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Sainfoin story keeps getting better

Sainfoin is a marvel when it comes to eliminating bloat, but earlier varieties were outcompeted by alfalfa

man inspecting forage grass
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It’s been neglected for years, but sainfoin is poised to come into its own, with the first new variety that regrows quickly after cutting or grazing due to come onto the market in 2015.

In rotational grazing trials at Lethbridge last year, sainfoin-alfalfa pastures produced more than 400 kilograms of beef per hectare with no bloat over a 100-day grazing season.

In trials across Western Canada, the new variety of sainfoin, Mountainview — developed by Agriculture Canada forage breeder Surya Acharya — dramatically outperformed the older variety, Nova, in pure stands and mixed with alfalfa. And it persists well in grazed alfalfa-sainfoin stands.

“It fits all the criteria cattle producers have for a reliable option for bloat-free alfalfa grazing,” says Acharya. “The rapid regrowth of Mountainview, and its ability to compete with alfalfa make it very different from earlier sainfoin varieties. I think cattle producers will like this variety.”

Sainfoin is a forage legume like alfalfa, but it is generally slower to regrow after cutting for hay or grazing. It’s very palatable, and all kinds of animals eat it readily, even its coarse-looking (but hollow) stems. Its upright growth habit makes it easy to cut for hay and it cures faster than alfalfa.

But sainfoin’s greatest advantage is its high concentration of condensed tannins that prevent bloat in cattle and other ruminants, even when it forms just part of the pasture. As little as 20 per cent sainfoin protects cattle on alfalfa pasture — giving high gains without the constant risk of losing animals to bloat.

In Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development trials at Lethbridge some years ago, cattle did really well grazing alfalfa with some sainfoin. But even in the course of a single grazing season, grazing eliminated virtually all the sainfoin and the cattle were at risk of bloat by late summer.

The traditional advice was to graze sainfoin before it flowered or to wait until it was at least 50 per cent flowering, so it shed some seed for pasture renewal. Even when it was cut for hay, it usually produced just one cut, typically after flowering. Some ranchers grazed the aftermath. But mixed in a pasture with alfalfa, sainfoin wasn’t able to compete. Its regrowth was just too slow and it was overwhelmed by the faster-growing alfalfa.

Many people would have set aside the dream of high gains without the bloat risk from alfalfa, but Acharya took up the challenge of developing more competitive sainfoin. He’s always considered forages other than alfalfa unfairly neglected and says focusing on alfalfa — often called the “queen of forages” — meant missing out on the advantages of other forage species.

“Alfalfa is so productive and so widely adapted, it gets all the attention,” he says. “It’s the only forage species with a worldwide trade. People say other legumes can’t produce even 75 per cent of alfalfa’s yields, but multi-cut types of sainfoin outyield alfalfa.”

However, there is a challenge to using the two together.

Sainfoin has much bigger seeds than alfalfa, so you can’t simply seed a mixture of the two. Acharya advises seeding alternate rows of alfalfa and sainfoin by using two planter boxes with alternate runs blocked, or making two passes. In grazing research trials, sainfoin effectively protected against bloat when planted in alternate rows, and prevented bloat to a lesser extent when planted in strips with alfalfa.

A seeding rate calculator (such as the one in the Decision-Making Tools section of Ropin’ the Web) is required to achieve equal numbers of alfalfa and sainfoin plants. And, don’t forget the inoculant, a different one for each species.

Sainfoin has one trait that might be considered a drawback. Every species of animal — from cows and deer to hamsters and rabbits — loves it. Some researchers have had trouble with wildlife congregating in their sainfoin plots. Bees also thrive on sainfoin.

Sainfoin has traditionally been grown in the brown and dark-brown soil zones. Mountainview has done very well in trials across the Prairies, on dryland and under irrigation. To encourage cattle producers to look at sainfoin-alfalfa pastures, Acharya and other researchers held a train-the-trainer session for applied research groups last summer. This year, he’ll be doing the same with industry people to spread the word.

Acharya’s team is also testing sainfoin as a way to rejuvenate alfalfa stands without losing a year’s production. They’ll apply glyphosate and then seed sainfoin in strips of the old forage.

A limited amount of Montainview sainfoin should be available from Northstar Seed in Neepawa, Man. in spring of 2015. Seed is expected to be more widely available in 2016.

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