A Yankee Legume - Clover in the North
If you mange your property for whitetail and you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, whether your goal is attraction, or nutrition, a perennial clover blend needs to be on your food plot “menu.” I consider it to be the “cornerstone” of a sound food plot program. Those in the South may also plant clovers, but the cooler, humid growing season in the North favors these legumes. Different varieties are chosen for a range of characteristics to meet specific management goals. Regardless of your goals a perennial clover blend needs to be in your program because of its wide range of payback.
White clover is a perennial legume that can provide years of quality, high protein, extremely attractive forage for your herd. Red clovers tend to be a bit easier to grow in a wider range of conditions; however, they are typically not as attractive to whitetail as most white varieties. The best product for most food plot farmers will be a “blend” of several different clover varieties and other perennials like alfalfa and chicory. With a “blend” you not only supply your herd a wider array of choices and provide an attractive option for longer than a single variety, but you also protect yourself against failure due to specific growing conditions unfavorable to specific cultivars.
As it is when planting anything for a whitetail, moisture is the key determinant for success when planting clover. As long as you receive 30 inches of rainfall annually you should be able to find perennials that will work for you. In drier or sandy areas adding deep-rooted perennials like alfalfa and chicory to the blend will help dramatically in stand survival.
When maintained properly and planted in soil which is initially close to a neutral pH, perennial clover blends can produce for six to eight years or more. In more acidic soils because of the need to incorporate lime when the soil reverts back to being too acidic, depending on your soil type and original pH you can expect more like three to five years from your crop and then you’ll need to incorporate lime again.
When managed correctly, white clovers will spread by sending out a stem that grows horizontally along the ground surface called a stolon. The stolon will create nodes (a joint on a plant stem where a leaf attaches) where roots will form. This process creates “daughter plants” which will replace the original seedlings after a few years. So persistence is the best in the varieties that create the most stolons, which tend to be the small-leaf white clovers.
Renewal from seed is also possible. If the plants are not browsed heavily or mowed often they will flower and produce seed. Regeneration from seed helps longevity in areas with dry summer conditions.
Large-leaved types (like Ladino) perform best when they are mowed less frequently, or when browsing pressure is limited and plants are allowed to mature. Still mowing is important, especially during the cooler times of the growing season. On the other hand, the small-leaved types respond better to frequent browsing and/or mowing. Large-leaved varieties grow taller and stand upright more than the small-leaved types. Small-leaved varieties typically have thick stolons and strong roots. Large-leaved types have fewer stolons and usually don’t regenerate or persist as long as medium and small-leaved white clovers. Thus, large-leaved varieties are also more apt to be un-rooted by browse pressure.
Medium-leaved types (like White Dutch) are, as you’ve probably guessed, intermediate in features; these perform well under a wider range of situations. Constant browse pressure is tolerated best by the small-leaved types. As said, small-leaved types do not grow as tall as the larger-leaved clovers, but they have numerous small leaves and many stolons so they are an excellent choice for areas that receive heavy browse pressure.
Given the different management necessities of the numerous varieties, before choosing which type of clover to plant, think about your growing conditions, your deer density in relation to the amount of acreage you will provide in clover and what you will be able to do for a maintenance routine (how often you will be able to mow, spray with herbicides, over-seed, etc.).
As an example, if you don’t have the resources to mow the plot frequently, especially during the spring when clover grows rapidly, or if the deer density is low in relation to the amount of acreage devoted, then a large-leaved form would be preferable. On the other hand, if you have the ability to mow the stand frequently during the spring and/or the deer density is high relative to the amount of forage, then a small-leaved type of clover would be preferable. The (small-leaved) types of clover perform best when the stolons are exposed to sunlight – which encourages daughter plant production at the nodes. This response ensures the stand is thick and new plants are constantly being produced. This will help to ensure the stand remains productive for many years.
Again, for most people a “blend” of different varieties of both, red and white clover possibly combined with chicory and/or alfalfa will be the best selection. The specific growing/management conditions will bring the favorable cultivars to the forefront. One important consideration to note is that large-leaved clover doesn’t mean more tonnage per acre. The yield of most white clover types (large-leaved through to small-leaved) is comparable if each variety is cared for properly.
It is suggested that your total perennial acreage be planted in stages so that it is not all the same age. If you replant remember that it means the field will not provide a good source of food for almost an entire hunting season. Ground preparation and planting combined with waiting for germination and the time required to produce enough growth for deer requires so much time that replanting is equivalent to “cleaning the refrigerator” and asking your “guests” to dine at a different “restaurant.” By planting in stages you never eliminate all of your perennials at once.
An attribute that can vary widely is how long the stand will persist and how much forage will be produced. Your site’s potential forage production is constrained by a combination of how much moisture the site receives, soil nutrients, and your ability to maintain the crop properly. I want the maximum leaf production possible considering the specific site’s limitations and how often I will be able to visit/work on the plot.
Planting perennial clover is as easy as preparing a decent seedbed and broadcasting the seed at the appropriate rate. The seed should not be covered any more than ¼ of an inch. The ultimate would be if you could go over the broadcasted seed with a cultipacker or roller to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Perennials should be planted in the spring in the north, in the spring or early summer midway throughout the country and during the early fall in the south. These planting times ensure the best survival for the crop since perennial clovers need 45-60 days to establish a roots system so they will indeed be perennial for you and return after dormancy.
To maintain perennial clover it isn’t as difficult as some think. To begin, for clover to do well it is important to neutralize any soil acidity. Soil pH has a big effect on the availability of nutrients to the plants. Aside from certain nutrients being bound in the soil so they aren’t available for the plants to use, in acidic soil (or low pH) some micronutrients can be present at levels toxic to clover. Legumes are particularly sensitive to acid soils. This means; do a soil test and incorporate the necessary lime to neutralize the acidity and bring your pH to 6.5 to 7.0.
Choosing the proper fertilizer is also important. Clover can use both, atmospheric fixed nitrogen from its nodules and mineral nitrogen from synthetic sources. When fertilizing, a blend with no nitrogen is recommended, for instance 300 to 350 pounds of 0-20-20 per acre (it is best to fertilize according to the results from a soil test). Legumes produce their own nitrogen, if you add nitrogen to legumes you encourage other grasses and unwanted weeds to take root and you “train” your clover to be lazy. If you give it nitrogen it stops affixing its own. Fertilize your perennials at planting time and then again at least once per year after.
How often and how low you mow can greatly influence clover production. Frequent mowing during the spring favors white clover growth. Besides how often you mow, another aspect of white clover maintenance is how much of the plant’s height is removed during mowing. Some absentee land owners or people that simply don’t have the time, do not mow often enough - and when they do, because they are “there now and can do it,” tend to mow too short at the wrong time.
Infrequent mowing during the spring will allow the development of larger leaves. However, this results in less stolon production, fewer daughter plants and the loss of new growth. More frequent mowing, but not removing as much of the plant each time, will restrict total plant height, but enhances stolon survival and increases the stem density per acre. More frequent mowing typically equals a thicker, healthier stand that is more appealing to your herd of deer.
In hot or dry conditions, white clovers should not be mowed frequently and in some cases should even be left un-mowed long enough to produce seed heads. On my home property in Minnesota I typically mow frequently in May, June and into early July and then I watch it closely and mow when I feel that the crop can handle the stress. In July and August I also do not mow as short as I tend to in the spring and early summer. During the hot, dry months I use the “rule of thirds.” I never mow any more than 1/3 the height of the plants. With a perennial white clover blend, a good stand can be encouraged both, by frequent mowing during the spring to increase stolon production and survival, and no mowing during droughts or when the clover is growing slow to promote seed production.
As mentioned, another option is to mix chicory and/or alfalfa into your clover food plot plantings. These perennials have a deeper root system than clover and will provide quality forage during dryer conditions. Chicory, in particular, thrives during hot, dry weather. So during a dry period, when white clover should not be mowed, the chicory will stand erect and provide a highly nutritious food source.
The use of herbicides is also recommended to help keep the unwanted competition out of your perennial plots. I typically treat with a grass-specific herbicide two or three times during the growing season. I tend to use Poast more often than other grass herbicides, but there are many others that are also acceptable to use. Mowing tends to keep unwanted broadleaf weeds out of my plots, but there are also some options for herbicides to treat broadleaf weeds.
One last detail that I suggest is to over-seed your perennial plots every other spring. I typically over-seed at a rate of about ¼ of what I would do if I were originally planting the plot. This helps fill in gopher mounds, wheel ruts, spots where mowed leaves have covered up and killed some plants and bare spots. It also adds new, young seedlings to the plot. BioLogic usually claims three to five years growth on our perennials but I have plots that are going on eight and nine years that look every bit as good as they did in their second and third year. With proper maintenance, combined with over-seeding, you can get a longevity out of your perennial plots also.
I cannot stress how important a perennial clover plot is to almost any food plot program, even for managers in the South. I would never tell a person to plant only one blend unless they were severely limited in space. However, I would say that throughout the north, “IF” I could only plant one thing it would definitely be a perennial clover blend.