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

Agriculture & Environment

Location:  Newport, Shropshire TF10 8NB
Post Type:  Full Time
Contract Type: Fixed Term - 36 Months
Closing Date:  23.59 hours BST on Sunday 28 August 2022
Reference:  RD-PHD-R1-NR-22

Primary supervisor. Dr Nicola Randall 

2nd Supervisors John Reade, James McCaughern

Project title: Sainfoin as an alternative legume forage to support livestock health, biodiversity, and reduced emissions.

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: 

  1. Investigate the opportunities and limitations for expansion of Sainfoin into forage systems in the UK. 
  2. Investigate how best to utilise Sainfoin within ruminant diets to improve weight gain and reduce emissions intensity.  
  3. Compare the potential costs and environmental benefits of Sainfoin with other forage crops
  4. 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 expected start date will be 27th September 2022, although a later start date will be considered for the best applicant. The studentship will cover the current Home tuition fee rate plus a yearly stipend set at the UKRI figure – currently £16,062. International applicants would need to  be able to fund the difference between Home and Overseas fees which is currently £10,330 per year with the first year’s fee’s being paid in full before Visa documentation can be issued. 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 (  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. 

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Harper Adams University is one of the premier UK Higher Education institutions focused on the land-based and food supply chain sector. With around 2,800 undergraduate students, plus those completing postgraduate, research and CPD programmes, Harper Adams University is the UK's largest single provider of higher education for these subjects.  Programmes fall into eleven broad subject areas – but none operate in isolation. Community and collaboration are key at Harper Adams, meaning everyone, including staff, students and industry partners, benefits from a close network of knowledge and opportunity exchange. Situated in Shropshire, the campus and the surrounding area provide an excellent working and living environment for staff and students alike.

Harper Adams is consistently positioned highly in a range of national ratings, performance measures and league tables. The University has been the highest performing modern university in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for the last four years, climbing to 17th place in the overall league table. In the 2020 guide Harper Adams was named Modern University of the Year and runner-up University of the Year. In the 2019 Whatuni? Student Choice Awards, based on student reviews, Harper Adams won the Student Support category for the fifth time – the only university to have taken the title since the awards began - and won the category for best job prospects for a fourth year running. In the 2020 QS World Rankings for Agriculture and Forestry published in March 2020, Harper Adams was ranked first in the UK for academic reputation and second in the world for its reputation with employers.

Applied research is at the heart of the university’s activity, with the work of a thriving academic community underpinning both teaching and work with the industries allied to Harper. The 2014 Government Research Excellence Framework rated all of the university’s research as “of international quality”, and more than half was deemed “world leading” or “internationally excellent”.



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