthy environment.

Sainfoin (onobrychis viciifoliais Scop.) is an ancient legume that originated in Eurasia and was first domesticated in Europe. “It is a perennial legume similar to alfalfa, but is a separate and distinct species from alfalfa, so there are no concerns of GMO contamination.? Sainfoin does not respond well to fertilizers and consequently fell out of favour with the introduction of chemical farming,” says Husband.

John Husband and his wife Carol sold their cattle and went organic in the late 1980s when their children moved away from home and pursued off-farm careers. Husband’s grandfather had first homesteaded the third-generation farm in 1900. It is a mixed farming region with gently rolling hills, sloughs and plenty of trees.? “Generally the soil is black and productive for cropping, but there are also low areas and gravel ridges that are better left to the natural plants growing there.

“We had a considerable amount of land in forage for our livestock which had not been sprayed or fertilized for years.? When broken up, it could be certified organic,” he says.

He adds that both organic consumption and production seemed compatible with ancient and exotic grains. “Modern varieties are designed for modern chemical farming. When we first went organic, we trial-grew many different grains and legumes and continued with the ones that were most promising.

“We foresee a huge problem for organic livestock producers because of the introduction of genetically modified alfalfa which is almost certain to contaminate organic alfalfa.”

In 2000, due to the market potential in Europe, he and a group of local farmers formed Prime Grains, Inc. The company is privately self-funded and a member of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), the umbrella organization created by the global organic community. Prime Grain products are grown by certified organic growers and are non-GMO, not irradiated and without additives. These include einkorn, Ethiopian barley, buckwheat, heritage wheat, golden flax and sainfoin.

Husband currently has about 125 acres of pure sainfoin for seed and between 400 to 500 acres mixed with grass to rent as pasture to neighbours. He started with the Melrose variety, but after a number of years of natural selection, it is now a landrace variety. Other varieties include Shoshone and Delaney, both relatively new.

Because sainfoin is very low input, it makes an excellent rotation crop for organic farming. It will choke out Canada thistle, which can be a problem weed for organic growers.

Sainfoin is highly nutritious and livestock prefer sainfoin to alfalfa. One of the legume’s greatest attributes is the fact that it does not cause bloating in ruminants. Husband says the tannins that make it bloat-free also make it an excellent fodder for young livestock because it has anti-parasite effects. “Researchers in Canada, Europe and the U.K. recognize that tannins can improve protein use and inhibit E-coli in manure. They are also looking at its role in reducing methane gas emissions and improving feed efficiency.”

Seeding and Soil Requirements

Sainfoin has a hollow stem, grows to a height of about three to four feet and has long penetrating roots that draw moisture and nutrients from a long distance below the surface. It prefers well-drained, alkaline soil with a pH of 7 to 8. Husband’s experiences indicate it does poorly on saline areas and is sensitive to prolonged wet regions or areas where the water table is high.

“In 2011, we had such an extremely wet spring that most land did not get seeded. Even on hills, the soil was saturated. Sainfoin did not survive in the low spots but everywhere else, it was my heaviest crop ever.

“I also find sainfoin doesn’t do well on extremely rich soil, such as wintering sites of old manure. My guess is that the weeds are too competitive in these areas.” Sainfoin is resistant to alfalfa weevil, is drought-resistant and winter hardy. “I have never noticed any winter kill in over 30 years.? In the fall, I have seen an alfalfa plant frozen but a sainfoin beside it still green.

“Some years I have noticed there are some pods where the seed inside has been destroyed. It might have been the Lygus bug, but it has never been a serious problem,” Husband adds.

Compared to alfalfa, sainfoin seed is fairly large. The single seed, about the size of barley or buckwheat, is inside a pod. There are about 28,000 seeds per pound.? “For pure stands, seeding 30 – 40 pounds per acre are recommended while mixes can have 10 – 20 pounds per acre.? Bunch grasses such as meadow fescue, meadow brome, Russian wild rye or crested wheat grass work well for pasture mixes.? Meadow fescue is an ancient grass, highly nutritious and grows well in wet land.

Shallow seeding—approximately one-half to three-quarters of an inch, is ideal. It is best seeded alone into prepared soil in the spring.? It has, however also been successfully seeded in the summer and fall provided there is sufficient moisture to get it started. “I usually put it with a cover crop, but this can hurt its establishment if the crop is too competitive. Seeding with flax or einkorn seems to work well,” he notes.

The larger seed size does mean higher seeding rates and thus cost, but Husband says the larger seed size may actually be beneficial for organic growers because it makes it easier to harvest and clean. “We believe that sainfoin seed costs have been set too high by the seed industry, and sell our certified organic seed for a more reasonable rate.”

While some growers recommend sainfoin should be inoculated with a special Rhizobium before planting to help the plant produce nitrogen, Husband says in his area it does well without inoculation even in new fields.

Sainfoin starts growing earlier than alfalfa in the spring. First cut yields are higher than alfalfa, but regrowth is slower than alfalfa and any second cuts are rare in their area, Husband notes. “Hay is usually cut in mid-bloom during July. It can be allowed to grow longer than alfalfa because quality doesn’t downgrade like alfalfa which should be cut at 10% flowering.” Sainfoin also retains its leaves better than alfalfa, despite a high moisture content. Its frost tolerance makes it ideal for fall grazing. Stands should, however be given a good four to six weeks rest before a killing frost to allow plants to build up their carbohydrate reserves before winter.

Depending on soil and other conditions, longevity is generally good, with stands producing well for 10 to 20 years. Over pasturing will allow rhysomous grass to encroach over time. Husband feels its good strategy every few years to allow seeds to form before harvesting or pasturing.

Sainfoin flowers produce large amounts of nectar and pollen that is highly attractive to bees. Beekeepers report the honey from sainfoin is a light gold in colour and has a distinct, delicate flavour. “Honey bees can increase seed yield which leads to lower seed prices.? Awareness of the potential of sainfoin could mutually benefit agriculture and honeybees.”

 

For more information

Visit www.primegrains.com or contact John Husband at 306-739-2900.
References:

http://www.tsln.com/article/20110228/TSLN01/110229960

http://sainfoin.eu/farming-sainfoin

http://hayandforage.com/hay/other-forages/0501-viable-alfalfa-alternative

http://animal/rangeextension.montana/edu/articles/Forage/Species/Legumes/Sainfoin.htm

www.angusjournal.com/articlepdf/newinterest.pdf

www.1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/newslett.nsf/all/agnw2219

www.primegrains.com