Everybody is talking about clover, particularly red clover, and with good reason. During our recent webinar, How to fill the forage gap amid price rises, Germinal grass and forage production specialist William Fleming explains the benefits of sowing clover this year.
The latest AHDB market prices put nitrogen fertiliser at above £700 a tonne, so it’s no wonder farmers are looking for a forage crop like clover with nitrogen-fixing properties.
William explains how it works: “Clover plants have nodules on their roots, where Rhizobia bacteria live and fix nitrogen. If the nodules have a reddish-pink interior, this indicates nitrogen-fixing is happening.”
1. Red clover fixes nitrogen
It usually takes up to 12 months after drilling red clover seed for nitrogen-fixing to occur, and only in warmer months. “We’d expect fixing from May onwards. If you have 30% clover in the sward, it could fix 150-250 kg N/ha per year, and you could see 75-100 kg nitrogen transferred to surrounding crops.”
“You also can’t overlook clover’s high feed value,” William says. “It can relieve pressure on forage stocks through its high protein content.”
2. An ideal protein partner
With 18-20% protein, this clover complements the energy provided by grass. Its slower establishment and growth mean it pairs well with perennial and hybrid ryegrasses, particularly in a cutting ley, with both reaching the ideal stage for silaging at the same time.
Fast-growing Italian ryegrass is not a recommended partner as it heads too early resulting in the clover not reaching its full yield potential. It can also overpower the clover fraction within the sward.
William describes red clover as ‘rocket fuel for livestock’ – a very palatable, high-yielding feed, able to reduce reliance on bought-in protein. Average red clover silage consistently produces 15-19% crude protein, compared to most grass silage at between 10-16%.
Livestock also benefit from the polyphenol oxidase enzyme found in red clover, which protects the protein as it travels through the rumen to the abomasum. Here, the abomasum is more acidic allowing bacteria to break down and use the protein more efficiently, resulting in better animal performance.
3. Longer-lasting red clover seed varieties
A drawback of red clover seed in the past was its lack of persistency, but Germinal’s new generation red clovers overcome this shortcoming, lasting at least four years. As a result, one of those bred by Germinal Horizon Aberystwyth, AberClaret, works well with medium to long-term perennial grass leys.
4. Can be grazed with careful management
The new red clovers can also be grazed with careful management. Red clover grows from its crown above the ground, so is vulnerable to poaching and damage over winter.
Exposing and harming the crown of the plant can reduce its persistency. “A light grazing in autumn is reasonable but I wouldn’t recommend grazing red clover over winter,” says William.
He also advises against putting hungry stock onto the crop to reduce the risk of bloat. In addition, breeding ewes and rams should be kept off red clover six weeks either side of tupping as its phytoestrogen content can lower conception rates.
5. Sustainable forage supply
As grass growth declines in the summer months, clover comes into its own, meaning a clover/grass sward offers a consistent supply of forage throughout the season.
Together with its nitrogen-fixing abilities, red clover offers a practical alternative forage well suited to sustainable livestock farming.
To find out more about clover, and other legumes, visit the Germinal knowledge hub for webinars, videos and how-to guides.