Wageningen researchers have rediscovered a forgotten fodder crop for dairy cattle. This crop causes the cow to produce more milk and less methane.
Sainfoin, or Onobrychis, fell out of use in the mid-twentieth century, says livestock feeds expert Wilbert Pellikaan. The health benefits of the leguminous plant were well known before that: sainfoin means healthy hay in French. Cows like the crop and it contains tannins, bioactive substances which improve the digestion of grass in the rumen. Moreover, the tannins have a preventative effect against bloat caused by gas in the rumen, and against worm infestations. An added plus for the environment is that the fodder reduces methane emissions.
Pellikaan has been doing research on this crop in the Animal Feeds chair group for ten years in two European research projects: HealthyHay and LegumePlus. In this context, Vietnamese PhD candidate Nguyen Thi Huyen has been conducting trials with sainfoin over the past few years. In a limited trial with six cows, Huyen observed that the cows on ‘healthy hay’ produce nearly 10 percent more milk and 10 percent less methane. ‘But the most interesting thing is that the metabolism of the cows adapts,’ says Pellikaan. ‘The tannins in the crop make the cow deposit more energy in the form of protein and less in fat. That could have a positive effect on the cow’s fitness during late lactation, when milk production goes down.’
Pellikaan would like to do further researcher on more cows, and find out more specifically which tannins have a microbial effect. ‘There are different classes of tannin, you see. Within the condensed tannin certain types seem to be effective.’
Sainfoin seems to be of especial interest as an alternative to the fodder crops alfalfa and clover on dairy farms on poorer soils. An advantage is that sainfoin is a leguminous plant which binds nitrogen from the air, so the plant can thrive on soil that has not had much fertilizer.
Pellikaan is currently working with Roselinde Goselijk on follow-up research on sainfoin at the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden. He wants to find out whether dairy cows really have a preference for sainfoin or prefer raw fodder without the unfamiliar crop.
A Wageningen trial field planted with sainfoin.