It’s been a hot and sunny week, and we’ve been busy baling our sainfoin - the haute cuisine of hay!
Sainfoin’s name derives from the old French, ‘St. Foin’, which means ‘healthy hay’ and it’s extremely nutritious and palatable to livestock. Its content of high levels of bioactive compounds called condensed tannins bond to the protein in the rumen and allow it to pass into the abomasum where it’s digested, producing top quality milk and meat. Sainfoin won’t cause bloat and is also a natural anthelmintic.
It benefits the soil too, as it needs no nitrogen fertiliser and little phosphate and has deep, penetrating roots which make it highly suitable for our dry, alkaline soils. Being a legume, there is a high level of residual fertility after a sainfoin ley has been ploughed, so it’s very good for repairing worn out 'tired' arable land.
Sainfoin was a common crop in England during the 17th -19th centuries, when it was grown across tens of thousands of acres in the Cotswolds, Hampshire, Dorset, the South of England and East Anglia. It was used as a source of very high quality hay, much of which was fed to the heavy working horses of the time. The aftermath grazing was very highly favoured for fattening lambs. A hundred years ago 1 in 7 fields in the Cotswolds were put down to sainfoin, and in some tenancy documents it was instructed to be grown regularly as a soil improving break crop.
The decline of sainfoin in Britain started in the 1920s, and increased significantly as large scale reduction in long term leys were ploughed during the 1939-1945 war period. This loss of popularity was partially associated with a decrease in the cultivation of land for sheep production, in favour of ryegrasses and the decline was exacerbated by a decline in the use of horses as they were replaced by tractors. But in recent years farmers are rediscovering this forgotten forage. When cutting for hay, the ideal time to cut is 50% flowering, and excessive turning for hay making will result in leaf shatter.
Our sainfoin crop was sown six years ago and we’ve made hay every summer. This year we’ve baled a mixture of 48 large round bales and 400 small conventional ones, which are being sold locally to feed pasture-fed cattle, sheep, and goats.