Pasture Farming With Alfalfa, Red and Ladino Clovers

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Planting Legumes like these red clovers in your pasture can give it an edge to growing in a colder and damper climate. Though it does not yield as much hay as alfalfa, the quality of red clover is substantial.
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In “All Flesh Is Grass,” author and pastoral farmer Gene Logsdon explains historically effective practices and new techniques for pasture farming that have blossomed in recent years, and also explains some good practices for pasture farming in the midwest.

InAll Flesh Is Grass(Swallow Press, 2004),author Gene Logsdon explains why he believes pastoral farming is the solution for a stressed agricultural system, and shares some of the historically effective practices and new techniques from recent years. This excerpt, which is from Chapter 14, “Alfalfa, Red Clover, and Ladino Clover,” Logsdon explains how using legumes, such as alfalfa, red clovers and ladino clovers can produce satisfactory results when planted properly.

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The dairyman whom I worked for in Minnesota years ago often said that he could “make a good living off any farm that would grow good alfalfa.” He was speaking of dairy farming, but I think his observation would be true of most kinds of grain and livestock farming. Alfalfa loves a well-drained, neutral (pH 6–7) soil that is somewhat light and silty rather than heavy clay. It does particularly well on the dry but fertile soils of the West and on naturally well-drained soils of the humid Midwest. If heavier clay soils are underlain with a good tile drainage system, and the soil pH level is brought up to 6.5 with lime, as must be done on most of our land in this part of Ohio, alfalfa will do well, but grudgingly. About the only way to find out on a particular field is to try it. Alfalfa came late to our neck of the woods, red clover being the preferred forage up until about 1950. I distinctly remember when the first alfalfa came to our community. An uncle planted it and it did wonderfully well. Everyone else had to try it and was surprised when it did not grow quite as rambunctiously as it did for him. The reason, soon understood, was that he had wisely chosen for that first planting a field of light, naturally well-drained, silty soil, not characteristic of most of the farms roundabout.

Alfalfa is called the queen of forages mostly because it will outproduce other legumes. It will yield five tons of hay or more from three cuttings, and, on the best soil, yields of ten tons per acre have been recorded from four cuttings. But it takes lots of extra fertilizer to get such high yields. More fertilizer equals more money spent. In nature, there is rarely any instance where one forage crop species really produces “more” than another just because of its innate abilities. It depends on how much money you sink into the crop. If you drain, lime, and fertilize for a ten-ton yield of alfalfa per acre, you might get it. But if weather allows you to take off only five tons, or if the part of the ten tons gets rained on during haymaking, reducing its value considerably, you might lose money trying for high yields. Moreover, if you apply muriate of potash heavily, the usual form of potash fertilizer, in order to get super yields, organic farmers claim that the alfalfa will not be as palatable or digestible. Working with nature is a chancy occupation in which the clichés of business, like “it takes money to make money,” are not always true. That is why there are so many instances of business hotshots getting into farming and losing their butts. Newcomers to farming, reading about alfalfa’s greater potential for high yields, need to remember the downside when they see crusty old contrary farmers sometimes preferring the lesser-yielding red and ladino clovers.

Nevertheless, where alfalfa grows well, and the soil has good phosphorus and potassium content, it should be the first choice of the grazier for one reason above all: it will last four to seven years without a reseeding. This is a great advantage in temporary pastures where the grazier would like to maintain a rotation of five years or more of hay, pasture, and grain.

The first cutting takes place as the plants begin to bloom, in late May here in northern Ohio. When the stand regrows to bloom stage, another cutting can be harvested, about a month later. Then, where hay production is the priority, the stand is cut again when it grows back a third time. Highly fertilized stands might grow back for a fourth cutting, but in most cases three are preferable, with the regrowth from the third allowed to store nutrients in the roots for the next year.

In pasture farming, the first cutting is usually made into hay, but it could be grazed. My first cutting is always infested with alfalfa weevil, and I graze it when the weevil larvae are at their worst and the alfalfa is tinged yellow from weevil damage. The sheep eat the larvae along with the alfalfa, and the weevils are inconsequential in the regrowth. I do make hay from the second cutting. The third cutting in late August I almost always graze because that is the time of year when the bluegrass/white clover is at its lowest ebb. I make sure grazing alfalfa ends by September so that the plants have time before the first killing frost (around September 20) to make a healthy regrowth. This is an important detail. The plants need that September regrowth to store nutrients in the roots, so that in the next year the stand grows vigorously again. This technique also favors good grazing because the fall growth is then being “saved” or “stockpiled” for late fall and winter grazing. Generally speaking, in our climate alfalfa will turn brownish by late December, but unless it is covered with heavy snow or ice it will remain upright well into January for grazing. The fact that it is no longer green does not mean that it lacks appreciable nutritional value, as studies have shown. In fact, even frozen alfalfa (like most forages) retains fair nutrient value, as studies at Cornell have demonstrated. Cattle and sheep will graze it readily, as we learned last winter to our embarrassment when our sheep got into the neighbor’s field.

There has been much debate over whether it is good practice to graze off this stockpiled alfalfa in winter. As I have discussed earlier, traditional belief holds that alfalfa needs that winter “cover” to insulate against winter freezing and thawing and subsequent frost heaving of the alfalfa roots. My experience, verified by other graziers, does not support this belief. By the time the most pronounced alternate freezing and thawing occurs in February, the “cover” of alfalfa plants has all but wilted away to nothing, leaving nearly bare soil exposed. The dead alfalfa residue offers no protection from frost heaving. You might as well graze it earlier, before the snow beats it into the ground.

Alfalfa’s main advantage for the grazier is that it withstands drought better than any legume and so makes excellent emergency pasture. It will seem heresy to some, but I think that alfalfa as high summer pasture is better than any of the warm-season grasses being heralded for that time of year. Be sure to observe the normal routines to avoid bloat as described earlier. There are many varieties of alfalfa on the market. Some are touted as being developed especially for grazing in that the crowns of the plants, from which new growth emerges, are lower on the stems and so not as affected by animals’ biting off the stems. I have not seen much difference. I experiment and go with alfalfa varieties that do well in my soil, whether high crown or low crown.

Whether new varieties are that much better than old ones, I leave to your judgment. The ones that have some immunity to weevil and leafhopper attack are currently very popular, but I believe they are less palatable for animals, too. Throughout the seed business, there are rather vainglorious claims made for every new variety that comes along. Those who think that new varieties are going to make up for lack of good soil fertility practices and grazing management are in for disappointment. At any rate, it is useless for me to recommend varieties because even newer ones will be out before this book is. Experiment on your own.

Medium Red Clover

Because in more recent years agriculture has been enamored of the advantages of alfalfa, red clover hasn’t received nearly as much attention. This is unfortunate because for much of the Corn Belt and the entire Northeast down into the mid-South states, red clover is a very desirable legume, growing better than alfalfa on tighter heavier soils and in colder, moister climates. But red clover rarely yields as much hay per acre, so in an agricultural economy ruled by quantity, alfalfa wins. I don’t think that humankind will ever realize that an agriculture ruled by quantity rather than quality is not a good thing. It just isn’t in our bones not to strive for higher yields even when higher yields do not mean higher income.

Last winter, on the last day of the year to be exact, we were experiencing a thaw. The temperature got up to fifty degrees. There had been a similar thaw earlier in December, but mostly the weather had been cold and snowy since mid-November. I was walking across the hilltop on my daily round of the pastures, and when I looked down at one of the lower paddocks where red clover was in occupancy, I stopped short. Was I imagining that there was a tinge of green to that soil surface down there? I hurried down the hill for a closer look. The red clover had started to grow. New little leaves were edging out of the crowns.

I could hardly believe my eyes, and I may not have believed them if a few days later I hadn’t talked to acquaintances with connections at the Ohio State Research Station at Wooster. They casually mentioned that the researchers were all excited because they had observed that the red clover in their test plots was growing in the warm spells of December. So I knew I wasn’t imagining things.

This discovery is not really momentous except to us grass-farming freaks. I had grazed that clover down to the ground in November. That it was growing after a few warm December days meant that it would grow more in warmer March days. And it did. When April turned cold again, and we ran out of hay because of the past summer’s drought, I had four- to five-inch-tall red clover to graze. Although it is not good practice to graze red clover this early, I had little choice. It lasted until the bluegrass started growing again in mid-April. Forced to do what I didn’t want to do, I learned something. The clover was not hurt by a few days of early grazing. It grew back okay for haymaking in June.

I think I can explain the ready response of the clover to the least little warmup in the weather. When I noticed how quickly red clover started to grow this spring, I got out a thermometer. Sure enough, when air temperature even two feet off the soil surface was, for example, sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, the thermometer placed on the soil surface in full sun, with the bulb of the mercury just barely under the duff of old grass, read ninety degrees! When the air temperature was forty-five degrees, the thermometer, similarly placed, read seventy degrees. Great mother earth, with her body temperature of fifty-five degrees, had opened her bosom to absorb the sun’s rays, soaking up the heat enough to warm the near-surface roots of the plants. The fact that I had grazed the plants down to the ground in the previous fall allowed the sun to warm the somewhat bare soil faster than if the surface had been shaded by thicker old plant growth The most remarkable characteristic of this early legume growth is that it is not killed by a spring freeze. It just sits there with a stiff green upper lip until warmer weather comes again.

Red clover is not bothered by any bug as serious as the alfalfa weevil or potato leafhopper in alfalfa. That alone ensures its continued residence on my farm. It does get a mildew disease, which is why it generally lasts only three years. The mildew doesn’t really harm growth otherwise, in most years, and plant breeders claim to have new varieties that are more resistant.

Red clover as well as alfalfa will catch and grow even when broadcast on an old declining sod, especially if the sod is lacerated by sheep hooves before broadcasting. On heavier sod, I’ve used a disk in very early spring to make grooves in the sod for the seed. Set the disk straight so that it barely scratches in the grooves. Then broadcast seed. The seeds that fall in the grooves get good soil contact and sprout readily. This method is a whole lot cheaper than using a no-till drill.

But it is amazing how red clover will seed itself even down through grassy sod. One year I walked across our lawn with the little broadcast seeder slung over my shoulder. Unknown to me, the seeder had sprung a leak and the red clover seed was dribbling out. I soon realized what was happening and took care of the problem. Later in the summer, I noticed that there was a nice line of red clover plants across the lawn. It took me a little while to figure out why. The seed that I had spilled that day had taken root.

Eastern and midwestern farmers have always favored red clover because it is the legume that we can harvest for seed in our humid climate. (Most legumes harvested for seed are grown in the drier West.) In former years and often still, farmers have grown red clover for a crop of hay and then harvested seed from the regrowth. Graziers can take advantage of red clover’s (and ladino’s) ability to make seed in a humid climate. Some are allowing their red clover to head out and go to seed before they graze it. Then enough of the seed heads are knocked or trampled to the ground by the livestock to make another crop of clover. The surest way to get a new crop is to time second or third regrowth blooming until late enough in the fall so that seeds falling to the ground won’t sprout until the next spring. Red clover sprouting in September or October might not overwinter. But if the second or, more likely, third cutting or grazing is stockpiled until winter, both the seeds that the livestock trample and the ones the animals eat and scatter on the field in their manure will sprout in the spring.

One of the surest ways to get a nice sprinkling of red clover for midsummer grazing in my permanent bluegrass/white clover pastures is to allow sheep to graze the stockpiled red clover and then run on the bluegrass sod. Their manure will be full of red clover seeds that, having passed through the animals, sprout readily and vigorously.

This practice is one way to deal with red clover’s inability to last as long as alfalfa in a stand. Red clover is usually a three years and out crop: the seedling year, when it is good for one cutting or grazing in the fall; the second year, when it is good for two cuttings or grazings and possibly a third regrowth for winter grazing; and the third year, when it still makes a fair June growth but then starts to decline. But if the clover is allowed to reseed itself as described above, it can obviously last longer than three years.

The fact that red clover declines fast in its third year can be turned into another advantage. Usually in the fall of the third year, there is a considerable amount of bare or nearly bare soil that in the next year will be covered with weeds. You can plant winter wheat into this declining stand in the fall, or you can plant oats the next spring and get a fair stand without any cultivation. The clover seed from that declining stand will also sprout and grow another crop, as explained above, so you can renew the pasture entirely without cultivation.

Red clover is a good weed smotherer because it can grow three feet tall and be very dense. Some weeds do fight their way above the clover, but they lose out after the first cutting of hay is made. The clover grows back so fast that most weeds are overwhelmed. Then after a second cutting is made, the clover regrowth is often magnificently weed-free. This is rather true of a strong stand of alfalfa, too. Why buckwheat has gotten a reputation as a weed smotherer has always mystified me. Red clover and alfalfa are much better. The seeding rate of red clover or alfalfa is about ten pounds per acre.

New varieties of red clover are constantly being introduced because of interest from pasture farmers. The new ones are of course always heralded as better. Some farmers who have saved seed for generations believe their own homegrown variety has become acclimated to their particular soil and climate and is therefore better than the introduced varieties. I try new ones as a matter of course, but I can’t see much difference. Weather and soil fertility mean much more than variety. Comments Jim Gerrish: “In controlled research trials here in Missouri, we found locally produced red clover ‘ecotypes’ to be equal to ‘improved’ red clovers, but sowing ‘common’ red clover from a distant region such as Oregon or Minnesota to perform poorly.”

After being grazed down or cut for hay, red clover must be allowed to regrow to bloom stage before pasturing again. Like alfalfa and ladino, the regrowth period is roughly a month. As I have said, none of the three should be grazed or cut for hay in September unless you plan to renew the stand with something else the next year. They need the September growing period to put nutrients in the roots for the next year’s growth.

There is also another species of red clover, mammoth red. I don’t see it as having a place in pasture farming.

Ladino Clover

Ladino clover is big brother to the white clovers. It grows taller but is not as persistent. It won’t last in a permanent pasture like Little Dutch will. Ladino, like all white clovers, is very palatable. It is grown more often for hay than for pasture. The stems of ladino are finer than red clover’s or alfalfa’s, so although it yields less tonnage as hay, more of the hay is edible than first cuttings of red clover and alfalfa, which often have thick, hard stems.

Ladino clovers will endure somewhat tighter, wetter soil than red clover or especially alfalfa. By the same token, it will not endure drought nearly as well as the other two, which is why I favor alfalfa and red clover. I like to sow ladino with red clover in lowland fields. Between the two clovers, I get a better stand all over the field. Ladino, like all the white clovers, has very small seeds, so you need only one to two pounds per acre as a seeding rate. I like to seed a mixture of two pounds of ladino and eight pounds of red clover.

Ladino may not sprout and grow as quickly as red clover or alfalfa, especially if broadcast after cold weather passes. Some of the seeds will not germinate until they have been through freezing temperatures. That is why sometimes you get a better stand the second year than the first. Or, interseeded into a declining red clover or alfalfa stand, you might not see a good take until a year after sowing. Ladino will winterkill in the far North, but often the injured plants will recover and the stand will thicken from volunteer seedlings. I have a hunch that common ladino clover is going to be superseded by the new big-leaf white clovers like Alice, a New Zealand clover, and Will, an improved ladino.

 Want to learn more tips and tricks to pasture farming? Learn some tips to Making Silage from Lawn Mower Clippings.

This except has been reprinted with permission from All Flesh Is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming, published by Swallow Press, 2004. Buy this book from our store:All Flesh is Grass.

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