Use Clover to Provide Nitrogen Fertilizer for Grass

— Written By Glenn Detweiler and last updated by Judy Moore
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I recommend that you plant clover (a legume) in your yards and pastures instead of using fertilizer. It saves money and uses nature’s way to provide the nitrogen needed to maintain and grow grass. Planting clover in grass is very simple this time of year. Farmers call this “frost seeding” and have used this technique for years in their pastures. Frost seeding is done by simply using a hand spreader and applying 1 to 8 pounds of seed per acre depending on the variety of clover being planted. Frost causes the ground to open and close allowing seeds to naturally fall in these cracks. In order for seed to grow it needs the following: ground contact, correct temperature, sunlight, and moisture. Short grass allows sunlight to hit seeds as they lay near the ground surface, causing plant seedlings to grow. Although the cost of clover seed is much cheaper than the cost of applying supplemental nitrogen, the results are the same. A stand of 30% clover will provide all the nitrogen needed to allow the grass component to yield at its optimum. And, of course, children will tell you that it is always fun to look for four-leaf clovers.

Frost seeding is the usual method that clover is introduced into pastures and now is the time to consider seeding in our area until March 1 on an average year. We can learn much from cattlemen’s management of pastures. Rarely do pastures need growth encouragement in the spring. Pastures are more often lacking in the summer when growth slows down. Now is the time of year when frost-seeded legumes are planted to really provide a nitrogen fertilizer benefit in early summer. Success of frost seeding of legumes can be increased if the pasture has some bare soil showing. If the grass stand is mature and has a good root system, it can potentially out compete the just seeded legume (clover). Farmers try to give the legume as much help as possible. They might consider heavily grazing fescue pastures right now to eliminate top growth and leave some bare soil. Since this will also encourage any weed seed that gets sunlight to grow, farmers consider weed problems from last year in this decision as well. Farmers will not fertilize with nitrogen when clover is planted, as it will only encourage the grass and not the clover seedling. When the legume (clover) first emerges, the cattle are moved off the pasture if the grass stand is really short since continuous grazing will prevent the clover from thriving. Thirty days between grazing is best for the clovers.
Livestock producers of cattle, sheep, and goats see additional benefits to planting clover in their pastures. Legumes are higher in protein and other minerals than other grasses, providing a healthier diet that can lead to improved gains, improved body scores, and better rebreeding. Since most pastures have fescue as the grass component, including a legume can help dilute the effects of fescue endophyte. This endophyte poison causes reduced weight gain and conception rates. These qualities make planting clover the best single management practice that a producer can use. One hundred percent clover, however, can cause stomach and bloat problems which mean animals should never be put on a pure stand of clover.

If you want to use clover in the yard, your best choice is the ladino clovers. You can use the same concepts as cattlemen use in their pastures to improve the health of your lawn. If you have any questions concerning pastures and livestock, please call our office and ask for Glenn Detweiler, Livestock Agent. If you have questions concerning yards, we have a number of agents who will be glad to answer your questions. Call the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Lincoln County in Lincolnton at 704-736-8461.