Red clover (Trifolium pratense) is seeing a resurgence in popularity as a forage seed option due to its high protein content and performance in dry conditions. With its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, this species also suits those looking to reduce their nitrogen inputs. It can provide a great option for grazing and silage. William Fleming, Germinal area sales manager, provides his five top tips for growing red clover.
1. Partner correctly with red clover seed
Although red clover can be grown as a monoculture, most incorporate it into a mixture with perennial ryegrass. This combination ensures both the clover and grass reach the optimal stage to silage at the same time.
As it can be slower to establish and grow, it is not recommended to mix it with fast-growing Italian ryegrass (IRG) as this can result in the clover being overwhelmed. IRG will also be at or past its best when the clover is ready to ensile, reducing grass quality.
Clover plants can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a plant-useable form and fix it in the soil. Nitrogen fertiliser is not needed for leys including clover because if too much nitrogen is available in the soil, it will not fix its own. Please remember this when planting red clover.
2. Rotation is key
Grass leys that include red clover should always be part of a rotation to control stem eelworms and sclerotinia. These parasites and diseases are always present in the soil, but as this clover is a host plant, regular sowing can result in a substantial build-up. To prevent this, leave a six to seven-year rest period from red clover; the break allows the population of these pests to reduce before introducing this species again.
3. Harvest carefully
Much of the protein content is in the leaf, so it’s important to prevent leaf damage during harvest in order to maintain the silage nutritional value. Avoid using a conditioner when you mow and try to be as gentle as possible as leaves can be brittle and shatter. Turning the crop when there is moisture on it, such as early morning dew, also helps prevent breakage.
Keeping the cutting height high is also important – aim for no lower than 7-10cm to avoid taking out the crown of the plant. Once the crown is damaged, persistency is compromised severely.
4. Understand your silage
When feeding silage containing red clover, understanding the protein content helps ensure livestock receive the correct nutrition and allows the removal of other protein sources without affecting performance.
Due to the composition of this plant, the only accurate way to gain a true picture of its protein content is through analysis with wet chemistry rather than NIR technology. The feed value is often much higher than suggested by NIR analysis. so it is worth undertaking wet chemistry analysis to fully understand what you are feeding.
5. Drive livestock production
Grass leys sown with red clover seed can provide a great option for those looking to finish lambs early. The mixture of energy from grass and protein from red clover drives production and helps fatten lambs well.
Taking two to three cuts from the grass and clover ley for silage before putting lambs in to finish around August is a good option for a mixed farm. This enables lambs to finish strongly and early and helps them go to market earlier when prices are higher. But don’t turn out lambs intended for breeding or breeding ewes onto grass leys with clover as it can have a negative effect on fertility.
Germinal offers AberClaret, the first generation of a long-lasting red clover persisting for up to four to five years. This red clover seed is available in Aber Red 5 HSG, which combines the benefits with high performance maintained for its extended lifespan. It is also available in the Aber HSG2 range on request.
You can also read William's eight top tips for sowing white clover.
After graduating with an HND in Agriculture from SAC Auchincruive in 1990, William spent 25 years working on his family’s dairy and sheep farm.
In that time, he aimed to generate as much production from forage as possible by employing a regular reseeding policy to maintain high-quality leys for grazing and silage.
William is now a grassland specialist with Germinal and is passionate about improving forage quality with the best grasses and clovers available and recognises the huge part this must play in the sustainability of farming enterprises.
Check out our in-depth guide on growing red clover seed.