Clover fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere in its roots. Rhizobium bacteria in the roots of the plant fix the nitrogen into ammonia in return for sugars supplied by the plant. This produces nitrogen in a form that plants can use. Depending on the amount of clover (30% to 50%) in the sward, it can contribute the equivalent of 150 – 200kg of nitrogen per hectare.

There are two main types of clover, classified by the colour of the flower – red and white.

Red clover

Red clover is high yielding and high in protein. It is usually used in leys for silage production but can be sown on its own as part of a rotation to improve soil fertility. Unlike grass, it has a single, deep root, which makes it relatively drought tolerant and it is winter hardy. However, it is not persistent, lasting only two to three years.

Red cloverRed clover

For silage, it is better sown with grasses that can take advantage of the fixed nitrogen and give a higher forage yield, while the clover increases the protein content.

Red clover can be used for finishing lambs but breeding ewes must not be given access to it for six weeks before or after conception as the high oestrogen levels in the plant can cause problems.

White clover

White clover is classified by its leaf size – small, medium, large and very large. White clover is more persistent than red, and although its yield is less, it can be used for both grazing and silage. The protein content of white clover is around 27%, compared to perennial ryegrass at 17%. It is also very palatable to stock, including horses for which the protein content is much too high.

White cloverWhite clover. Photo: Oregon State University

The white clover stem runs along the ground, producing leaves and flower heads at low level making it suitable for grazing. The smaller the leaf, the more tolerant the clover is of close grazing.

Medium leafed white clover is higher yielding than small leafed when cut for silage or hay. Large leafed clover will not tolerate the close grazing of sheep, so is better for cow pasture or silage.

The flowers of white clover are, of course, wonderful for bees and other insects too.

Soil conditions for clover production

Maintaining a pH of around 6 and ensuring adequate levels of phosphate and potassium are essential to producing a good crop of clover. Clover can be established in existing grassland by overseeding. Timing is important, as clover needs a soil temperature of at least 7C plus sufficient moisture to ensure satisfactory germination. The ground should be rolled both before and after seeding to ensure that the seed has a good contact with the soil.

Remember, though, a clover rich sward may be too rich for horses and for native ponies in particular.

Rosemary Champion

About Rosemary Champion

Rosemary lives on a 12 acre smallholding in Angus, in the east of Scotland, where she keeps Ryeland Sheep, Shetland cattle and assorted poultry. She was destined to be a smallholder from an early age.

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