Adding clovers to grass pastures and hay fields can offer many benefits to a forage system. Clovers interseeded with grasses improve animal performance, increase nutritional quality of pasture and hay, extend the grazing season, and reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer. The two most common types of clover planted in Kentucky are red and ladino white clover. Red clover is a tall-growing, short-lived perennial, which usually lasts about 3 years. Ladino white clover is a low-growing, long-lived perennial better suited for grazing. Both types of clover are often planted from mid-February to mid-March, with mid to late February being preferred. The two most common recommended methods of planting are frost seeding or using a no-till drill. Some producer’s interseed 1/3 of their pastures each year. By seeding 1/3 of total pasture acreage each year annual costs are reduced, and over a 3 year time frame all pastures will be interseeded with new stands of clover.

Frost seeding

CloverThe frost seeding method allows clover to be interseeded into undisturbed soils by scattering seed on top of the ground. Broadcasted seed needs to fall directly onto the soil surface in order to be worked into the soil through the freeze and thaw action that will occur during winter. Following basic seeding and management guidelines is necessary for frost seeding to be successful, especially having good seed-to-soil contact. Reducing the vegetative cover on the area to be seeded will allow more seed to reach the soil surface. Seed-to-soil contact can be successfully accomplished by heavy grazing in the late fall and early winter or by mowing area to a low height prior to seeding. It may be more difficult to expose sufficient soil in existing stands of sod forming grasses.

Using the frost seeding technique can reduce machine use and seeding cost. A simple cyclone (broadcast) seeder is needed which most people have access to either by already owning, a neighbor, or local seed supplier has one available for rent. Frost seeding is also beneficial as it can be done at times when utilizing heavy machinery would damage pastures, such as during extremely wet periods. Individual pasture characteristics should be considered when deciding if frost seeding will be successful on your farm. Frost seeding some grass species is possible, but typically less successful and generally not recommended.

No-till Drill

When establishing a clover stand using a no-till drill, the machine should be set to plant seed at an average depth of ¼ inch but no more than ½ inch. When planting, adjust the disk openers to barely cut the sod and adjust the pressure wheels to have more down pressure. Taking these steps can help achieve the desired seeding depth. When using a no till drill allow the clover seed to drop to the soil surface and be firmed into the soil surface using the press wheel. The field should be clipped or grazed closely as possible to remove excess residue before using a no-till drill. When using a no-till drill the soil needs to be dry so that the cutting wheels don’t go too deep and mud compact around the seed tubes causing seeding rate problems.

Calibrating a drill is important because small amounts of seed are needed per acre. To get a good stand of red clover, seeding recommendations are 8-10 lbs. of seed/acre. Ladino white clover seeding rate is only 2-3 lbs./acre. See below for instructions to properly calibrate a no-till drill.

To calibrate a no-till drill:

  1. Place known amount of seed into the seed-box and record the weight of seed.
  2. Measure seeding width of machine used and drive 1,000 feet for seeding rates 15 lb./acre or less. For seeding rates over 15 lb./ acre only drive 100 feet.
  3. Remove remaining seed from seed box, weigh and record the weight of seed.
  4. Calculate amount of seed planted by subtracting the amount of seed remaining from original amount put in the machine.

Whether you plan to frost-seed using a broadcast seeder or no-till drill having an adequate soil pH is essential. The soil pH needs to be within a range of 6.1 to 6.7 for establishment of red and ladino white clover.

Take soil sample to determine soil fertility and pH which determine the recommended amount of lime and fertilizer to add. Fields known to have low productivity should be limed and fertilized at least six months prior to seeding clover.

Reducing competition from existing forages and weeds is also crucial for successful seeding. Similar to creating seed-to-soil contact, grazing or mowing closely will reduce competition. In the spring, weed pressure may increase and weeds may need to be controlled by management methods or herbicide application to allow seedlings to establish. Existing clovers will be killed by herbicide applications. Be sure to read herbicide labels and follow recommended waiting periods before seeding clovers or grazing animals.

Although bloat may be an issue when grazing clovers, a stand mixed with grasses will reduce the likelihood of bloat. Basic management to reduce bloat should be followed as described in the UK Extension publication Adding clovers into existing pastures can benefit soil fertility and provide higher quality feed to livestock. Using the frost seeding method can save money on seeding costs and reduces machinery use.