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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Rusty, sounds good. Do you know of a good source for seed?
Amazon lists a lot of suppliers for sainfoin, you could start your search there to get an idea of prices.
I bought mine from Nature’s Seed.
Sadly, not a good choice if the soil is clayey, wet or acidic. Grows in alkaline soils, so that puts where I live out!
Never heard of it! I looked it up on YouTube, and there’s a beautiful drone video of fields of pink! Rusty, thanks for the information!
You can purchase sainfoin seed from Montana Seed Incorporated. 406-278-9951. I have been very good luck with germination here in Ohio. As always, the weeds seem to be the biggest hurdle now.
In southern Alberta, sainfoin has begun naturalizing in recent years and is starting to become a problem. It’s not yet quite at the status of “weed”, but it would not take much to get there. It has started showing up in Kananaskis and also in Waterton Lakes National Park. There are places around Claresholm that are becoming oceans of pink in the summer months. While an attractive plant, certainly, I would recommend that people be cautious about planting it and being diligent about controlling its spread if they do.
Greencoverseed.com carries this along with a zillion other cover crops, and sends you a wonderful booklet about soil science..
Thanks! Sounds interesting.
Although half of my pasture has esparcet, I somehow didn’t think before your article about raising bees. Maybe putting in hives isn’t such a bad idea! Thank you for the article =)