Once relegated to “has-been” status as animal forage, sainfoin is experiencing a comeback as a hay, pasture, and silage plant, as well as a cover crop. And if you are looking for beauty, nothing beats sainfoin with its candy-striped pink petals and graceful inflorescence.
Horses, cattle, sheep, and goats are all fond of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia). Unlike other leguminous forage such as clover and alfalfa, sainfoin does not cause bloat in ruminant animals. It is also an anthelmintic, meaning it reduces the incidence of parasitic worms.
The rebirth of an Old World crop
I remember sainfoin as mostly a footnote in my animal forage classes back in the day. Although it had been popular in Europe, state extension offices were pushing alfalfa as being more winter hardy, more disease resistant—especially in damp or humid areas—and less expensive to sow.
Sainfoin’s recent rebirth is a result of two things. First, the consumption of sainfoin by ruminants decreases the amount of methane they release to the atmosphere. Second, sainfoin is a prolific nectar- and pollen-producing plant that can be used as bee forage as well as animal forage.
Legumes make great honey
Many legumes are excellent honey producers. You need only to think of clover, sweet clover, alfalfa, acacia, black locust, and kudzu to realize the value of legumes to beekeepers. But the undervalued sainfoin beats them all when it comes to nectar production.
In Victory Gardens for Bees, Lori Weidenhammer reports that sainfoin is ten times more likely to attract honey bees than Dutch clover. In 100 Plants to Feed the Bees, the Xerces Society claims sainfoin nectar can have a sugar concentration of up to 60%, and the plants can yield up to 350 pounds of honey per acre. The honey is yellow-white and popular with honey lovers.
A picky plant
Unfortunately, sainfoin is picky about both soil and water. According to the USDA, the plant requires well-drained alkaline soils with a pH of 6.8 to 8.0. It also needs at least 14 inches of rain per year. Its long taproot makes it drought tolerant, but because it is susceptible to root rot, it does not thrive in damp or overly-irrigated soil. It does well in calcium-based soils but has a low tolerance for salt.
With proper soil, the plants tend to resist most pests but do not compete well with weeds, so clean seedbeds are important. Agronomists also recommend that the planting be inoculated with a sainfoin-specific Rhizobium. Once established, a crop can last decades if well managed. However, it is considered expensive to grow because seed is costly and the crop should not be grazed for the first two years after establishment.
The flavor of sainfoin honey is often reported as lightly fruity and not overly sweet. The downside of sainfoin as a honey crop is that it tends to crystallize within two or three months of harvest. Some beekeepers recommend selling it immediately or using it for creamed honey, depending on your local market.
If your soil and moisture conditions are right, sainfoin could be a good option for you and your bees. If you are unsure, have your soil tested and check with your local extension agent for recommendations.
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