Maximizing Success with Frost Seedings of Clover

A good friend has chided me about always talking about renovating pastures with clover. Our conversations go something like this: “How long are you going to keep telling us to renovate pastures with clover?” My response: “When producers do what I say!” To be fair, this is a producer that DOES do what I say, but he makes a good point. Why do we talk about it every year? Because it is that important. In fact with our forage base dominated by toxic tall fescue, renovation with clover is arguable THE most important practice for pastures. Clover improves yields and quality and directly counteracts the toxic effects of endophyte-infected tall fescue.

The good news is that red clover and white clover can be established by overseeding right now (mid-February to early March) into closely grazed pastures. The freezing and thawing action works these small seed down into the soil; rain and warmth later in spring results in germination.

Since the seeding operation can be this simple, it is easy to forget that all of the establishment rules still apply. We need soil pH 6.4 or better and a medium test for phosphorous and potassium. We need to withhold fertilizer nitrogen (unless we have to use diammonium phosphate (DAP) to get the needed phosphorus). And we need to control the grass competition long enough to let the clover seedlings get up and going. That means we need to top graze or mow to control the spring flush of grass.

More often than not, I think producers feel like clover overseeding is a hit or miss affair. Consequently, there is a real temptation to go cheap on seed, using a common or VNS (Variety Not Stated) brand of clover seed. Certified or proprietary varieties with improved genetics perform markedly better than common or VNS seed, but prices are often not that different. Access the latest UK variety reports by typing ‘clover variety uky’ into your internet browser to find all of these reports.

Here are some ways to stretch your clover dollar even further:

Use an improved seeding method to increase your chance of success. No till drills are an option, but access and setup can be challenging especially for rental equipment. Other seeding options are available. I recently saw a cultimulcher (spring tooth harrow followed by a corrugated roller) customized with an air seeder for small seeds. The air seeder was mounted on an old cultimulcher frame and can be accurately and easily calibrated to deliver the desired amount of seed. The action of the harrow teeth will open up the sod allowing the seed to be placed just in front of the rear rollers which enhance seed-soil contact. I thought it was a very simple yet innovative improvement over broadcasting seed with a spinner seeder.

Another way to save money with broadcast clover seedings is to use a simple GPS guidance system mounted to your broadcast seeder to avoid overlaps and skips in the field. A field demonstration by Dr. Chris Teutsch at the UK Grain and Forage Center of Excellence in Princeton found a 50% savings in clover seed from using a guidance system. Finally a way to tell where you have been when broadcasting clover seed!

If the cost of renovating large acreages is putting you off, consider intensively working on a small area that can be creep grazed by calves in spring. Creep grazing is where access to a field of high quality forage is limited by fence or gates so that calves can pass through but not cows. You have the double savings of less area to seed and fertilize. This method can be very attractive if the cost of liming and fertilizing the whole field is prohibitive.

The key message here is that clover seedings are important enough that we need to do them regularly. And just because the seeding operation can be simple, we still need to pay attention to the details of seed placement, soil fertility and competition control. Finally, there are ways to improve your return on investment in clover seed.

~Dr. Jimmy Henning, originally in Farmer’s Pride. Subscribe to online or print editions