February is the ideal time to frost-seed with clover in much of the tall fescue belt.

Clover is often a valuable component of tall fescue-based pasture systems.  Both white and red clovers have great value.  Each fix nitrogen for the system, and improve forage crude protein and energy. These attributes improve livestock performance whether you are grazing toxic KY-31 or Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue.  Additionally, red clover provides isoflavones which are compounds thought to ease vasoconstriction and provide added benefits on toxic KY-31.  Yet, many farmers with tall fescue-based pastures have little if any clover present.  This is sometimes because of soil fertility (low pH and phosphorus levels) and sometimes due to allowing the tall fescue to get rank, shading out the clover in the stand.  Sometimes it is because of the frequent use of herbicides, especially those with residual activity that clovers are very sensitive to.

Beef cows graze a tall fescue pasture in Southern Virginia with a good stand of white and red clover (Poore).

The most effective way to establish clover in established tall fescue is using a system called “frost-seeding”.  Clover seed is broadcast on short-grazed pasture in late winter and the freeze-thaw action in the soil results in a good level of germination.  If you want to establish clover, make sure you get pH above 6.0 and soil phosphorus to at least a medium level the previous grazing season.  Broadcast either 8-10 lbs of red clover or 2-3 lbs of white clover, or a combination of 5 lbs red and 2 lbs white clover.  Don’t apply nitrogen to the stands the following spring, and keep the tall fescue grazed to 4 to 6 inches to allow clover to establish.  Stands may be improved by tredding the seed in using a herd of cattle, or by running a drag.  These techniques are suggested when the forage mass is high with little bare ground visible.  Once established, many of the new clover varieties are quite persistent and they also produce a lot of seed which will allow you to maintain stands for a long time. 

We recently did research to compare frost-seeding red clover with feeding the same level of seed to the cattle in their mineral supplement.  This work clearly showed that you should put your effort and resources into frost-seeding. Essentially the feeding was very ineffective at establishing adequate stands.  As you work to improve your tall fescue-based forage system, don’t overlook the value of clovers! It is relatively easy and inexpensive to establish them using a small broadcast applicator behind an atv or other small vehicle (I use a Herd seeder behind a small 4×4 SUV). Make sure you apply the seed to pastures that have been grazed short before the last hard freezes of the winter.  The benefits of clover in a tall-fescue based system are too important for you to overlook.

~ Dr. Matt Poore

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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