Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciaefolia)
From Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook *
By S. Smoliak, R.L. Ditterline, J.D. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E. Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke
Sainfoin has been grown in parts of Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. Various strains have been introduced to North America since about 1900. Most of the early introductions originated in western Europe, and were low yielding and poorly adapted to North American conditions. Recent introductions from the USSR and Turkey have shown greater promise, and more farmers have been growing the crops since the release of improved cultivars in Canada and the United States.
Sainfoin is deep-rooted and very drought-resistant, provided the annual rainfall is 12 inches or over. It yields best on deep, well-drained soils, and will not withstand wet soils or high water tables. Tests show that it will not tolerate saline soils and that it is not as winterhardy as the locally-recommended cultivars of alfalfa.
Sainfoin grows taller than alfalfa, its stem is hollow, there are many leaflets (like a vetch) and its flowers, which are pink, are borne on a raceme. The “seed” used to establish this crop is, in fact, a pod which contains a single seed. Even without the pod, the true seed is large (for a legume); there are only 28,000 seeds per pound.
Sainfoin has good drought resistance and grows well on a variety of soils. It does especially well on high lime, well-drained soils of high fertility. It does not do well on soils which are wet or have a high water table. Sainfoin is short lived where root and crown rots are a problem. For good establishment and growth sainfoin must be inoculated with a special rhizobium just before planting.
Sainfoin begins growth in the spring about the same time as alfalfa, but flowers one to two weeks earlier. First cutting hay yields have exceeded those of alfalfa in Montana, but alfalfa yields are greater in subsequent cuttings. On areas where hay production is limited to one cutting on dry-land, or because of a shortage of irrigation water, it may replace alfalfa.
Sainfoin is very palatable, and is grazed by livestock in preference to alfalfa. It is relished by deer. It is reportedly non-bloating. Although very coarse, the herbage is highly nutritious. Compared with alfalfa, forage dry-matter yields of sainfoin are about 20 percent lower under dryland conditions, and may be 30 percent or more lower in irrigated areas.
The primary reason for using sainfoin is that, throughout their long history, Onobrychis species have never been known to cause bloat nor is it attacked by alfalfa weevil. It is highly palatable to both sheep and cattle, being preferred over alfalfa. It may be grazed or used for hay, either alone or in mixtures with grasses. It grows well with Russian wildrye and crested wheatgrass. Under irrigation, sainfoin is shorter-lived than alfalfa, but rotational grazing has been shown to prolong its life.
Related article: Sainfoin Making a Comeback in 2006
Sainfoin requires good drainage, and has a low tolerance to flooding, waterlogging or even high water table. It is intolerant of acidity and salinity.
This crop is generally less hardy than adapted varieties of alfalfa. It tends to be short-lived, and depending on adaptability to a given site, it may yield well for one or more production years. Although it is easy to establish, the seedlings lack competitive ability. The vigor of the plants is decreased by clipping during the seedling year. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria have been short-lived or ineffective so that nitrogen fertilization may be required. Productive life may also be related to such factors as clipping height and frequency, and competition from other forages and weeds in an established stand.
Use for Hay
Sainfoin is well suited to hay harvesting as it grows upright and is easily cut. Although it is somewhat higher in moisture content than alfalfa, it does not present the problems in curing that red clover and alsike clover do. Since regrowth is very poor, it is best suited to taking one clipping at about the half- to full-bloom stage. Unlike alfalfa, it does not drop its lower leaves; stems remain succulent as the plant matures so that quality does not decrease so rapidly. Yield is often better than that of alfalfa for one clipping, but only 80 to 90 percent as high when two cuttings per season are compared. It competes poorly in mixtures with aggressive grasses and, although total yield is usually not affected, the proportion of sainfoin decreases. It is usually seeded alone, especially under irrigation.
Use for Pasture
The advantages of sainfoin for pasture use include excellent quality and palatability that give superior animal performance without the danger of bloat. Compared with orchardgrass in irrigated areas, it yields about one-third less, regrows more slowly after grazing and has a shorter productive life. However, grazing in the bud or early bloom stage, and keeping the grazing height above about 8 inches, will lengthen productive life from two to three to about six years in irrigated areas.
It is adapted to dryland pastures as well, and grows satisfactorily in mixtures with bunchgrasses such as Russian wildrye or crested wheatgrass. However, total yields are slightly higher when sainfoin is grown alone.
Sainfoin is a very early-growing legume, and it may tolerate light grazing during the bud stage and still yield a good crop of hay. Residual yield after hay cutting may be grazed, but once this species reaches full bloom, regrowth is very poor.
Seed yields of over 1,000 pounds per acre have been obtained. The crop can be harvested when the seed moisture is below 40 percent, or at the time seed is beginning to shatter. The stems and leaves may still be green at this stage. After two to five days of good drying weather, the crop can be combined with little loss.
* The Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook (EB69) is no longer in print, but is available for viewing in
Montana County Extension Service and National Resource Conservation Service Offices.