To many people, sainfoin is a new crop. But to Don Keil, it's an old friend. Sainfoin has been a part of his forage program for more than 40 years.

“It was brought into this country from Turkey and introduced to Montana in the 1960s, when I was at Montana State. When I graduated, one of my professors gave me seed to take home and plant. I did and it's been doing well for our operation ever since,” says the Conrad, MT, rancher and owner of Montana Seeds, Inc.

The forage legume looks a little like alfalfa and will grow almost anywhere that alfalfa does, Keil says. But it can be grazed without fear of bloat in livestock, and even the stems are highly palatable to cattle. It also has good drought tolerance and is extremely winterhardy.

“Sainfoin is slower to regrow than alfalfa,” he says, yet it matures faster in spring, providing a cutting about two weeks earlier. Most dryland growers take one cutting in June, then graze the regrowth later in summer.

Keil and other growers in his area have tried different levels of fertilizer on sainfoin, but found it doesn't respond enough to justify the added cost. “It seems to get what it needs from our soils, so I don't apply fertilizer anymore.”

The crop is well-suited to well-drained, calcareous soils, with a pH between 7.0 and 8.0. That makes it a natural fit in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. “But I've sold seed to farmers all over the country and heard that it does well in lots of places,” he notes.

Planting depth is key to getting a solid crop established, says Keil, and something many growers new to the crop don't watch carefully enough. “The seed can't be planted too deep — ideally just one-half to three-quarters of a inch deep — or it just won't come up. Too many people see the big seed and assume they need to plant it deeper. That's a critical mistake.”

There are about 32,000 of the large, brown seeds per pound, and seeding rates range from 35 to 45 lbs/acre for irrigated fields and 25-30 lbs/acre on dryland fields. The crop can be drilled or planted in rows. “I use a single-disc no-till drill, which does a good job with planting depth,” says Keil.

Sainfoin seed also needs to be inoculated with a specific Rhizobium not found in most soils in Montana, notes Dennis Cash, extension forage specialist at Montana State University.

“It needs moisture to get established, but once it develops a deep root, it's fairly hardy,” he adds.

Early spring weed control is important, notes Keil, who usually applies glyphosate to control cheatgrass (downy brome), which is the biggest weed challenge in his area. “I've never seen any crop injury from it, and it keeps my fields clean. I usually make an application every spring to keep the fields weed-free.”

It can be seeded in a mix or by itself, says Cash. “Many ranchers have used it in varying proportions with meadow bromegrass, birdsfoot trefoil and orchardgrass to produce a high-quality pasture mix.”

On its own, sainfoin has performed well in forage yield trials, he says. “Shoshone, a new variety, actually beat alfalfa in a four-year trial we conducted, yielding an average of 5½ tons/acre.”

A 2008 University of Wyoming study showed similar results, with Shoshone getting the top yield — 6.79 tons/acre under irrigation. Its dry matter yield was 3.7 tons/acre compared to 3.58 tons/acre for alfalfa, with crude protein slightly lower than that of alfalfa, but relative feed value higher.

Shoshone, introduced in 2005, is more tolerant to northern root knot nematode than previous varieties, is resistant to alfalfa stem nematode and generally has higher yields. Delaney is another new variety now in the seed production phase and expected to be available in 2010. Seed price is between $2.50 and $4/lb.