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Sainfoin, Onobrychis viciifolia is a perennial forage legume that is native to Mediterranean regions around the Black and Caspain Seas and north into Russia. Sainfoin leaves are oddly pinnate with 13-21 leaflets per leaf and produce an erect flower pink to rose in color. Sainfoin has been introduced into many other countries including Iran, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, Bulgaria, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Soviet Union, Poland, Norway and the United Kingdom. It is known that sainfoin has been grown in Europe for the past 450 years. New varieties of sainfoin such as ‘Eski’, ‘Remont’, ‘Renumex’, ‘Melrose’, and ‘Nova’ have been developed and introduced into the United States and Canada starting in the 1950s. (Gray, 2004, p. 2)
Sainfoin is a non-bloating legume that has nitrogen fixation capabilities and can be used in a forage mixture. Sainfoin also is extremely palatable and nutritious for all classes of livestock and wildlife. Livestock actually prefer sainfoin even when other plants species are readily available. Other uses include wildlife habitat restoration, wildlife food plots or as a legume component in the conservation reserve program (CRP). Sainfoin is often compared to alfalfa based on its nitrogen fixation, forage capabilities, and nutritional value. The main advantages of sainfoin are the earlier maturation rate, non-bloating qualities, resistance to the alfalfa weevil and higher digestible nutrients when compared to alfalfa. Another important advantage over alfalfa is that sainfoin is resistant to the root rot phase. The earlier maturation allows for earlier spring forage for grazing and hay cutting which is beneficial to livestock operations (Gray, 2004, p. 2).
Sainfoin is primarily used as a hay or pasture crop and has many characteristics beneficial to farming and ranching operations in the western states such as Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico where annual precipitation in generally low. Sainfoin is very drought resistant and does better in cold soils than alfalfa (Stannard, M). It is also shown that sainfoin thrives in soils with a pH 7.0 to 8.0 that are too dry for clover and alfalfa. Sainfoin is longer lived in dryland applications opposed to irrigated land but generally needs re-seeding every five to six years. Another interesting positive side-affect about sainfoin is the relationship it shares with honey and leaf cutting bees. The large pink flower attracts these insects and on top of producing large amounts of high quality honey, the sainfoin showed increased seed production when the bees were present.
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There are some disadvantages to sainfoin that include its vulnerability to Verticillium wilt and is susceptible to seedling blight. ‘Apron’® seed treatment was shown to protect against seedling blight in greenhouse studies (Gray, 2004, p. 2). The occurance of Verticillium wilt at high mountain elevations in Wyoming, has created a problem and needs to be researched to see if they occur in sainfoin fields (Gray, v.66). There is also one insect that has been found to be detrimental to seed production in the sainfoin bruchid (Cooper,p. 68). A major hurdle was cleared when the ‘Shoshone’ variety was developed in a variety trial by the University of Wyoming. This variety was created after the trial saw a stand reduction of 91.5%. The stand had been affected by the northern root-knot nematode that had caused severe root destruction. Studies done at the University of Wyoming showed that the Shoshone variety expressed tolerance to the nematode after greenhouse tests (Gray, 2004, p. 3).
Shoshone was then studied in Wyoming and Montana for forage production. The Shoshone variety had the second highest 4-year forage yield out of 16 legumes including alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, and cicer milkvetch (Gray, 2006).
So the question still remains if sainfoin really does have a future in Wyoming. With the current release of the ‘Shoshone’ variety, things are looking up for more wide spread use in the state. The Great Basin Seed Company prices for sainfoin seed this spring is at $2.75 per pound while alfalfa seed runs $2.95 which brings another advantage to sainfoin production when compared to alfalfa. With the recent drought conditions that have engulfed most of the state, the more drought tolerant sainfoin would be a smart choice. Sainfoin also has a longer life when in non-irragated environments. There is also no real draw-back to changing from alfalfa to sainfoin. With virtually equal nutrient values and equal to arguably more positive aspects. One major aspect important to ranchers is the non-bloating aspect of sainfoin. Being able to openly graze a sainfoin field for pasture cycling and emergency situations would be a major advantage.
After researching the history, development and current field experiments involving sainfoin, it is safe to say there is a very high possibility of sainfoin becoming the next big thing to mountain region farmers and ranchers. The successful practices in Montana prove that the system would work in many areas of Wyoming. The key now is to educate farmers and ranchers and encourage them to experiment and eventually incorporate sainfoin into their own practices.
Cooper, C.S. “Current and Potential Insect Problems of Sainfoin in America.” Sainfoin Symporium. Montana State University. Dec, 1968.
Gray, F.A. ‘Shoshone’ Sainfoin. Plant Sciences Timely Information Series. University of Wyoming Department of Plant Science. July 2006. No. 2.
Gray, F.A. Verticillium Wilt of Alfalfa in Wyoming. 1982. Plant Disease 66:1080.
Stannard, M. Plant fact sheet: Sainfoin. Retrieved April 2, 2007 from USDA web site: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/doc/fs_onvi.doc
Wyoming Agriculture Experiment Station. (March 2004). Release Notice of ‘Shoinone’ Sainfoin. Laramie, Wyoming.