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Bring Clover On Over

The right variety of clover can yield a long-term forage and nitrogen source for your small farm.

By John Howle

(Page 2 of 2)

Red clover
When planting clover, soil may require amendment with lime—powdered or pelletized—to reach the optimum pH for clover of 6.5 or greater.
Annual, Cool-season Clover Plants
The best-producing annual clovers, especially in southern states, are arrowleaf clover and crimson clover. Arrowleaf clover has a large, white “V” on the leaves, and the seed heads are white with pinkish shading. Crimson clover produces a brilliant, crimson-colored seed head that is very showy. Crimson clover is often found in the median and along sides of the highway, and it sometimes comes back year after year because  the seed heads spread through late-summer mowing.

Sometimes, nature will give clues to the best clover for your area.

“If you see a few patches of a particular variety of clover growing well on its own, it’s a good sign that your soil type is suited for growing that clover,” says Ball. “Also, if you can get any annual clover to reseed and come back next year, do it.”  

Annual clover plants make most of their growth in spring, usually contributing to forage for 70 to 100 days or so. The earliest commonly planted annual clover is crimson clover, which makes most of its growth in March, April and May. Arrowleaf clover is planted later but generally has a similar length of production.

Where they can perennate, white clover and red clover can make substantial growth in spring, early summer and autumn and can provide 150 or more days of forage production with adequate rainfall during the growing season. In addition, white clover contains more protein than arrowleaf or crimson.

Figure Clover’s Cost
When you follow the planting rates for clover, you can see how pricing breaks down per pound. For example, with crimson clover, you need 20 pounds of seed to plant 1 acre. At $2.50 per pound, that’s $50 to plant 1 acre of crimson clover. At a rate of 15 pounds per acre for red clover at $2.50 per pound, the per-acre cost is $53. At $7 per pound of seed, durana white clover costs about $35 to seed 1 acre at a rate of 5 pounds per acre—durana white clover is a perennial, so you should get more years of growth from it.

Clover also typically has a higher digestibility and has more protein than grasses. This means improved livestock performance. Grazing animals ranging from cattle and sheep to goats and chickens enjoy grazing clover for the succulent, rich leaves.

Sweeten the Soil
Whether you’re planting a pure stand of clover or mixing it with grasses, the first step is the least expensive, and it can save you the most money: Get a soil test. A soil test will tell you exactly how much lime and fertilizer, if any, you need to apply.

When you mail the soil samples to a lab for analysis, include what you intend to plant on the soil sample form. For instance, if you only plan to plant clover, the nitrogen requirement will be lower because clover fixes nitrogen. If you plan to include grasses, such as ryegrass, wheat or oats, the nitrogen requirements will be higher.

As a general rule, legumes like clover require a soil pH of at least 6.5 for the best results. It’s not uncommon to need as much as 3 tons of lime per acre in wooded food plots. Bulk lime is cheaper when applied by a spreader truck, but if your pastures are in rough, remote spots, you may have to spread pelletized lime with a tractor spreader.

“In addition to legumes requiring higher soil pH, they also require higher phosphorous and potassium levels than most plants,” Ball says. On each bag of fertilizer, you’ll see three numbers. For instance, 13-13-13 means there is 13 pounds of nitrogen per hundred pounds of fertilizer, 13 pounds of phosphorous and 13 pounds of potassium. If you plan to plant a stand of clover only, the fertilizer requirement might be 0-20-30, because nitrogen will be fixed by the clover.

Prepare to Plant Clover
Being a legume, clover has tiny seeds, so avoid planting the seeds too deeply. Once you have a well-plowed, prepared seed bed, sow the seeds at the recommended rate per acre.

“Clover establishment is generally most dependable on a prepared seedbed. And definitely use a cultipacker, or the seeds may become covered too deeply and not come up,” says Ball.  
For clover being planted into existing grasses or areas that may be susceptible to erosion, a no-till seed drill works wonders. Check with your local feed and seed stores for locations that rent the units if you don’t have your own.

An alternate method of planting clover is frost seeding. This is by far the easiest method, because you let nature do the job of working the seeds into the soil. Through the freezing and thawing of the ground during winter and early spring, the weather, in addition to livestock hoof traffic, helps work the seeds into the ground, making good seed-to-soil contact. Seed germination rates may not be as high as sowing on a prepared seed bed or drilling, but the planting is less labor- and time-intensive.

Purchase seeds from a reputable dealer, and check with your local extension agent for clovers that will perform best and longest in your area. Most reputable dealers sell seeds that are already inoculated, but it’s best to make sure before spending time planting. This will allow you to save money on nitrogen and create longer-term food plots on your farm. A little research will have you planting long-term legumes that your animals can consume this year. 

About the Author: John Howle is a hobby farmer, writer, singer/songwriter, and high school English teacher who lives with his wife and three children in Alabama.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2010
Hobby Farms.

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Bring Clover On Over

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Reader Comments
Thank you for having this on line
I receive Hobby Farm don't know if
I have the one about clover seeding
good article.
Arnold Poth, Greenwich, OH
Posted: 2/13/2014 8:19:20 AM
Very informative. Thank you.
Chuck, Reno, NV
Posted: 12/7/2011 1:49:37 AM
At the end of growing season I sow my garden in an arrow head clover and forage oat mix. It atracts wildlife in fall and winter. I early spring I mow it for my animals and then till it under.
David, Piney Flats, TN
Posted: 11/12/2010 1:54:56 AM
I am a fairly new hobby farmer in KY with an agriculture and environmental background. A couple of varieties of clover are listed on the invasive species list in KY - LINK I want to plant clover for the nitrogen benefits, but don't want to contribute to clover over running native species. Suggestions, are their specific varieties that are better than others?
Kris, Sandy Hook, KY
Posted: 5/26/2010 6:39:11 AM
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