Clover: The Gift That Keeps Giving


I hope that everyone had a Merry Christmas and found a bag of clover under the Christmas tree! I love practical gifts and it just doesn’t get any more practical than clover. Legumes are an essential part of a strong and healthy nitrogen cycles in Kentucky’s pastures. They capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into a plant available form, increase forage quality, help to manage tall fescue toxicisis. In the past we have always thought the positive impact of red clover on tall fescue toxicosis was simply from “dilution”, but new research from the USDA’s Forage Animal Production Unit in Lexington shows that red clover contains compounds that reverses the vasoconstriction that is caused by the ergot alkaloids in toxic tall fescue. The bottom-line is that clover is an important part of healthy grazing systems and we need to work at introducing and maintaining it in our tall grass pastures.

Tips for Getting Clover into Pastures

Control Broadleaf Weeds. Broadleaf weeds should be controlled prior to seeding legumes. This is best accomplished by controlling weeds the season prior to renovation.

Soil Test and Adjust Fertility. In order for clover and other legumes to persist and thrive in pastures, we must create an environment conducive for their growth. This starts with soil fertility. Prior to frost seeding clover, lime and fertilize pastures according to soil test results.

Suppress Sod and Decrease Residue. The existing sod must be suppressed and plant residue reduced prior to seeding. The reduction in plat residue facilitates good soil-seed contact. This is best accomplished by hard grazing in late fall and early winter.

Ensure Good Soil-Seed Contact. Regardless of what seeding method is chosen, good soil-seed contact is required for seed germination and emergence. Following the tips below will help to ensure that good soil to seed contact is achieved.

Seed on Proper Date. Frost seeding or drilling legumes back into pastures is usually best accomplished in late winter or early spring (February and early March). Frost seeding is accomplished by simply broadcasting the seed on the soil surface and allowing the freezing and thawing cycles to incorporate the seed into the soil. Success with frost seeding can be enhanced by dragging your pasture after or as you broadcast the seed. This simply gets the seed in better contact with the soil. January is a good time to make sure to order your seed and make sure your seeder is working properly.

Use High-Quality Seed and Adapted Varieties. Choose clover varieties that have been tested in Kentucky. The University of Kentucky has one of the most extensive variety testing programs in the country. The 2018 variety testing results can be found on the UK Forage Extension website or by visiting your local extension office. Using the 2020 Long-Term Summary of Kentucky Forage Variety Trials, choose varieties that have performed above average (>100%) for multiple site-years. This indicates that they are well adapted to condition found in Kentucky. Use either certified or proprietary seed to ensure high germination, seed genetics, and low noxious weed content. Do NOT use VNS or Variety Not Stated seed since there is no way to tell how it will perform in Kentucky.

In Kentucky, a good mixture for renovating pastures with is 6-8 lb/A of red clover, 1-2 lb/A of ladino or grazing white clover. On rented farms or where soil fertility is marginal, adding 10-15 lb/A of annual lespedeza can be beneficial. Annual lespedeza is a warm-season annual legume that was used extensively 50 years ago, before producers had ready access to lime and fertilizer and improved varieties of cool-season legumes. In general, cool-season legumes (red and white clover) will be more productive under good growing condition.

Use correct seeding rate. Make sure to maintain and calibrate your seeding equipment prior to planting (see box on calibrating forage seeding equipment). Seeding at too high of a rate needlessly results in higher seed costs. On the other hand, seeding at too low a rate results in weak stands and lower productivity.

Inoculate Legume Seed. Most improved clover seed comes with a clay coating that contains inoculant. Make sure that the seed is fresh and has not been stored under adverse conditions. If the seed is not pre-inoculated, inoculate it with the proper strain of nitrogen fixing bacteria prior to seeding. This is relatively inexpensive insurance that legume roots will be well nodulated and efficient nitrogen fixation will take place.

Control Seeding Depth. Small seeded forages should never be placed deeper than ½ inch. When using a drill always check seeding depth since it will vary with seedbed condition and soil moisture status. Placing small seeded forages too deep will universally result in stand failures.

Check seed distribution pattern. When using a spinner type spreader/seeder make sure and check you spreading pattern. In many cases small seeded forages are not thrown as far as you think. This can result is strips of clover in your pastures rather than a uniform stand. Also check your seed distribution pattern. Single disk spinners often throw more seed to one side if not correctly adjusted.

Control Post-Seeding Competition. Not controlling post-seeding competition is one of the most common causes of stand failures. One the best management practices is to leave cattle on pastures that have been overseeded with clover until the clover seedlings get tall enough to get grazed off. At that remove animals from the pasture and allow that clover to reach a height of 6-8 inches. At that time the paddock can be placed back into the rotation. If the existing vegetation is not controlled, the new clover seedlings will be shaded out.

For more information on frost seeding contact Meade County Cooperative Extension Service or visit the UK Forage Extension Website.

Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of economic or social status and will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, creed, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, marital status, genetic information, age, veteran status, or physical or mental disability.

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