Is Sainfoin Right for Your Conditions?

Is Sainfoin Right for Your Conditions?

January 23, 2009

A tempting legume is being marketed in Nebraska as an alternative for alfalfa. Maybe you've seen or heard the claims — better than alfalfa, a 200 RFV from bud to bloom, easy to establish, and more palatable. These characteristics, and more, are being touted for sainfoin, a legume. While the description sounds great, there's more to the story for Nebraska production.

Sainfoin, which has been nicknamed "the poor man's alfalfa," has several good characteristics. Its main advantage is its bloat-free characteristic, making it grazing-friendly. It also tolerates low phosphorus and high pH soils well, but it hates acid, wet, or salty soils. It produces very palatable hay for grazing and, as the plant matures, forage quality declines more slowly than with alfalfa. However, in almost all areas where alfalfa is well-adapted, sainfoin does not yield as well. It does begin spring growth fast, frequently out-yielding alfalfa at first harvest, but then regrows very slowly.

Nitrogen fixation also can be a problem for sainfoin, even when it's been inoculated with the proper bacteria. More often than not, sainfoin does not form enough active nodules to produce all the nitrogen it needs. As a result, even though sainfoin is a legume, nitrogen fertilizer often is needed to maintain productivity. Sainfoin also is susceptible to root and crown rot diseases that can quickly shorten stand life.

Sainfoin may be best suited to areas that usually produced just one cutting of hay per year or are only grazed in spring. It could be mixed with a cool-season grass like wheatgrass, especially if soils are calcareous. For most other uses, though, alfalfa and other traditional forages probably will outperform sainfoin.

Bruce Anderson
Extension Forage Specialist