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Red Clover

Red clover is a relatively drought tolerant, deep tap rooting, N fixing legume that is primarily used for silage production but can also be grazed by cattle or sheep in the autumn. Red clover in a mixture with perennial ryegrass and white clover can produce very high yields of multi-cut silage without artificial nitrogen (N) fertilizer. Red clover has enormous capacity to ‘fix’ atmospheric N into plant-available N in the soil supplying the equivalent of around 300 kg per ha per year.

Red clover has a different growth habit to white clover and requires different management to optimise its performance. The crown of the red clover plant acts as the growing point and is located above ground level. The stem grows upwards from the crown. The crown of the plant must be protected from overgrazing or cutting too low in order to maintain red clover in the sward.

Red clover is typically grown on mixed arable and livestock farms in the UK and Denmark where it is a fertility-building part of an arable rotation, while also producing cheap feed for livestock. Lucerne/alfalfa fills a similar role in regions with warmer and drier conditions during the summer. Red clover is more productive in regions with damper and temperate climates and is highly-productive under Irish conditions.

Uses of red clover

  • The main role of red clover is for silage production, although it is often grazed by cattle or sheep after the final silage cut in the autumn.
  • Red clover will not persist if continuously grazed or cut more frequently than every 30 days due to a combination of excessive foliage removal and plant crown damage by hoof trampling. Benefits of red clover

Benefits of red clover

  • Red clover is high yielding with yields of 12 to 16 t DM/ha achievable when grown with ryegrass.
  • It converts atmospheric Nitrogen into a plant usable form. An annual Nitrogen fixation of 150-200 kg/ha is achievable from swards with a high red clover content.
  • Red clover is suitable as a break crop to improve soil structure and fertility and as a supplier of organic matter. It can also be used as a green manure crop. It is particularly valuable for building soil fertility once organic conversion has begun.
  • Red clover is relatively drought tolerant due to its deep tap root. It offers superior production to white clover in dry summers.
  • It has a high protein content of 16 to 20%. The feeding value of red clover silage is higher than grass silage resulting in greater animal intakes and higher levels of animal performance in terms of milk and protein yields, and liveweight gain. Results from an experiment conducted at Teagasc Grange found the mean liveweight gain in beef cattle offered different types of silage were grass silage 0.59 kg/day, grass/white clover silage 0.83 kg/day and red clover silage 1.04 kg/day

Growth habit of red clover

Red clover produces a number of erect shoots that grow from the crown of a taproot (somewhat similar to a dock plant; Figure 1). It has a poor capacity to spread out in the sward or replace shoots that are damaged by machinery or disease, which accounts for its relatively short lifespan in swards. In contrast, white clover produces stolons that grow along the surface of the soil in much the same way that ivy grows up a wall. This stoloniferous growth habit accounts for the greater persistence of white clover in swards compared with red clover. Red clover swards should be sown as an arable crop. At Teagasc Solohead, after burning off with glyphosate, the ground is prepared with one or two ‘runs’ of a disc harrow followed by two runs of a power harrow. The seed is sown during the second run of the power harrow.

Figure 1. The growth habit of red clover

Growth habit of red clover