Stating the case for reseeding with white clover this autumn

Date published: 03 September 2020

With the reseeding season upon us once again, a recurring question posed within the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Business Development Groups (BDG) is ‘should I include white clover within my grazing mix?’

Brain Hanthorn is a CAFRE Beef and Sheep Adviser based in Dungannon.

Brian Hanthorn, CAFRE’s Dungannon based Beef and Sheep Adviser said: “While many Beef and sheep farmers have embraced all the benefits of clover rich swards others have just been happy with grass only swards. So, what exactly are the main benefits of white clover rich swards to the Beef and Sheep farmer?

“Research has shown that lambs have the potential to grow 25 per cent faster on grass clover swards and for cattle, the figure is 10 per cent than on grass only swards. Indications are also that palatability is also improved with white clover in the sward leading to higher intakes.

“Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute research has shown that under ideal conditions clover can fix up to around 150kg of nitrogen per hectare. Under farm conditions, this level may not always be achievable. However it provides free nitrogen and this is some that can’t be ignored.

“Further benefits of reseeding with white clover are that it improves soil structure as the root system of the plant produces more gaps between soil particles that can enhance the movement of nutrients. Furthermore, the process creates higher mineral content.”

White clovers start growing in the spring when temperature reach eight degrees centigrade as opposed to grass that can grow from five degrees centigrade. Therefore spring growth is usually lower for white clovers than for grass and the peak season for clover production is during the mid to late season as grass production starts to fall away.

Consequently grass and white clover tend to complement each other fairly well. Plant breeders have focused a lot of their work over the last 20-30 years in producing more persistent varieties that are more productive earlier in the season.

Brain Hanthorn continued: “Smaller varieties in general tend to be less productive but more resilient, while large leaf varieties generally are more productive but less resilient and persistent. Predominantly sheep grazing mixes contain small and medium leaf clovers while cattle mixes tend to have medium and large leaf clovers.

Intermediate and late heading perennial ryegrasses, especially tetraploids are a good companion with white clover. Tetraploids having a slightly more open swards which encourages the clover to spread. Avoid very dense ryegrasses that are prostrate in their growing nature as they are very competitive and restrict clover spread. Approximately 20-30 % of the total mix should ideally be tetraploid grasses.

“A 14 kg bag of grass seed should typically have up to around 1 kg of white clover mix in it, which is generally sufficient. Higher clover seed rates can be advised with late sowing or poorer cultivation techniques.

“Sowing and establishing a grass clover sward within a conventional reseed should be carried out by completing the following process. Firstly, burn off the previous pasture with glyphosate. Always aim for level ploughing that’s has buried all surface debris. Then, cultivate to produce a clean level, firm seedbed. Apply lime as needed but aim for ph of 6.0-6.5 as clover does not thrive in acidic soils and apply P and K as recommended from soil analysis.

Ring rolling before sowing is recommended. 5-10 mm is the optimum sowing depth so as not to bury the seed too deep and broad casting is generally one of the most reliable methods of establishing the sward. Lastly, a very light harrow is needed followed by the ring roller.

“Ideally, aim to have the plant sown by the end of August as clover stolen production must start before winter. Later sowing can be carried out but the clover seed rate may have to be increased.

“It is also important to be vigilant for slugs as the sward starts to germinate. Weeds may also have to be controlled if at a high level.  A light grazing is recommended in late autumn/early winter. All young seedling and establishing plants are not very tolerant of poaching. 

White clover rich swards are a highly nutritious feed, for both cattle and sheep which results in improved intakes and animal performance. Their ability to fix nitrogen provides a significant saving on bagged nitrogen fertiliser that cannot be ignored. Many lowland beef and sheep farmers could integrate clover rich swards into their current system and enjoy many of these benefits with relatively few drawbacks.”

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