Could sainfoin be the first dual-purpose perennial pulse crop for the western US?

Progress report for FW22-390

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $24,864.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2024
Host Institution Award ID: G145-23-W9210
Grant Recipient: Alaska Ranch
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Shawn Wentzel
Alaska Ranch
Expand All

Project Information


The Land Institute has been researching sainfoin as a candidate perennial pulse crop since 2017, but sainfoin has already been used in Conservation Reserve Program plantings and as a perennial hay and grazing crop for 50+ years in MT. This project asks “Is sainfoin ready to be grown as a perennial pulse MT using common forage-type varieties?” and “Could managing sainfoin as a dual purpose pulse and forage crop allow for early and low-risk, adoption by MT farmers until new pulse-type varieties are developed?” We propose to 1) document seed, forage, and honey yield and quality from six commercial sainfoin fields of three common forage-type varieties, 2) document changes in soil health parameters over the project period, and 3) compare yields of common forage-type varieties to experimental pulse-type varieties selected at The Land Institute.

We will collaborate with The Land Institute’s sainfoin breeder to generate sainfoin yield potential and ecosystem services market data needed to attract investment from food companies and interest from other researchers in this sustainable crop. We will share our findings through fact-sheets, a field day, and youtube and social media. We hope that this project provides other farmers and ranchers with the knowledge needed to grow and sell this novel pulse crop.  Despite yields that may be lower than other common annual pulses grown in MT, we expect sainfoin will be a viable option because of its resiliency over multiple years and the multiple income streams it can provide as an integrated crop-livestock system.

Project Objectives:

Research Objectives: Determine the viability of sainfoin as a perennial pulse in MT.

Objective R.1. Evaluate seed/grain yields, biomass yields, honey yields, and grain/forage quality of common forage-type sainfoin varieties in MT at commercial scales.

Objective R.2. Evaluate effects of sainfoin on soil health and carbon sequestration. 

Objective R.3. Compare the persistence, yield, and adaptability of experimental sainfoin pulse populations compared to common forage-type varieties.

Education Objectives: Improve farmer and stakeholder knowledge of sainfoin as a forage and potential pulse.

Objective E.1. Host an on-farm demonstration/field day in Twin Bridges, MT.

Objective E.2. Publish findings about sainfoin yields and ecosystem services in fact sheets and youtube videos.



Please see the Gantt chart for a timeline of activities.

Milestones include:

  1. Sending out initial fact sheets to growers/ranchers, food companies, and conservation stakeholders like the NRCS.
  2. Collecting baseline and final soil samples
  3. Harvesting sainfoin seeds and biomass from commercial-scale and germplasm evaluation plots
  4. Hosting a field day in 2022
  5. Finishing up a sainfoin pulse promotional video (2024)
  6. Creating final fact sheets and other documentation with analyzed and interpreted data from the study.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Dr. Brandon Schlautman - Technical Advisor (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Background: Accurate messaging about the feasibility for scalable sainfoin perennial pulse production is critical to attracting farmer and stakeholder interest in this new crop development venture. Our research will generate data about the yield and economic potential of sainfoin grown for multiple purposes - as a pulse, perennial forage, and honey crop; about the improvements in soil health and ecosystem services provided by sainfoin; and about the yield potential of existing forage-type varieties compared to experimental germplasm. Making this data available is an important step towards sainfoin becoming a food product that farmers want to grow, consumers want to eat, and food companies want to source.

Objective R.1. Measure and compare seed and grain yields and quality, biomass yields and quality, and honey yields of common sainfoin varieties grown at commercial scales to determine the viability of sainfoin as a dual-purpose perennial pulse crop in MT.

Materials and Methods: 

This study will occur for two years within six commercial sainfoin fields, two fields each of forage type varieties Delaney, Remont, and AAC Mountainview. Each field will be at least 10 acres in size and contain two ~ 2-acre plots maintained and managed as “pulse” production trials (6 fields x 2 plots = 12 plots; 12 plots x 2 acres = 24 acres).

We will move honeybee hives (2 hives per acre) to each field in late spring once the sainfoin begins to bloom. Honey yields will be recorded for each field in years 1 & 2.

In July, we will swath the sainfoin plots when at least 30% of the pods have turned brown and combine with a pickup header when dry.  We will record seed yields using the combine yield monitor and take a ~ 50lb subsample from each plot. Total field seed yield will be recorded with scales on the grain cart. Subsamples will be delivered to The Land Institute where Brandon will dehull them, measure basic nutritional attributes (protein, ash, moisture, oil, fiber), and screen for potential mycotoxins (aflatoxin, ochratoxin, etc.).

Immediately after harvesting seed, we will bale the straw/residue, count the bales per plot, get the total straw weight per field, and estimate an average bale weight.  We will take core samples from all the bales in each plot, and submit them for complete forage analysis (moisture, CP, ADF, NDF, fat, ash, lignin, starch, RFV, TDN, etc.). In September we will collect two quadrats (1m x 1m) from each plot to estimate regrowth biomass yield for potential grazing. We will send these quadrats in for complete forage analysis as described above.

We will collaborate with Brandon to estimate mean yields and qualities for each of the fields and varieties, and incorporate our findings into educational materials.

Objective R.2. Evaluate effects of sainfoin production on soil health and carbon sequestration.

Materials and Methods:

We will take soil samples at two depths (0-6 and 6-20 inches) from each plot of the six commercial fields in April 2022 and March 2024 to evaluate changes in soil health. Brandon will analyze these samples for bulk density, moisture, and soil inorganic carbon and then submit samples to another lab for wet aggregate stability and other soil health metrics using the Haney Test. Some of these commercial fields are already 5+ years old, others were just planted in fall 2021. This mix of field ages may provide interesting results about short- vs. long-term rates of soil health changes while growing sainfoin.

Brandon will analyze the data to determine whether any changes in soil health were observed within the sainfoin fields and will help incorporate results and interpretations into educational materials. Sainfoin has long been used in Conservation Reserve Program plantings in Montana, but these data are an important first step in informing policy and ecosystem service programs about sainfoin’s conservation benefits as a pulse and forage crop.

Objective R.3. Compare the persistence, yield, and adaptability of experimental sainfoin populations compared to common forage-type varieties.

Breeding new varieties is a long and expensive process. Sainfoin has an advantage compared to other “wild” perennial pulse domestication candidates because there are multiple sainfoin forage varieties that are well-adapted and could be used immediately for pulse production under the right economic conditions. Very few studies and breeding programs have focused on seed production, but large variation in seed yield and size has been observed in sainfoin. We will determine whether breeding germplasm under selection for pulse-type traits in Kansas at The Land Institute is adapted to MT and investigate whether these experimental populations have superior seed yields compared to forage varieties in the state.

Materials and Methods:

We will establish a small plot germplasm evaluation using an augmented block design. The three forage varieties, Delaney, Remont, and AAC Mountainview, will be replicated in each block that will include twelve additional unreplicated plots of experimental germplasm. Each plot will be 6ft x 30ft in size. There will be at least 150 plots spread across 10 blocks.

Brandon will oversee data collection while we perform plot maintenance including irrigation, weed suppression, and protection from elk and deer. In spring and fall of years 1 and 2, the plots will be rated for persistence and re-growth. In the summer, seed yield and size data will be collected from each plot. Brandon will analyze the data using a mixed model approach in ASReml-R. The study design will allow allows accurate yield estimates and comparisons among the three replicated forage varieties, the best of which could be used for perennial pulse production in the near term. These statistical comparisons cannot be made in the Obj 1 commercial-scale experiment. The design will also allow for a baseline understanding of the unreplicated experimental germplasm for which limited seed is currently available. Depending on the performance of the experimental germplasm, selections could be made to breed superior sainfoin dual-purpose pulse and forage varieties for the region.

Research results and discussion:

Obj R1. Field Scale Trials

Seed Analyses

Because of restrictions in water this year, we were only able to harvest seed from three of the six fields that had sufficient irrigation allotments. Those fields had average yields of 1,100 ), 500  , and 800  lb/acre seed, respectively. Subsamples of the sainfoin seed we harvested from the commercial varieties were dehulled at The Land Institute and sent to Great Plains Analytical Labs (GPAL) for testing. We found that sainfoin seeds contained high concentrations of protein (ranging from 33.45% to 37.38%), similar to soybeans, and were high in fat (ranging from 5.1% to 8.4%), similar to chickpea. We did not detect mycotoxins in screens using ELISA at GPAL, suggesting that the seed likely could have entered the human food supply assuming that other research demonstrates that sainfoin does not contain other toxic or anti-nutritional compounds.

Straw Samples

We took straw bale core samples after sainfoin seed harvest from each of the fields in 2022 after grain harvest.  On average, straw yields were 0.80 tons/acre. Those straw bales also averaged 11.2% moisture, 7% crude protein, and 48% TDN. The straw was not excellent quality and would need to be ground and or supplemented with other higher quality feed when used in livestock diets. With strong demand for forage in 2022 due to the drought we were able to sell much of the straw for ~ $75.00 per ton.

Obj R2. Soil Health Research

Soil Sampling

We took 12 different soil samples for baseline measurements in 2023 across six different productive sainfoin fields. These fields average soil pH of 8.2 (ranging 8.0-8.3) and had a soil organic matter content ranging from 2.1% to 4.5%, with an average of 2.9%.

Obj R3. Breeding  Trials

In Salina, KS, The Land Institute has had good success planting sainfoin in the fall. We attempted to plant breeding trials in fall of 2021 in Twin Bridges. Winter 2021-2022 was very dry in MT and we did not have great establishment in that trial.  We will collect some data from surviving plots in 2023 and replant the same trial under irrigation in June 2023, which is our normal planting time.

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:

At this point in the project, we don't feel ready to recommend sainfoin as a perennial pulse crop.  Challenges with access to water in our area affected yields between fields in our study pretty dramatically.

In the future, we recommend additional research exploring how water deficits affect sainfoin seed and forage production. We also recommend research exploring the management of insect and weed pressure in the system. Finally, we know that our preliminary seed quality data is insufficient to jump start a sainfoin food industry. Food science and sainfoin seed utilization research will be critical to attracting interest from small and large food companies.

1 Grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

45 Farmers participated
3 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

BWCAA Fall 2022 e-Newsletter


September 2022 Field Day and Presentation

In mid-September 2022 Alaska Ranch co-hosted the Annual American British White Cattle Association Meeting. As part of the meeting, we invited farmers/ranchers to attend a field day on our ranch where we showed them our sainfoin fields, sainfoin seed cleaning equipment, and our apiary equipment while discussing the potential for sainfoin to be a multi-purpose forage, grain, and honey crop in the Western US. Prior to the field day tour, Dr. Brandon Schlautman gave a 1-hour presentation at the meeting outlining the vision for sainfoin as a perennial pulse crop and sharing research related to the development efforts.

Education and outreach results:

We had ~ 50 people attend the American British White Association annual meeting. Of those, about 25 drove from Dillon, MT (where the conference was held) to our home ranch near Twin Bridges for the field day and to see the demonstration plots. Since then ~ 5 ranchers have reached back out to Alaska Ranch and/or Dr. Schlautman to ask about sainfoin seed availability and potential fit in their operations.

4 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

At Alaska ranch, our education about sainfoin production has mainly been developed in two ways - direct communication with other experienced growers and watching videos online from researchers internationally. Because of the difficulty in cultivating individual relationships with all the people/stakeholders that might be interested in sainfoin (or any ag research topic), we recommend using digital media and especially video for educational activities.

We already have a youtube channel "Sainfoin Shawn" where we have posted some videos about sainfoin over the past year. We will work with a videographer to develop a video outlining this research projects components and results, and the video views can be used to track the number of producers/stakeholders that this project has reached.

45 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Non-producer stakeholders reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
4 Ag Service Providers
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.