Leading the charge for sainfoin in global agriculture

By Tim Kalinowski


Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada forages scientist Surya Acharya has spent much of his professional career helping to establish sainfoin as a go-to variety for grazing in North America. His world-leading research has been recognized both in Canada and abroad, but Acharya says there is still much work to do to establish sainfoin in the broader marketplace.

“I am very excited for the future of this plant,” he says, “but I still haven’t yet convinced many scientists to work on it. That is big difference right now. With alfalfa their are hundreds of breeders all over the world, but with sainfoin I am the only one in North America who puts that much emphasis on it. That’s why we are behind— the crop is not as popular or widespread as it could be.”

Acharya says sainfoin tops alfalfa as a forage species in almost every category he has tested, with the added inducement of being bloat free.

“The interesting thing is over the years, because of our research, we have made sainfoin that will grow with alfalfa to make alfalfa pasture bloat free,” he explains. “If you can grow it together it will be completely bloat free. Nothing transfers from one plant to the other, but if the animals eat both of them at the same time then the condensed tannin (of the sainfoin) works for both.

“You only need 25 per cent sainfoin in a pasture to prevent bloat. And if you start with 50 per cent sainfoin and 50 per cent alfalfa,” Acharya adds, “it will not only make the pasture free but also give you higher biomass then either crop individually.”

But, he admits, there is one category where sainfoin still has some work to do to catch up with alfalfa— cost of seeding.

“The biggest bottleneck I think I face is the size of the seed,” Acharya explains. “Sainfoin is sold with the pod. That’s why instead of 12 pounds of alfalfa seed (per acre), we have to seed 30 pounds of sainfoin.

“And because sainfoin was once considered a novelty crop not many people were growing it,” he adds. “They were charging a very high price for sainfoin seed— which nowadays means as it becomes more and more popular, and the market becomes larger, I think seed companies can probably charge less. But you still have to seed 30 pounds.”

Acharya does not think this cost disparity should dissuade farmers from sainfoin as much as it seems to at the moment.

“I think it is such a good crop even if producers have to fork out a little extra money in the first year— they can realize it back in four or five years,” he says. “It is a perennial crop— so why not spend a little extra money and get the good quality which your animals will benefit from in a big way? It is also resistant to most diseases.”

Acharya is proud of the research he and his team continue to do on sainfoin at the Agriculture and Agri-Foof Canada Lethbridge Research Station, and elsewhere throughout Western Canada. He and other researchers are currently working on a four-year, multi-site plot study to determine the best sainfoin population to plant with different varieties of forage grasses.

“I have about 10 different populations of sainfoin I have created over time,” Acharya explains, “but which one to suggest the farmers use when they are growing with meadow brome, hybrid brome or even orchard grass?

“These are high quality grasses. I can’t use all the grasses in my study, but I am using these three most popular ones and high quality ones and trying to see which population of sainfoin works best for that.”

Acharya, much like the biblical Moses, has seen the promised land of what sainfoin may one day become in North American agriculture, but knows he will not be the one to realize it.

“We are doing world leading research on sainfoin right here in Lethbridge,” he states. “It’s a great feather in our cap, and people should be more excited about it. “I think over time it will happen, but I will not likely be there. I am already hiring my replacement.

“I am hoping the person who follows me in this position will continue working on it, because it is such a good crop,” he says.

Photo by Tim Kalinowski
AAFC forage researcher Surya Acharya has been the prophet and most outspoken champion of the sainfoin seed-growing industry for much of his career, developing the Mountainview and Glenview varieties.