A Forage Legume that will not cause bloat
Sainfoin is a forage legume that does not cause bloat and is immune to attack by the alfalfa weevil. Winter-hardy strains give hay and pasture yields within 80 to 90 percent of those of alfalfa except under very dry conditions. Sainfoin matures early and gives particularly good forage yields under a one-cut system. It recovers slower than alfalfa, and so it usually yields less when grazed or cut twice or more in a season.
If you are going to grow sainfoin:

  • Obtain the Canadian-bred variety Melrose, if possible. Try other sainfoin strains only on a small scale to test for winterhardiness and yield potential.
  • For dryland pasture, seed sainfoin alone or in a mixture with Russian wild ryegrass or crested wheatgrass.
  • For hay on irrigated land, seed sainfoin alone.
  • Always treat seed with sainfoin inoculum before seeding.
  • Seed “in the pod” at a rate of 8 to 10 seeds per foot of row. This rate is equivalent to about 6 to 35 pounds per acre, depending upon how far apart the rows are spaced. Reduce the seeding rate by one-third in mixtures with grasses.
  • Seed no deeper than 3/4 inch into a firm, weed-free seedbed. Do not use a companion crop.
  • For hay, cut sainfoin at the 50 to 100 percent bloom stage.
      • For pasture, graze in the bud or early-bloom stage to encourage regrowth.
      • Grow sainfoin for seed on dry or irrigated land. Space rows 24 to 36 inches apart; provide honey bees to aid pollination.
      • Swath seed crops when the lower pods have turned brown, but before they can shatter. Combine as soon as the seed is dry, usually 7 to 10 days later.

M.R.. Hanna1, D.A., Cooke2, S. Smoliak1, and B.P. Goplen3

Sainfoin is a perennial forage legume, which 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 are becoming interested in growing the crop.

Most cultivated sainfoins are identified as Onobrychis viciaefolia Scop. At least two other species are grown in the USSR, but they are not readily distinguishable from 0. viciaefolia.

No species of Onobrychis is known to cause bloat in livestock.

Sainfoin may grow to a height of 3 feet or more and is usually somewhat taller than alfalfa. The stems are hollow. The leaves are divided, like those of vetch, into a large number of leaflets. Sainfoin develops a deep, branched taproot. The attractive, rosy pink flowers, borne on spikelike heads, are characteristic of the crop ( Figure 1).
1Reseach Station, Lertibndge, Alfa.
2Research Station, Melfon, Sask.
3 Research Sta~lon, Saskaioon, Sask

Fig.1. Left, sainfoin heads in flower; right, fully ripened seed.

The large, brown, single-seeded pods (Figures 1 and 2) are distinctive, because of a raised network of veins. They often have short spines along one edge. When mature, they shatter from the plant with their seeds still enclosed. The seeds (Figure 2) are smooth, kidney-shaped, olive brown to dark brown, and average about 1/8 inch in length. They are held within the tough, fibrous pods during harvesting and threshing.

Figure 2. Upper left, sainfoin pods; center, true seeds; upper right, alfalfa seeds for size comparison.

The crop is easy to establish. The seeds germinate readily and produce vigorous seedlings that grow rapidly.

Sainfoin begins to grow in the spring before other perennial legumes and starts blooming as much as 2 weeks before alfalfa. Its blooming and ripening period is also shorter than that of alfalfa. At Lethbridge, Alta., sainfoin is ready to harvest for seed in late July or early August, whereas alfalfa is rarely ready before mid-September. On the other hand, sainfoin recovers more slowly after cutting or grazing than alfalfa and does not produce as much regrowth. During the autumn the plants develop a low, rosette type of growth that may remain green under snow cover for most of the winter. Seedlings and mature plants are highly tolerant of spring and fall frosts.

Introductions of sainfoin from more than a dozen countries have been tested in Canada. They have varied widely in seedling vigor, speed of recovery, the amount of regrowth after cutting or grazing, leafiness, height, winterhardiness, and forage and seed yield.

Sainfoin is immune to attack by the alfalfa weevil.


The hardier strains and varieties of sainfoin appear to be adapted to most of the areas in Western Canada where alfalfa can be grown. However, even these sainfoins have winter-killed in tests at some locations and must be considered somewhat less hardy than the recommended alfalfa varieties.

Sainfoin grows best on the Black, Dark Brown, and Brown soils; it tends to yield less on Gray Wooded and light Brown soils. Sainfoin has the reputation of being drought-resistant. It has persisted under very dry con-ditions in some Canadian tests, but forage yields have been low. In Montana, the crop is not recommended for dryland production in areas where the annual precipitation is less than 12 inches. In Western Canada a similar guideline should be followed.

Sainfoin yields best on deep, well-drained soils that have good moisture-holding capacity and are high in lime. Unlike other legumes, it also does well on thin, gravelly soils. Sainfoin does not tolerate saline soils, wet soils, or high water tables. It responds to irrigation but does not need irrigating as frequently as alfalfa.

Table 1. Dry-Matter Yield (tons per acre) of Sainfoin and Alfalfa varieties at 10 dryland and 4 irrigated locations in Western Canada. 1967-70


Number of test-years



Yield of Melrose as % of alfalfa



Dryland tests
Winnipeg, Man.






Melfort. Sask.






Saskatoon, Sark.






Swift Current, Sask.






Indian Head, Sask.












Lacombe, Alta.






Lethbridge, Alta.






Vanderhoof, B.C.






Williams Lake, B.C.






Irrigated tests
Saskatoon, Sask.






Swift Current, Sask.






Lethbridge, Alta.






Kamloops, B.C.






Average (32 test-years) 2.2




‘Beaver at Winnipeg and in one test at Melfort; Legal, in all other tests.

Table 2. Seed Yield of Melrose and Eski Sainfoin at Six Dryland Locations in Western Canada, 1967-70


Number of

Seed yield, lb/acre



Melfort, Sask.




Saskatoon, Sask.




Indian Head, Sask.




Beaverlodge, Alta.




Lacombe, Alta.




Lethbridge. Alta




Average (15 test-years)



Varieties and Strains

Melrose is so far the only variety licensed in Canada. It was selected from a Russian introduction and released in a cooperative program among the research stations at Melfort, Lethbridge, and Saskatoon. Melrose is more winter-hardy and produces more forage and seed than other sainfoin strains and varieties. In tests at 11 locations across Western Canada during 1967-70, Melrose produced an average of 12 percent more forage and 38 percent more seed than the variety Eski (Tables 1 and 2). Seed of Melrose will be available for hay and pasture plantings in 1972.

Eski, a selection from Turkish material, was released in Montana in 1964. By 1970, Eski was estimated to have been established for hay and pasture on about 25,000 acres in Montana alone. Many importations of seed have been made from the United States in recent years and much of the seed undoubtedly originated from the variety Eski. But because Eski is not licensed in Canada, it may not be sold here under its variety name.

Onar, a variety of Russian origin, was released in Idaho several years ago. It has performed poorly in Canadian trials.

Many varieties and strains of sainfoin have been developed in the USSR, Romania, Poland, France, and other countries in Europe but are rarely obtainable in North America. Some of them may prove to be suitable for hay and pasture in parts of Canada, but many have been tested and found to lack winter hardiness and to give poor forage yields.

If you wish to grow sainfoin for hay, pasture, or seed, try to obtain the variety Melrose. Other sainfoin strains should be tried only on a small scale so that their yield potential and hardiness can be determined.
Sainfoin needs a specific strain of inoculant distinct from that required for alfalfa or any other legume seed. Inoculum for sainfoin can be obtained from farm supply outlets and seed companies. Until there is a steady demand for sainfoin inoculum it will probably have to be ordered specially. Allow several weeks for delivery.

Responses to inoculation have not been consistent. Forage yields were compared in plots established with inoculated and uninoculated seed in 1968 at Lethbridge; yields were about 33 percent higher in 1969 and 28 percent higher in 1970 from the inoculated plots. But in other tests and field plantings, plants have developed signs of nitrogen deficiency even though the seed had been inoculated. This suggests that the nitrogen-fixing bacteria have been ineffective or short-lived. Occasionally, nitrogen-deficiency symptoms develop in sainfoin plants early in the growing season and later disappear.

Nitrogen fertilizer may have to be applied to sainfoin on nitrogen deficient soils until improved strains of the bacteria have been selected and included in the commercial inoculants.

The few trials that have been conducted with fertilizers indicate that added phosphorus does not increase forage or seed yield.


Sainfoin is usually seeded “in the pod” because there seems to be little advantage to removing the pods. For convenience, further references in this publication to “seeds” are to the pods with true seeds still enclosed.

For pure stands, seed at a rate of about 8 to 10 seeds per foot of row, whether the crop is for hay, pasture, or seed. Recommended row spacings and seeding rates for seed planted at 8 to 10 seeds per foot of row are:

Purpose of crop

Row spacing inches


Irrigated hay 6 or 7


Dryland hay or pasture 12 to 18


Irrigated or dryland seed production 24 to 36

6- 9

If a sainfoin-grass mixture is to be seeded for hay or pasture, reduce the seeding rate of each species to about two-thirds of that recommended for pure stands.
To improve your chances of obtaining a good stand:

  • Prepare a firm seedbed. Some form of packing is usually needed, except on heavy soils subject to crusting.
  • Seed at the recommended rate.
  • Seed without a companion crop. Sainfoin seedlings are vigorous but do not compete well with other plants at early stages of growth.
  • Seed in early spring. Fall seedings have been successful at Lethbridge, but the later the crop is seeded the lower the yield of forage or seed will be in the year after seeding.
  • Seed shallow (1/4-3/4 inch). Despite its large seed size, sainfoin does not emerge well from deep plantings.
  • Sainfoin can be seeded with almost any type of seed drill. It is an advantage to use a seeder with some means of depth control. To check the seeding rate, run the drill over a canvas or some hard surface and then count the number of seeds dropped over a measured length of row.

Weed Control

Weed competition in the seedling year may affect the stand, but the vigorous growth of young sainfoin plants enables them to outgrow many weeds. Sainfoin can be mowed in the seeding year to control annual weeds without injuring the crop. Cultivation is the most effective means of controlling weeds in spaced-row plantings for seed production.

If weeds can be kept under control during the seedling year, the rapid growth of the crop in the spring of subsequent years will usually prevent serious competition from weeds. Sainfoin is not as effective as alfalfa in competing against certain perennial weeds such as Canada thistle. Alfalfa and sainfoin stands appear to be equally susceptible to invasion by dandelions in the irrigated districts of southern Alberta.

No herbicide has yet been registered for use on sainfoin. However, preemergence and postemergence treatments with several herbicides have been used successfully in a limited number of trials. But there is no evidence that herbicides can be used safely on established stands. Seed yields may be seriously reduced if herbicides are applied during a crop year before harvest.

Consult federal or provincial research or extension personnel for up-to-date recommendations on chemical weed control before using any herbicide on sainfoin.

Utilization and Management

Interest in sainfoin has centered on its potential for pasture because it does not cause bloat (Figure 3), It has withstood close grazing or cutting in dryland tests for as long as 5 years, but there are indications that the crop may be shorter-lived than alfalfa, particularly when it is irrigated. As a hay crop (Figure 4), sainfoin can be grown on dry and irrigated land.

Sainfoin for pasture can be seeded alone or in mixtures with grasses. The highest yields have been obtained from sainfoin grown alone. On dry land at Lethbridge it has done well in combination with bunchgrasses such as Russian wild ryegrass and crested wheatgrass, but has given poor yields in mixtures with aggressive, rhizomatous species such as bromegrass and pubescent wheatgrass. From 1967 to 1970 in a dryland mixture test at Lethbridge, sainfoin contributed 61 percent of the total dry-matter yield when grown in combination with Russian wild ryegrass and 48 percent with crested wheatgrass. However, it contributed only 17 percent of the total yield in combination with pubescent wheatgrass (Table 3).

Figure 3. Sheep grazing three-year-old stand of sainfoin and crested wheatgrass.

Figure 4. Sainfoin hay crop on irrigated land.

Table 3. Forage Yields (tons of dry matter per acre) of Sainfoin, Alfalfa, and mixtures with three grasses on dry land, Lethbridge, 1967-70

Species or mixture 4-year

% legume

Sainfoin alone



Alfalfa alone



Sainfoin and Russian wild ryegrass



Alfalfa and Russian wild ryegrass



Sainfoin and crested wheatgrass



Alfalfa and crested wheatgrass



Sainfoin and pubescent wheatgrass



Alfalfa and pubescent wheatgrass



As irrigated hay, most sainfoin-grass mixtures have yielded less than sainfoin alone. Specific recommendations for irrigated mixtures will be made when we obtain more information.

In general, yields of the better strains of sainfoin on both dryland and irrigated hay and pasture locations have been within 80 to 90 percent of those of alfalfa (Table 1). Poorly adapted strains of sainfoin can be expected to yield considerably less.

Exceptionally good forage yields have been obtained from sainfoin in the year of seeding. In six tests in which first-year harvests were taken in 1969 and 1970, Melrose yielded an average of 1.6 tons of dry matter an acre compared with 1 .3 tons for alfalfa.

Established plants grow rapidly early in the season and appear to make good use of available moisture during this period. Thus, sainfoin does well and may out yield alfalfa as a hay crop in areas where only one cutting is made. First-cutting yields from sainfoin grown under irrigation may also be greater than those from alfalfa. However, because sainfoin is slow to recover after cutting, alfalfa usually produces higher annual yields if second or third cuttings are taken. Regrowth is better when sainfoin is cut or grazed in the bud or early-bloom stages than when it is cut at a more mature stage. Total seasonal yields of sainfoin are highest when the first crop is cut late (Table 4).

Sainfoin retains its leaves longer than alfalfa and can be harvested at a more advanced stage of maturity without appreciable loss of quality. Cut sainfoin for hay between the 50 and 100 percent bloom stages for best tonnage and yield of nutrients.

Although sainfoin stems appear to be coarse, they remain succulent well into maturity and are more digestible than alfalfa stems. The crop is palatable to all classes of livestock either as hay or as pasture. Sainfoin is similar to alfalfa in feed value and digestibility, but it is usually slightly lower in protein content at comparable stages of maturity.

Table 4. The effect of stage of growth at time of first cutting on forage yield of irrigated Sainfoin, Lethbridge, 1969

Stage of Growth at First cut*

Yield, tons of dry matter per acre

Cut 1

Cut 2

Cut 3


Early bud










15% bloom





78% bloom





‘second doe third eats taken at 20 percent bloom.

Seed Production

Sainfoin can be grown for seed on dry land, but yields are usually higher under irrigation. Spaced rows are preferred to solid stands because they make weed control by cultivation easier (Figure 5). Row spacings of 22 to 36 inches have been used successfully, but spacing is governed largely by the equipment available.

Honey bees are effective pollinators and the production and quality of honey from sainfoin are excellent. At least two colonies should be supplied for each acre during the peak flowering period. Under good growing conditions each acre should yield at least 500 to 800 pounds of cleaned seed; Yields of over 1,000 pounds have been obtained with the variety Melrose

Some sainfoin varieties will produce a seed crop in the seedling year if they are planted early enough, but Melrose, Eski, and similar ones usually do not produce sufficient seed in the first year to be worth harvesting. In subsequent years, harvest the seed from the first growth for maximum yields.

Figure 5. Sainfoin in rows spaced 2 feet apart for seed production. Weeds have been controled by cultivation.

In determining when to harvest the seed crop, remember that pod ripening progresses from the base of each flower spike toward the top and the basal pods shatter from the plants before the upper pods are ripe. There-fore, it is advisable to swath the crop after the basal pods have turned brown but before many pods have shattered. Within a week or 10 days most of the immature seed at the upper end of each head will have ripened sufficiently in the swath to allow the crop to be picked up (Figure 6). Direct combining has been tried successfully by a few seed producers, but it creates the risk of large shattering losses.

Correct combine settings for sainfoin vary with the make of the machine. Use a slow cylinder speed and wide concave clearance (%-% inch). Ripened pods thresh readily from the stems, so make adjustments if broken or shelled seed appears in the hopper. Because of the size and unique shape of the sainfoin pods, they can be separated easily from most weed seeds, but separation from barley and other cereals may be more difficult.

Unless the combine is equipped with a chopper, remove heavy crops of stems (“straw”) from seed fields after combining.

Figure 6. Picking up the swathed seed crop.

Diseases and Insects

Reports from countries where sainfoin is widely used suggest that the crop is relatively free from serious disease and insect problems. However, diseases and insects could become important in North America as acreages expand.

A severe infestation of a seed weevil peculiar to sainfoin nas peen found at one location in British Columbia where seed has been grown for many years. This insect has apparently caused no serious damage elsewhere in Canada or the United States, but its presence has been recorded in Saskat-chewan and Montana.

Because sainfoin is immune to the alfalfa weevil, the crop could be a useful alternative to alfalfa in areas where the weevil is a problem (Figure 7). One report has been made of slight damage to sainfoin by the sweetclover weevil. Sainfoin is not affected by bacterial wilt disease and has considerable tolerance to the alfalfa stem nematode. Winter crown rot is believed to have caused some loss of stand in test plots during one winter at Lacombe, Alta.


Appreciation is expressed to the following people for supplying data used in this publication: E. Buglass, L. P. Folkins, D. H. Heinrichs, W. A. Hubbard, P. Pankiw, A. Storgaard, J. N. Tingle, and J. Waddington.


  For more information about the content of this document, contact Ken Ziegler.
This document is maintained by Stacey Tames.
This information published to the web on September 25, 2003.

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