Sainfoin gains favor with cattle producersWritten by Christy Martinez
Schneider and his family own and operate Big Horn Sainfoin Seed Company in Park County.
“It requires no fertilizer and requires less water than alfalfa, so you can plant it on natural grazing lands and it will grow in harsh conditions,” he continues. “The protein is comparable to alfalfa, and when you put it up for hay, sometimes the tonnage yield out-produces alfalfa.”
Schneider says he became interested in sainfoin years ago, when the crop still had a bad name because if it was over-watered it would die, and the right inoculants weren’t available to combat root rot, which he says would “take it right out.”
“Today, they have figured out technologies for an inoculant that works, so we became seriously interested in the crop about eight years ago,” says Schneider. “We bought some from a guy in Montana and planted his, and then we found out about the Shoshone variety from UW, which is exclusively what I produce now.”
Schneider says that he now has sainfoin seed customers from all over the United States, and he’s shipped as far as Virginia and New York.
“It has to have well-drained soil, so in the East they plant it on hillsides,” he explains. “Dairy-oriented farmers have bought seed from me, as well as horse people, although your run-of-the-mill customer for sainfoin seed is the beef cattleman, who wants it for both grazing and haying – they like that they can use it either way.”
On his own operation, Schneider says he’ll start grazing his cows on sainfoin in a few weeks to prepare them for breeding.
“The sainfoin has nice nutrition that helps them cycle well,” he says. “Then we’ll go back in another month-and-a-half and cut it for hay. After we hay once we let ours grow back for fall grazing, when we come off the mountain, because I have nowhere else to go with them.”
Schneider adds that sainfoin can work at most elevations.
“I have a guy who plants it at 7,000 feet, and he says it’s one of the few vegetations that actually does quite well up there,” he notes.
Of stand replacement, Schneider says he’s had some sainfoin in for seven years, and he’s heard of stands that last 20 or 30 years, if they’re taken care of.
At the nearby Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC), Farm Manager Mike Killen has worked closely with the crop and with Schneider.
“My involvement began with raising foundation seed for the Shoshone and Delaney varieties of sainfoin that were developed by the University of Wyoming,” says Killen.
The Shoshone variety was released first, and thus it’s more popular, with more seed available. Delaney followed a couple years later, and Killen says it’s just now getting into seed growers’ hands and is gaining interest from growers.
“Both varieties were released because they yielded better than the old varieties from the ‘70s,” says Killen. “Shoshone was released as a single-cut type, meaning it was better suited for dryland areas with springtime moisture, and most of its growth was on the first growth of the year, after which it would be hayed or grazed before going dormant later in the summer. Delaney regrows a little faster, and was released as a multi-cut type. However, in our trials Shoshone usually out-yields Delaney in an irrigated setting.”
Killen isn’t aware of any UW research on any further varieties.
This year PREC research concerning sainfoin is looking into phosphorous, irrigation and herbicide.
Of the irrigation study, Killen says that Powell is such a dry area that even most dryland crops need to be irrigated.
“Sainfoin is suited for dryland areas, but it’s recommended for at least a 14-inch rainfall,” he says. “Sainfoin is susceptible to too much water – it’s not as tolerant to being overwatered as even alfalfa is – and we’re just starting the irrigation study.”
Killen says the phosphorous study will determine whether different rates of application cause any response in the sainfoin.
“There has been a lot of recent interest in sainfoin in Wyoming, as well as in other states,” says Killen. “I think people are looking for an alternative to alfalfa, and sainfoin shows some promise, and with the new varieties more people are looking at it.”
He adds that sainfoin is not a new crop to the Powell area.
“It was introduced in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, when Montana State University did a lot of work with it,” he says. “It fell out of interest for a while, but in the last five years it’s had renewed interest.”
For those who are interested in growing sainfoin, Killen says they should first look at soil type.
“Sainfoin prefers well-drained, high pH soils, and how it will be managed also plays into the discussion,” he notes. “Sainfoin stand longevity usually isn’t as good as alfalfa, but that really depends on management and soil types.”
“People are still suspicious, but on the same note it’s gained popularity because more and more people are having success, and are hearing about sainfoin through word-of-mouth,” says Schneider. “It’s all changed, and it’s a whole new game now. If I can make 300 acres work here – and I’m a rancher – anybody can make it grow.”