Could red clover fit into your tillage rotation?

Red clover could become part of your tillage rotation. The nitrogen fixer can provide a good break to improve soil structure, as well as producing three-to-four cuts of silage.

Dan Clavin – Teagasc – outlined some of the benefits of the crop at the National Crops Forum held by Teagasc in Kildare recently.

“It’s a legume, which means it’s able to fix nitrogen from the air for free and that’s very important for giving you very good, high-quality feed and a very high-protein crop.

This is a very high-quality crop in terms of yield, dry matter and protein.

“The main driver of protein of course is nitrogen and this crop can fix up to 200kg/ha of nitrogen, for free, from the air,” Dan explained.

Clearing up some of the uncertainty surrounding how long red clover lasts for in a rotation, Dan outlined the following:

It can last from two to six years.

“We now have research in Teagasc to show that this crop can last up to six years and longer. That’s very important in terms of keeping costs down low and persistency.

“Research in Teagasc shows that the yield of this crop – with no artificial nitrogen – is 15t/ha of DM (dry matter) and that’s an average over six years.

“So, while some people would question the persistence of this crop, there is evidence there that this crop can last in excess of six years.

That probably won’t be relevant to tillage farmers. Tillage farmers will probably have it for two-to-three years in the rotation.

Advantages of red clover

Red clover is very popular among organic farmers and also farmers who are trying to rejuvenate parts of their farm.

Advantages from a tillage point of view:
  • Helps to build soil structure – root goes down to a foot deep;
  • Fixes nitrogen from the air;
  • A thick crop can suppress weeds – it fits into a two-to-three year plan in a rotation;
  • It can be mulched to help build up organic matter;
  • The crop can be sold to a dairy farmer or a beef finisher looking for high-quality forage.

Animal feed

Red clover can grow a substantial amount of forage and can supply at least 13t/ha of DM. Crude protein levels vary from 14% to 22%, while farmers can achieve three-to-four cuts per year.

“When you get into third and fourth cuts during the year, you’re looking at protein values up around 18-20%,” Dan explained.

Data source: Teagasc

Dan estimates that red clover is worth €188/t of dry matter utilisable to the livestock farmer. So, if a tillage farmer was to sell at this price – and at a yield of 11.5t DM/ha – a margin of €400/ha could be returned.

Higher intakes

“Research has shown that cows and cattle that eat this product have higher intakes.

“The liveweight gain of cattle being fed red clover silage is very, very impressive and in many cases it can leave out the need to feed concentrates during the winter period,” Dan added.