NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Home > Science > Genetics & Breeding Research > Novel and Non-food crops > Legume Plus

Legume Plus

Optimising plant polyphenols in legumes for ruminant nutrition plus health plus environmental sustainability (EU FP6 2012-2016, PITN-GA-2011-289377)

Contact: Lydia Smith

Legume PlusLegumePlus is a 4 year research project funded by the EU. Kicking off in 2012, its key objectives are to further investigate how bioactive forage legumes, in particular sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) and birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), can improve protein utilisation in ruminant livestock farming. This €4.1m project is coordinated by Reading University and includes 14 partners employing 16 research fellows from across Europe. This new project is an extension of the Healthy Hay project. It benefits from additional researchers from the University of Turku in Finland who will consider bio-active compounds (tannins) and legume experts from Switzerland from ALP, ART and plant breeders DSP. NIAB TAG is working closely with Dr Leif Skot at IBERS, Aberystwyth University to deliver our part of the Legume Plus project

Ruminants, especially dairy cows, are major contributors to environmental pollution, but by eating sainfoin or birdsfoot trefoil, which are almost forgotten traditional forage legumes, polluting emissions from animals could be cut significantly. Some sainfoin varieties, for example, are nutritionally more efficient and contain natural compounds such as tannins that act against parasites. The yields differ greatly between sainfoin varieties but all are drought-resistant, which need very little nitrogen fertiliser once established. It is an ideal fodder legume for sustainable livestock farming systems.

Ruminant animals currently make inefficient use of protein. A typical dairy cow only uses about 30% of its dietary protein, however, in the presence of some types of phytochemicals, especially tannins that are found in these alternative forage legumes, ruminants make better use of this protein. They also generate nitrogen in a form that is more likely to build up soil organic matter rather than generate nitrous oxide, which is a 15 times more potent greenhouse gas than methane.

'Home grown' protein from forage legumes offers a valuable alternative to unsustainable, imported soya. Legumes such as clovers, sainfoin, lucerne and trefoils can be grown with grasses and this adds an additional 2-3% more protein to 'grass only' forage. The use of legume rich forage also leads to a lower demand for nitrogen fertiliser because legumes fix their own, 'free' nitrogen from the air within specialised nodules on their roots resulting in a major saving in fertiliser.

The LegumePlus project will consider how the best of tanniferous legumes such as sainfoin and birdsfoot trefoil can be used to improve ruminant nutrition, reduce greenhouse gas emissions whilst improving the quality of milk, meat and cheese production and control parasitic worms. The project aims to deliver a good combination of pure and applied science.

Sainfoin was grown in Europe before the widespread use of commercial fertilisers in the 1950s2. It is an excellent fodder legume with very high voluntary intakes by cattle, sheep and horses. The efficiency with which the metabolisable energy (ME) in Sainfoin is utilised is much higher than for grass of equal ME content. More efficient nutrient utilisation from sainfoin leads to less environmental pollution due to nitrogen and methane emissions. This is important because ruminants, and especially dairy cows, are major contributors to environmental pollution. The English term sainfoin is derived from the French ‘sain foin’, meaning ‘healthy hay’; while the Greek Onobrychis viciifolia means 'donkey's favourite fodder'. Research also suggests that because sainfoin possesses certain tannins, it produces anti-parasitic effects. This could explain why it is such a good fodder for young livestock. As sainfoin contains nutrients, that are used more efficiently, and natural compounds, that act against parasites, it is a fodder legume that is ideal for sustainable livestock farming systems.

Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus coniculatus) is perennial forage legume lasting for around 3-4 years. Like sainfoin it also contains tannins providing farmers with similar benefits in respect that it is bloat free and able to offer an alternative to anthelmintic drugs, of which many are becoming less effective. The plant has small brilliantly coloured yellow flowers which distinguish it from other trefoils. It parts of northern Europe it is known as ‘eggs and bacon’ and it can be found naturally on poor or soils with low fertility. There are a number of different varieties and naturally occurring forms with wide ranging growth habits within the the genus and this, again like sainfoin, offers plant breeders considerable potential for future development. Some erect, which are better for cutting for hay or silage and others with prostrate growth which is best suited to summer grazing. Most growth occurs during the summer and all forms have a deep tap root, which enables the plant to withstand drought.

Birdsfoot trefoil offers ruminant animals a good source of protein and is usually grown in mixtures with grasses and other forage legumes, but will not tolerate competition from large legumes such as red clover or lucerne when these are dominant in a sward. When grown successfully, birdsfoot trefoil can yield up to 14t DM per hectare in monoculture.

Further information and Links

  • Project WebPages and
  • Plant Genetic Resources Volume 9 Issue01 April 2011, pp 70-85 Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia): a beneficial forage legume; Christine Hayot Carbonero, Irene Mueller-Harvey, Terence A. Brown and Lydia M.J. Smith.
  • Phytochemistry Volume 77, May 2012, Pages 197– 208 Proanthocyanidin diversity in the EU ‘HealthyHay’ sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) germplasm collection. Elisabetta Stringano, Christine Hayot Carbonero, Lydia M.J. Smith, Ronald H. Brown, Irene Mueller-Harvey
  • Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution December 2012, Volume 59, Issue 8, pp 1777-1788 Phylogenetic characterisation of Onobrychis species with special focus on the forage crop Onobrychis viciifolia Scop. Christine Hayot Carbonero, Franck Carbonero, Lydia M. J. Smith, Terence A. Brown
  • Journal. Agric. Food Chem., 2012, 60 (20), pp 5071–5075 (Web): April 11, 2012 In Vitro Protein Degradation of 38 Sainfoin Accessions and Its Relationship to Tannin Content by Different Assays. Martin M. Lorenz, Christine Hayot Carbonero, Lydia Smith, and Peter Udén.
  • Phytochemistry Volume 82, October 2012, Pages 67–80. Polyphenol metabolism provides a screening tool for beneficial effects of Onobrychis viciifolia (sainfoin). Jana Thill, Ionela Regos, Mohamed A. Farag, Asma F. Ahmad, Justyna Kusek, Ana Castro, Karin Schlangen, Christine Hayot Carbonero, Ilya Z. Gadjev, Lydia M.J. Smith, Heidi Halbwirth, Dieter Treutter, Karl Stich.
  • PhD Thesis Completed at NIAB 2010 (download will take some time)
  • Poster, Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) for Screening Sainfoin Germplasm


See also businesses engaged in production or utilisation of sainfoin