Frost Seeding Clover Into Pastures

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Frost seeding clover is a practice where clover seed is broadcasted onto pastures or hay fields in late winter to take advantage of soil heaving, which results from the soil freezing and thawing, to increase the success of clover establishment. Soil heaving incorporates seed into the soil, increasing seed to soil contact, and improves seed germination. February is the best time to sow clover when using the frost seeding establishment method due to the seasonal temperature changes that occur this time of year.

Benefits of Adding Clover to Pastures or Hayfields

Adding clover to pastures and hayfields benefits the soil and improves forage quality. One of the greatest benefits of adding clover comes from nitrogen fixation. Research studies have shown that maintaining a 25% clover stand minimizes the need to apply nitrogen fertilizer. Adding clover to forage found in pastures and hayfields can greatly increase the forage nutritional value for feeding livestock. Recently, research conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that adding red clover to pastures can significantly mitigate the vasoconstrictive effects of toxic endophyte tall fescue. In a year where fertilizer prices are uncertain, and livestock production costs are on the rise, adding clover to pastures and hayfields makes even more sense.

Considerations for Successfully Frost Seeding Clover

Before loading up the seeder and heading out to the pasture, there are a few things that can be done to frost seed clover with maximum success:

Determine which clover is best for your needs. Not every variety is the same. There are also different types of white clover (Dutch, intermediate, ladino) that may be better suited to specific livestock species or grazing scenarios. For both red and white clover, it is important to choose some of the better-performing varieties. Contact N.C. Cooperative Extension of Yancey County to discuss recommended types and varieties of clover to purchase.

Make sure that soil nutrient levels are where they need to be before seeding. If you haven’t completed a soil test, do so ASAP. Clover thrives in soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7 and medium to high levels of phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). In my experience, soil with a too low pH has been the leading factor contributing to failed clover establishment in our area. Nitrogen should not be applied when seeding clover if possible.

Plan to apply an adequate amount of seed. Recommended seeding rates for red clover are 8-12 lb of seed per acre and 1-2 lb white/ladino clover per acre. Calibrate spreaders or otherwise ensure that enough seed is applied when frost seeding pastures.

It is important to make sure that the seed can contact bare soil. This can be accomplished by grazing pastures closely prior to seeding, mechanically removing excess forage, and moving livestock through pastures shortly prior to seeding. Following issues of low soil pH, having excessive ground cover would be the next major obstacle to successfully frost-seeding pastures that I have seen.

It is also important to manage competition in pastures the following spring. Avoid applying nitrogen fertilizer to pastures, as this will promote grass growth and result in increased competition for light and nutrients. Rotationally graze livestock to control grass growth, but avoid over-grazing as much as possible. A good target grazing height for pastures that have been frost-seeded is to begin grazing at 6-8 inches of pasture height and move animals when pastures are grazed down to 2.5-3 inches.

Broadcast seed onto pastures and hayfields in a timely manner. In recent years, we seem to have had less soil freezing and thawing when getting into mid to late March or early April. Multiple freezing and thawing days should increase the success of establishing clover through frost seeding. Broadcasting clover in the first few weeks of February has traditionally been best when frost seeding in our area. Broadcasting seed in late February through mid-March is less ideal but could be considered.

Conclusion

February is a great time to frost seed clover in our area. Frost seeding has many potential benefits. If you would like more information about adding clover to your pastures using frost seeding, feel free to contact N.C. Cooperative Extension of Yancey County by calling (828) 682-6186 or by sending an email to David Davis (david_davis@ncsu.edu).