Annual and perennial clovers, and other legumes, provide numerous benefits in hayfields, pastures, or as cover crops. Clovers can do many things, including increasing the forage quality of a field and decreasing a field's nitrogen needs. Clovers are adapted to a broad geography and can be effectively planted by virtually any seeding method (including frost seeding).
Clovers are very popular among beef and dairy producers, for many reasons. They increase a stands forage quality and add nitrogen to the soil. Both red and white clovers have excellent forage quality and can benefit a stand when mixed in. In trials where no fertilizer was applied to the field, the portion that included red or white clover in the stand performed much better than the sections of the field that were 100% grass.
Select the best species for your soil conditions. For fields with sandier soils or other well-drained conditions, red clover may be the better option, as it has a deeper root system. White clovers can tolerate wetter soils than red clover. For any woodland edges that have a significant amount of shade, white clover is usually the better option.
Select the best species for the field’s uses. While red and white clovers can be used for pastures and hayfields, they do perform differently. First of all, always match the species to the soil conditions. If you’re fields can produce either species, consider the following tips. Red clover is usually a much higher yielder, so it is excellent for hayfields, silage, etc. White clover, since it spreads and grows lower, is more persistent under grazing. For fields that are used for pasture and hay, both species can work. If white clover is used in a dual purpose field, make sure it is ladino clover because it will provide higher yields under mechanical harvests than intermediate or Dutch types of white clover.
High Forage Quality: Red and white clovers have a high forage quality – generally higher than grasses. Therefore, mixing in red or white clovers into a pasture or hayfield, to make up 20% to 40% of the stand, can significantly increase the forage quality, without substantially affecting the yield potential of the field. White clovers often exceed 25% protein, and red clovers often exceed 20% protein. While white clover may be more palatable, red clover may have a higher forage quality. Both species are usually more palatable and digestible than grasses.
Watch the pH: Soil pH can make a huge difference in red and white clover performance. Fields that have a pH between 6.3 and 7.0 can yield much more and last longer than fields with a lower pH.
Don't Forget P and K: Like alfalfa, red and white clovers do require appropriate amounts of potassium and phosphorous for optimal production. Apply P and K in split applications – once in the winter and once in the summer. Those two nutrients move slowly in the soil, so by applying them several months prior to peak clover weather, the nutrients will be available when the plants want to grow the most.
Frost Seeding: Since perennial clovers eventually thin in a stand (red clover faster than white clover) or when fields must occasionally be sprayed for broadleaf weeds, clover must sometimes be re-established in a field that still has an established stand of grass. This can be easily done by frost seeding. Frost seeding is done in late winter or early spring when the ground is frozen. As the soil freezes and thaws several times with the onset of spring, the contraction and expansion of the soil actually pulls the clover seed into the soil. Then when the soil reaches the ideal temperature, the clover germinates. Frost seeding is very common throughout the U.S.
The three most common annual clovers are crimson, arrowleaf and berseem. While all three are cool-season annuals, they are all different.
Crimson: The most cold tolerant of the annual clovers, crimson clover is popular for winter pastures in the South and as a cover crop in the North. While good forage quality, crimson is generally the lowest quality of the three. Crimson seed is also usually the most affordable of the annual clovers.
Arrowleaf: Often better forage quality than crimson clover, arrowleaf clover is not as cold tolerant. It is better utilized as a forage in the Northern U.S. (Midwest, Northeast, PNW) if spring planted. In the South and Southwest, it can overwinter. It is most often seeded in wildlife food plot mixes.
Berseem: Although not very winter hardy, berseem clover can have the highest forage quality of the annual clovers. It has the same basic adaptation zone as arrowleaf clover. It is most often used in wildlife food plot mixes.