8 March 2002

Sainfoin deserves a second chance

SAINFOIN, once a common sight in southern England, deserves a revival, according to the chairman and founder of Cotswold Grass Seeds.

Robin Hill is engaged on a mission to revive interest in the crop, which was grazed or fed as hay to sheep, lambs and horses. He has initiated trials at the Royal Agricultural College to test sainfoin varieties and NIAB to evaluate different companion grasses.

"Sainfoin has nearly disappeared as a species because it has been written off as low yielding and difficult to establish. But trial results over two years show when establishment is good yields will be high," he says.

The RAC trial shows the variety Emyr to yield up to 14t DM/ha (5.6t DM/acre) over two years. The NIAB Bridgets trial was the first of its kind in the UK to compare tetraploid late perennial ryegrass, Cocksfoot, Timothy and meadow fescue as suitable companions to Emyr.

"The meadow fescue Lifelix variety in a mix with sainfoin gave yields of 14.44t DM and 14.52t DM/ha over two years. Yields were greater than in a pure plot of sainfoin, perhaps because grasses crowded out weed competition," says Mr Hill.

Sainfoin must be sown in warm soils. Its long tap root means it likes free-draining land and will not tolerate wet conditions. "But Canadian and Russian varieties are winter hardy and sainfoins deep roots mean it can prevent soil erosion and is drought resistant," he adds.

In the right conditions, sainfoin has a productive life of four years and past research has indicated its high nutritive value. "When given the choice, stock have been shown to eat 20 times more sainfoin hay than red clover because it is more palatable and digestible," he says.

"When compared with lucerne, about 40% more protein is retained by the animal because condensed tannins in sainfoin protect protein in the rumen."

Canadian research revealed that mixtures containing sainfoin and lucerne protected stock against bloat and Mr Hill sees potential in this grazing system. However, the next step in Mr Hills mission is to seek out alternative varieties, particularly European, and research their potential for UK conditions. &#42