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Sainfoin as an alternative legume forage to support livestock health, biodiversity and reduced emissions (fully funded PhD)

   Department of Agriculture and Environment

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  Dr N Randall  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Project Description:

Background: Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) is a perennial forage legume. Like other legumes, Sainfoin can offer soil benefits due to its nitrogen fixing properties. As well as providing protein, Sainfoin contains tannins which are thought to a) reduce the amount of methane provided by ruminants, and b) reduce bloating. Tannins can also result in rapid liveweight gains by aiding protein absorption. Potential additional benefits of Sainfoin are drought resistance and ability to grow on poor soils, which may be a good choice for regenerative agriculture systems. Sainfoin is a good plant for encouraging pollinators. It has been shown to disrupt the lifecycle of parasitic worms in Europe.

Until recently Sainfoin was little grown in temperate forage systems. In the UK, it is not commonly used outside of the thin alkaline soils in the South of England, but climate change scenarios suggest that alternative forage plants such as Sainfoin may help meet policy requirements to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, whilst also increasing the resilience of farmland areas to environmental change.

Preliminary work at Harper Adams has used desk reviews to investigated the establishment and nutritional value of Sainfoin, and early stage experiments indicate that sainfoin will establish well under a variety of soil types although water availability appears to be a limiting factor.

These findings indicate that Sainfoin may have the potential to be more widely used in forage than previously thought.

Aims and objectives: The aim of this PhD is to investigate the potential of Sainfoin to support diversification of forage legumes for improved animal health and to support environmental sustainability.

The key objectives are to:

a)   Investigate the opportunities and limitations for expansion of Sainfoin into forage systems in the UK.

b)   Investigate how best to utilise Sainfoin within ruminant diets to improve weight gain and reduce emissions intensity.  

c)    Compare the potential costs and environmental benefits of Sainfoin with other forage crops

d)   Make recommendations to the farming community for the use of Sainfoin within forage, and the potential benefits that may be gained.

Proposed methodology:

Objective a)

Glasshouse and field experiments will be used to evaluate the impact of different environmental factors for the establishment and growth of Sainfoin. Factors to be investigated may include, soil type, watering regime, temperature, variety of Sainfoin, associated plant communities/sward diversity etc.

Objective b)

Different varieties and lifestages of Sainfoin or of Sainfoin forage within broader mixes (and controls) will undertake a full proximate analysis to determine their feeding value within a variety of farm animal production systems. The resulting values from these analyses will be introduced into dietary formulation models in order to predict animal performance, costs of production, and emissions intensity.  

Objective c)

Primary research from a) and b) will be combined with desk studies/expert elicitation on the potential costs and wider benefits of Sainfoin (such as pollinator support nitrogen fixation ability) compared with other forage plants, and used to inform either a cost/benefit analysis. Where specific research gaps are found, further primary research (eg pollinator visits, soil sampling in field experiments) may be carried out to investigate the environmental parameters.

Objective d)

The findings from Objectives a and b will be used to provide advice to farmers/policy makers/commercial companies on the best varieties of sainfoin to use, and how to manage it, in order to maximise both it’s establishment under local conditions and the nutritional benefits to livestock, particularly ruminants. Advisory notes, infographics, farmer events and our farmer networks will be used to disseminate findings, and will also include advice on the potential benefits of Sainfoin.

Expected outcomes: We anticipate the findings from this research will inform farmers/policy makers considering diversification of their forage, particularly where they want to:

Establish mixed species into existing lays to reduce the need for fertiliser and to improve drought resilience

Improve forage quality

Reduce methane emissions

Move to more resilient/regenerative systems 

The stipend for this studentship is £16,062 per annum based on the standard UKRI 2022/23 rate. The expected start date for the studentship is 27th September 2022, although a later start date will be considered for the best applicant. The student will be registered for a PhD at Harper Adams University and based at Harper Adams University, Edgmond, Shropshire, UK

 If you have any queries or for an informal discussion please email Nicola Randall ([Email Address Removed]).  For further information about the University, please visit our website at 

Person specification:

Candidates should have an MSc or a minimum of an upper second class honours degree in an agricultural, environmental, animal welfare or similar subject area. This project is only open to applicants who qualify for home student fees.

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