Ruminants, especially dairy cows, are major contributors to environmental pollution, but by eating sainfoin, an almost forgotten traditional fodder legume, the animals' polluting emissions could be cut significantly.
Now the University of Reading's agriculture department, in collaboration with other EU and Armenian colleagues, is part of a new Marie Curie research training network called 'HealthyHay', to investigate the benefits of feeding sainfoin to livestock.
Dr Irene Mueller-Harvey, who is leading the project at Reading, said: "Ruminants utilise sainfoin protein very efficiently. They also make better use of the energy in sainfoin compared to grass of equal metabolisable energy content.
"This is important because more efficient nutrient utilisation of protein and energy leads to less environmental pollution in terms of nitrogen and methane emissions.
"HealthyHay takes a holistic approach to a unique sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) germplasm collection, and will develop a scientific and technical basis for animal feeding systems based on lower chemical inputs by re-popularising a traditional fodder legume for more efficient, animal- and environment-friendly farming systems.
"At present, research on sainfoin focuses only on a few cultivars in a few EU countries. This prevents exploitation of the full genetic potential of sainfoin. The unique collection available within this network and a concerted effort to evaluate this germplasm collection will lay the foundation for exploiting the full potential of this traditional forage crop in contemporary cultivation systems."
Sainfoin was widely grown in Europe before the use of commercial fertilisers and synthetic veterinary drugs, and has a very high voluntary intake by cattle, sheep and horses. It is thought that the unique nutritional, environmental and veterinary properties of sainfoin are governed by the presence of tannins, which are natural products that occur only in a few fodder legumes.
The English term sainfoin is derived from the French 'sain foin', which means 'healthy hay'. Research also suggests that the sainfoin tannins achieve good anti-parasitic effects. This could explain why it is such a good fodder for young livestock such as lambs and calves.
As sainfoin contains nutrients, that are used more efficiently, and natural compounds such as tannins, that act against parasites, it is a fodder legume that is ideal for sustainable livestock farming systems.
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