Sheep Pasture: White Clover
by Ulf Kintzel
As announced in my last column about orchard grass as my preferred grass species in my sheep pasture, this issue I will talk about my preference for legumes.
In my view, having legumes in your pasture is essential for a sustainable pasture-based sheep operation. It reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizer greatly due to their ability to utilize air nitrogen with their bacteria (Rhizobia) attached to their roots. In fact, I do not apply any commercial nitrogen. In addition, many legumes are often highly nutritious and digestibly. The percentage of legumes in the pasture should be no less than thirty percent. Much of my pasture exceeds this mark. Fifty percent of clovers is quite common at White Clover Sheep Farm.
Legumes like alfalfa, white clover, and red clover bring a different set of challenges with them because they can cause ruminants to bloat and die. Birdsfoot trefoil is the exception to it since it is none-bloating. However, the answer to dealing with bloat is not avoiding or getting rid of legumes.
If you have been successful in growing a strong stand of birdsfoot trefoil in your pasture and grazing it has not reduced it, I have only one word to say to you: Congratulations. I have no further advice for you. Personally, I have not been successful in keeping it around, although I started out with strong stands in some of my reseeded sheep pastures. With the exceptions of those fields that get mostly hayed and rarely pastured, my stands of birdsfoot trefoil have always been fading. Because of that and because of the high price of the seed, I have basically given up on it.
Alfalfa is, in my view, not a suitable legume for grazing. Most varieties do not withstand close grazing. Alfalfa loses its leaves the moment some killing frost hits and therefore does not stockpile well. In addition, the seedbed preparation for alfalfa is rather cumbersome.
There are some rather exotic legumes like Kura Clover but I would stay away from the likes of it. I tried but would rather go with what is promising easier success and is proven. That leaves us with red and white clover. Red Clover is said to cause infertility in sheep when grazed during breeding season. I have not found that to be true. Red clover has many favorable attributes, among them its high yield, its ability in growing at a lower pH, its drought tolerance, and its high digestibility. There is one big downside to red clover: it is a bi-annual and needs to be re-seeded frequently. Longer lasting varieties seem to promise more than they actually keep. That is at least my experience.
That leaves us with white clover. It is by far my most favorite legume. The name of my farm must have given that away. White Clover is both high in protein and energy. It is highly digestible. It is very well liked by sheep. It is very persistent.
When hearing about white clover, some of you may think of the Dutch white clover that grows in lawns, which is low growing with small leaves and a low yield. That is not the white clover I am referring to. There are several varieties of New Zealand grazing white clovers, which are much more erect, have larger leaves, and yield considerably more than Dutch white clover.
What varieties do I recommend? What has worked for me? The short answer is almost any New Zealand grazing white clover has worked for me. Here is the long answer: I tried five different white clover varieties, all with great success with one exception. The first variety I spring-seeded in a former 14-acre pumpkin field was Alice, a Barenbrug variety. Although the company is US American, the clover was developed using white clover from New Zealand. Alice is very aggressive in my pasture. I am very pleased with this variety.
The second variety I tried by means of frost seeding was Kopu II, a grazing white clover from New Zealand. It is on my farm the variety with the largest leaves and it is my favorite. Of course, my opinion is highly subjective since it is solely based on observation and compared to other white clover varieties that grow at other parts of my farm. Nevertheless, I liked it so much that I used it years later when I re-seeded a 15-acre field in the fall. Here I broadcasted the seed with my spreader after spreading orchard grass seed, then established soil contact with a cultipacker.
My buddy Douglas from down under recommended once I try Huia. He said it is widely used there. I thought ‘Why not?’. My seed dealer was able to locate a 50-pound bag and I frost seeded this variety. I found the leaves to be a little smaller than Kopu II. Again, my observation is highly subjective. However, I found Huia also to be a very aggressive variety. In some spots I had some frost damage due to the fact that the snow is being blown away from the flat field where it was grown, leaving it with now snow cover. In the spring these damaged spots filled in with white clover in record time and no damage was seen afterwards.
A neighbor of mine decided once to grow white clover for people who want seed for deer plots. He seeded New Zealand white clover, the kind with an asterisk behind it when you find it in a seed catalogue, followed with the explanation: * = Variety Not Stated. So I purchased 100 pounds of it and frost-seeded it together with Ladino white clover in a 20-acre field. I had experienced and had heard that Ladino white clover is not as hardy as other New Zealand white clovers. In fact, I once had a total crop failure of Ladino white clover back in New Jersey where, after the stand was well-established, very little Ladino clover survived after a hard winter without any snow. So I hedged my bet when I seeded both the neighbor’s New Zealand white clover and the Ladino together. Besides, I wanted to see the difference in leaf size side by side. Well, I was never able to discern which is which. All I can say I have a beautiful stand of white clover in this 20-acre field and it has been that way now for a few years.
I haven’t purchased any white clovers seed lately because I have found no need, since White Clover re-seeds itself well in a pasture. However, in the event I will have to buy seed again, I would compare prices between Alice and Kopu II and would go with the cheaper one.
A few more thoughts about seeding white clover: In some cases, I mixed the white with red clover, simply because white clover does not establish itself well in some areas that stay wet longer in the spring with a lower pH. White Clover likes the pH to be around neutral (7). Red clover still grows well below the pH level of 6. In other case, where I expected good establishment, I have spread white clover separately. Whether I frost-seeded, seeded in the spring, or seeded in the fall – I have always used my simple Herd seeder, model S-3B. When I have re-seeded an entire field, spring or fall, I have first spread the grass seed and then spread the white clover separately and perpendicular to the tracks where I spread the grass seed. I did this because I had been advised by a friend and experienced fellow grass farmer that grass and clover seed don’t stay mixed well in a seeder. Grass and legumes also have a significantly different broad width when spreading. Afterwards I followed with a cultipacker to establish soil contact. My favorite way of seeding white clover into existing sod is frost seeding. Since white clover has very small seeds (there are well over 700,000 seeds per pound of white clover) one can go quite low with the pounds per acre. My preference is about two to three pounds per acre. My plain Herd seeder does not allow to adjust the setting accurately enough that you know exactly how many pounds come out. That caused once an accident that led to it that I spread about seven pounds to the acre. After the white clover established itself I could see now discernable difference between the field with seven pound of seed to the acre versus the field where I spread two to three pounds to the acre. Why do I find that worth mentioning? Because I have read articles that suggested a far higher rate of pounds than two to three pounds per acre, followed up by the advice to not be skimpy or cheap! I found the opposite to be true. You can be real thrifty when you frost-seed white clover. If you don’t get a good stand it is not because of your lower seeding rate. It may be the pH is too low, or a grass sod to dense (i.e. fescue), or unfavorable conditions that year (early germination followed by frost). Besides, once a stand of white clover is established and you practice proper grazing management, leaving enough residual and rest periods after grazing, you will have white clover re-seeding itself over a period of several months each year. Your stand will get thicker and will spread due to the animals. One word of caution, though. Unlike red clover, which establishes itself quite vigorously the same year it was frost-seeded, white clover needs an additional year to establish a good stand. So if you don’t see much white clover the first year – don’t worry just yet and look again the year thereafter.
One last comment, I have read articles in which the claim was made that in highly fertilized pasture the grass eventually crowds out the white clover. I have found that to be not true in my pasture. I have areas around the barn where I feed my sheep after winter lambing with round bales in feeders for several months of the year. The area is highly fertilized because of it. Yet, nine years in, the white clover (Alice) keeps thriving there.
So now you have my suggestion for a pasture mix a la White Clover Sheep Farm: a late-maturing orchard grass and a New Zealand Grazing White Clover. Mix in some blue grass if you want, add some red clover to your liking and that is in my view all you need. Happy grazing.
Ulf owns and operates White Clover Sheep Farm and breeds and raises grass-fed White Dorper sheep and Kiko goats without any grain feeding and offers breeding stock suitable for grazing. He is a native of Germany and lives in the US since 1995. He farms in the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York. His website address is www.whitecloversheepfarm.com. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 585-554-3313.