SLU news

Old-school fodder crop with contemporary potential

Published: 21 September 2011

Sainfoin is a high protein fodder crop that since long has been cultivated in Europe. But in recent decades it has been replaced by more higher-yielding crops. Sainfoin is protein-rich and its content of tannins has a positive effect on the protein uptake in the digestion process. These are the main findings in Martin Lorenz’ doctoral thesis at SLU.

Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) is an old feed plant with good nutritional status for cows, sheep and goats. It is a usually perennial leguminous that was introduced to Europe from Asia in the 1700s. It has been grown in field trials in Uppsala, but so far yields have been small.

- Unfortunately sainfoin was replaced in Europe by different grass varieties with higher yields when mineral fertilizers began to be more commonly used in the 1960s and 1970s, says Martin Lorenz at SLU's Department of Animal Nutrition and Management.

But now it is required to reduce energy consumption in agriculture, to increase biodiversity and reduce eutrophication of lakes and streams. This gives researchers reason to focus on finding sustainable cropping systems. Protein supply to dairy cows is an important issue in the EU, as in the current situation is very dependent on imported feed as soybeans.

In a collaborative project between SLU and several other European universities, the reinvention of the crop sainfoin has been examined from many angles. Seeds were collected from all over the world and examined in a comprehensive way; from a molecular biology perspective, how the plant behaves during ensiling, how the fodder impact on the protein uptake in ruminants, the best techniques to grow it and anthelmintic properties of the fodder.

The Swedish animal husbandry researchers in the project, among them Martin Lorenz, focused on the ensiling process and the protein value for ruminants.

Sainfoin is high in tannins, substances that are commonly found in many plants and fruits. Martin Lorenz observed both positive and negative effects of these tannins on animal digestion.

The high tannin content of sainfoin was found to have a positive effect on protein metabolism in the rumen. Sainfoin contains a lot of protein, which is important from both an economic and environmental point of view.

- Sainfoin has great potential as a protein-rich feed for ruminants, says Martin Lorenz. It can affect not only the supply of domestic protein feed, but also ruminant protein use, the environment and the dependence on imported protein feed.