When to red clover?
Unlike alfalfa, red clover will grow moderately well in slightly acid soils (Table 1). However, maximum yields are obtained when soil pH is 6.0 or higher.
Red clover, a short-lived perennial, usually produces two or three hay crops per year. It is characterized by rapid spring growth and low winterhardiness, which contributes to its short-lived nature.
Growth habit varies from erect to prostrate. Numerous stems with large trifoliate leaves arise from the crown region each year. Red clover has a thick tap root that grows to a length of 24-36 inches. Lateral roots arising from the tap root are concentrated mainly in the upper 5 inches of the soil. Small ovoid, pinkish, nitrogen-fixing nodules can be found on the lateral roots if the plant is actively incorporating atmospheric nitrogen into protein nitrogen.
Look for good disease resistance and persistence in a red clover variety. Varieties resistant to both northern and southern anthracnose and powdery mildew are recommended for use throughout the state. Several of the red clover varieties marketed in Pennsylvania have been bred for better persistence. With proper management, you can expect these varieties to persist for two to three years after the establishment year. Refer to the current Penn State Forage Trial Report for red clover variety performance and resistance information.
Red clover can be established as a pure stand, with or without a companion crop, seeded with forage grass, or sod-seeded into a grass sod to improve the existing stand. Each situation has special requirements that should be considered.
Seeding red clover in the spring (April to early May), alone or with a spring oat companion crop in a conventionally prepared seedbed, is common. Best clover stands result if oats are seeded at about 1.5 to 2 bushels per acre. Harvesting the oats early for silage is recommended because this will greatly reduce competition with the red clover. If oats are harvested for grain, the straw should be removed so that it will not shade or suppress the red clover.
Red clover direct seeded in the spring without a companion crop will yield less total forage than when seeded with a companion crop to be harvested as a forage. However, a larger portion of the forage will be red clover when seeded without the companion crop. Use of herbicides may be necessary when direct seeding red clover without a companion crop. Direct seedings of red clover can be made by broadcasting, band seeding, or fluid seeding. Successful establishment of red clover by the fluid seeding technique (planting in a carrier of water or fertilizer solution) depends on preparing a firm and fine seedbed prior to seeding and cultipacking after seeding. Fluid seeding requires special equipment; therefore, a custom applicator is recommended.
Red clover can be no-till seeded and is the easiest legume to establish using this method. Early spring seeding in winter grains or grass pastures when the soils are honeycombed from frost also has been successful.
Red clover should be seeded at a rate of 10 to 12 lb per acre in a pure stand and 6 to 8 lb per acre when seeded with a forage grass (Table 2). Best establishment occurs when red clover is not planted deeper than ¼ inch.
To ensure adequate nodulation, red clover seed should be inoculated with Rhizobium trifolii bacteria and a sticking agent just before seeding. Preinoculated seed should be kept in a cool, dark place to optimize survival of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. For additional information about nitrogen-fixing bacteria or the inoculation process, see Inoculation of Forage and Grain Legumes.
Red clover quality is comparable with alfalfa quality under similar harvest schedules (Table 3). However, intake by the consuming animal is generally greater for alfalfa than red clover. Red clover quality does not decline as rapidly with maturity as does alfalfa quality. This means a longer period over which high-quality forage can be harvested.
Spring-seeded red clover can be harvested three times during the seeding year if growing conditions are favorable. This more aggressive harvest management in the seeding year than has traditionally been implemented provides greater forage and nutrient yields and has not negatively affected yield in the year after establishment. In addition, the third harvest during early September will help maintain better stands the following harvest season. Initial harvest 60-70 days after seeding and subsequent harvest on a 30-35 day interval will generally allow for three harvests during the seeding year.
Established red clover stands should be harvested at prebloom or early bloom. This harvest timing is a compromise between red clover yield and quality. Traditionally, three annual harvests are made in most of Pennsylvania. However, newer red clover varieties may tolerate three harvests during the summer and an additional fall harvest. The fall harvest should be made only if adequate herbage is present to offset the cost of harvesting. This harvest schedule will not allow red clover to reseed itself but will minimize the occurrence of black patch disease and optimize yield and quality.
Red clover silage, if properly harvested and stored, provides a high-quality forage. However, red clover is more difficult to cure for hay than other legumes. Establishing with a forage grass will decrease red clover's curing time. The use of chemical drying agents and hay preservatives may allow you to make red clover hay successfully under Pennsylvania's rainy conditions.
Soil tests are required for proper determination of soil nutrient availability. In soils with a pH below 6.0, adding lime is essential to make the soil less acidic and to improve red clover's nitrogen-fixing activity. Nutrients should be added to the soil on the basis of a soil test. Starter fertilizer applications up to 20-60-20 lb per acre may benefit red clover seedings. Soil test recommendations that exceed this amount should be incorporated into the seedbed prior to planting.
Nitrogen (N) is essential for amino acid and protein production. Atmospheric N is captured (fixed) and converted into plant N by well-nodulated plants. On acid soils with pH less than 5.5, nodulation and N fixation are suppressed and fertilizer N should be supplied for vigorous growth. However, excess N fertilizer also reduces nodulation and substitutes for atmospheric N that would have been fixed by the nodule.
Red clover is known both as a cover crop and forage crop and is available in many regions, such as the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and midwest areas. Depending on what you use it for, the seeding time for red clover will differ.
But generally speaking, people often seed this plant in late summer and early fall (around August to November) to improve the soil. To provide grazing for animals, farmers will instead throw and grow clover seeds in spring after the last frost, around March or April. Read below for more information on when to plant red clover.
The ideal red clover planting time is the one we mentioned in the intro—or, to repeat, late summer and early fall for cover crop establishment and after the last frost in spring for red clover used as forage.
However, you will also find people planting red clover outside of these periods, namely in early summer and late winter.
Red clover is classifiable into two types: early-flowering or medium red clover and late-flowering or mammoth red clover. Medium clover varieties produce more hay than mammoth types (up to three crops versus one crop per year), but mammoth cultivars are taller and more suitable for dry environments.
Mammoth varieties are also preferable if you only need supplemental biomass and nitrogen in one growing season, since the cost of medium clover seeds needs to be offset over multiple cuttings to make them worth it.
Medium red clover includes varieties like Midland, Kenland, Kenstar, Pennscott, Cumberland, Lakeland, Dollard, Chesapeake, and Renegade Red. These are more common in the US than mammoth varieties such as Norlac and Craig.
On the planting dates, check your soil and avoid areas that are soggy or wet from rain. Till the ground to remove weeds and inoculate the seeds with Rhizobium bacteria if necessary. However, I recommend buying pre-inoculated seeds so that you have one less thing to do.
Once the preparation’s ready, plant red clover in well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 8.0, or aim for a range of 6.2 to 6.5 if you’re after high yields.
Note that the seeding rates can vary, depending on whether you’re mixing or planting clover with other crops, your location, plus methods of sowing (broadcast seeding, drilling, or cultipacker, to name a few).
You can overseed and mix red clover with many crops, but we’ll focus on grass here, given that the two make great pastures for grazing animals.
Before sowing, mix your clover and grass seeds in a 1:1 ratio. Plant clover seeds at a depth of ¼ to ½ inch at a rate of about 10 pounds per acre or whatever your variety recommends as the seeding rate for red clover. Don’t be tempted to push the seeds deeper into the soil, or germination time may never come.
It’ll take around a week for sprouting to occur, provided the temperature ranges from 41 to 59℉, but you don’t have to worry if you winter-seeded clover, considering the seeds can survive freezing weather.
Red clover characteristics allow it to grow under both full sun and partial shade, so there’s no need for you to fuss about its sunlight requirements—three to four hours of direct sunshine per day should suffice. Watering when the soil is dry, however, is more important.
Check the planting area every day or every few days and irrigate it in the morning so that the ground has time to dry before evening comes. This practice minimizes chances of fungal disease, especially if you avoid wetting the flower heads or leaves when caring for the red clover.
You may also fertilize the soil after planting, but as with most crops, the formula to use depends on your garden’s condition. Conduct a soil test, or use 20 pounds of nitrogen with twice as much potash and three times as much phosphate.
Note that nitrogen is unnecessary when you’re seeding red clover with grass or when the red clover has become established.
What are the benefits of red clover?
If you’re unsure whether to plant red clover, here are some benefits to help you decide:
How long does it take for red clover to grow?
It takes sixty to seventy days for red clover to become harvestable, so you can plant and harvest red clover for deer, cows, and turkeys in a very short time. White, crimson, and ladino are other types of clover for deer worth considering.
Does red clover come back every year?
Is red clover annual or perennial? Red clover is actually a perennial. Don’t mistake it for crimson clover, as despite the two having similar names, crimson clover is an annual plant that’s hardy to zone 6 and not zone 4 like red clover.
You will see red clover reseed itself and come back for up to three years if you live in northern states. However, in the south, such as areas like Florida, southern Georgia, and southern Mississippi, it functions as an annual.
Is red clover easy to grow?
Yes. Red clover is straightforward to plant. Just avoid areas with a lot of weeds and purchase disease-resistant varieties for the best chances at growing them. If you want to, you can also try growing clover indoors as a houseplant.
Simply use a well-drained potting mix and keep the soil moist, plus follow the same seeding depth as the one you use for in-ground planting.
Despite being the representative flower of Vermont, red clover doesn’t just grow in the state’s zone 3 to 5 but also in hotter areas like zone 6, zone 7, or 9 of the United States. As long as you know when to plant red clover, you can enjoy the benefits of this herb, whether you use it as a cover crop, livestock feed, or homegrown vegetable.
Red clover is well adapted to sowing on a prepared seedbed, either in the early spring or late summer (Aug. 15 to Sept. 14). The seedbed should be firm, and the clover seed should not be covered with more than 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil.