Red clover: protect the crown in autumn to see it flourish in spring

Thursday 16.09.2021 , news

Many farmers are looking to harness the benefits red clover offers livestock systems. A highly adaptable source of home-grown protein, red clover helps build soil fertility and reduces the need for nitrogen. Grass and forage production specialist, William Fleming, explains how best to manage red clover and what to look out for in early autumn.

“The most important thing to remember when managing red clover is protecting the crown,” explains William. “Red clover grows from the crown so damage to it can affect persistency. But careful management, particularly during the autumn months, helps it flourish throughout the year.

Autumn Grazing

At this point in the year most farms have taken their last cut of silage and are looking at how they manage regrowth through the autumn,” says William. “Red clover needs to be grazed lightly and is ideal for finishing lambs. The mixture of energy from the grass and protein from the clover can really help drive production, meaning lambs fatten well and reach market early, achieving favourable prices. 

“But red clover should not be grazed by breeding ewes or those intended for breeding as it can impact fertility. If conditions are particularly wet, grazing with cattle should also be avoided as this can damage the plant’s crown.

Planning ahead

“It’s never too early to start looking to next year, particularly if you’re planning to include red clover in a reseed. Start considering varieties now, remembering red clover partners well with perennial ryegrass. Italian ryegrass can head too quickly, but perennial ryegrass heading dates align better with red clover better resulting in higher quality silage.

“Look to include a high-quality variety, such as AberClaret, which can persist for up to 4-5 years. And to aid persistency, allow it to flower at least once a year as this helps build root reserves,” William adds.

“When including red clover in a reseed be sure to plan your ley rotation carefully. In order to help control pests and disease, such as stem eelworms and sclerotinia, there should be a six to seven year reset period from red clover. During this time soil fertility can continue to be developed by including white clover in the rotation, or lucerne is the ground is suitable.

Rob Beavan uses red clover as a cost-effective source of high-quality home-grown protein on his mixed 800-acre farm in Shropshire.

“We’ve been integrating red clover into our swards for the past couple of years and have been really impressed with the results,” says Rob. “It now forms a central part of our grazing system and has really helped increase sward protein content. But good management is vital to its success.

“In autumn we tend to graze the red clover with sheep to best use the grazing without the risk of poaching or damage to the crown. We like the sheep to graze the covers right down while mindful of protecting the plant by trying to avoid overgrazing during this time.

“When it comes to reseeding with red clover, we find it pairs well with perennial ryegrass and establishes just as easily, as long as you reseed in the right conditions. With an autumn reseed, we don’t hang around when the time is right. For us this can be anywhere from the end of July to late August. Once the new ley has a decent cover we graze it lightly with sheep; they do a terrific job of firming it up and tillering out the sward.”

Farm details

  • 900 Welsh Mule breeding ewes
  • 240 cow dairy herd, autumn block calving
  • 9,000 litres average milk yield
  • 4,200 litres from forage
  • 95% butterfat, 3.31% protein
  • Uses AberClaret red clover

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