By: Kent Kammermeyer
Treestands, 4-wheelers, camouflage, scents, rifles, and cartridges all seem really important tools to help harvest a quality buck to the average deer hunter. One of the most important deer management tools is often ignored, downplayed, or totally left off the list - food plots.
Food plots not only facilitate the harvest of deer, but provide highly attractive, highly nutritious forage for your deer population - if you have chosen the right crop and planted it the right way. Consider clover for your high-quality deer plot.
There is a clover variety for everyone in every corner of whitetail country. Maybe you tried it three years ago and did not get a stand. Maybe you lost a good stand in last year¹s drought. Join the crowd. Many high-quality food plots bit the dust in the past three drought years in the East. Maybe you are avoiding clover because it is expensive or because you are confused by the multitude of varieties available. Again, join the crowd. I have been dealing with clovers on Georgia Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and private lands in northeast Georgia for over 25 years, and I get confused at times, especially by new varieties, hyped advertising, or unsubstantiated testimonials.
Let me make it clear right now that I am a wildlife biologist, not a seed salesman.
Consequently, the rest of this article will not be devoted to selling you a specific variety of clover seed for your food plots, but to helping you determine how to establish a successful stand of clover and what varieties have the best chance of providing you with a productive, high-quality food plot. The choices can be mind-boggling - red, white, ladino, crimson, arrowleaf, and others. There are endless varieties available, but if you don't choose the right ones for your region, and if you don't take the time and effort to plant it correctly, then you are setting yourself up for failure.
First, a short list of why you should plant clover for deer is in order. I've heard it and you have too, "ryegrass is all you need" or "turnips are the best choice." If you believe it's this simple, you can stop reading now and go practice on your grunt call. I'm here to tell you that you can do better than this if you have a hunt club or property with limited acreage for food plots, limited budget, equipment, and manpower.
Consider clover for the following reasons:
- Lower nitrogen costs. All plants need nitrogen to grow, but clover "fixes" its own from the atmosphere at the rate of 50 to 200 pounds per acre, per year. The same amount applied to grass by nitrogen fertilizer would cost $25 to $100 per acre, per year.
- Clovers have a higher forage quality than grasses. Clovers have higher protein, digestibility, minerals, and vitamins.
- Better distribution of growth by clovers can extend the grazing season as compared with grasses alone.
- Increased forage yield per acre from grass/clover mixes, or pure clover is better than grass alone.
- Most clovers are tried and true, having been tested at university experiment stations all across the country. This is not the case with many other deer forages on the market today.
I began researching and using clovers in the late 1970s. On northeast Georgia WMAs, we had to have a productive, high-quality deer forage to maximize our efforts on relatively small total acreage (less than 0.3 percent of the land area) in small fields with limited manpower, equipment, and budgets.
As deer managers, we really needed help. No one in the deer management business really had the agronomic background (they don't teach that in forestry schools). So we got help from the best, Dr. Bill Sell, head of Extension Agronomy at The University of Georgia (UGA). Between his own Jackson County, Georgia farm and his extensive experience across the state, we found our expert. What he told us, with a few minor tweaks, still forms the backbone of our food-plot system some 25 years later. Though retired, we still seek his advice often.
Dr. Sell's formula was successful for us and can work the same for you. Group clovers into two categories, annuals (plants dying in less than a year) and perennials (plants living for two or more years). Chose perennials wherever possible. If not, use reseeding annuals. Perennials work great in the North, annuals work great in the Deep South, and both work in between. Choose the varieties best suited to your soils, site, climate, and limitations. Get help from your nearest agricultural extension agent.
Let's take some time to get detailed step-by-step procedures to establish a successful clover stand. It takes plenty of planning and good execution:
- Measure your field accurately to the nearest tenth of an acre. Divide the plot into rectangles and measure the length and width by pacing, rangefinder, or GPS. Length x width = area (in square feet), then divide your total by 43,560 (the number of square feet in an acre). Eyeballing acreage will get you in trouble and waste your money.
- Get a soil test. Don¹t guess at it. Follow recommendations for limeand fertilizer as indicated on the test.
- Many of you will need two or more tons of lime per acre to raise your soil pH to 6.0 and above. Do it all at once, not in 500 pound increments, three to six months before planting, if possible. Obviously, a lime spreader truck is much cheaper and easier, if you can get it to your plot without getting stuck.
- Do a good job of ground preparation. Plow or disc repeatedly to get a weed-free, soft seedbed four to six inches deep.
- On planting day, inoculate your clover seed with the correct inoculant as described on the package. If you bought pre-inoculated clover, don't let it get too hot or too cold before planting. Remember that inoculant is a live bacteria which helps clover roots "fix" nitrogen from the air.
- Spread the recommended amount of fertilizer and seed. If you mix it together in a fertilizer spreader, then do so on the edge of the field and don't let it sit in the hopper for long. It is best to set your spreader conservatively to go over the field at least twice to compensate for any mixing errors.
- Cover lightly with smoothing harrows, drag, or cultipacker. Do not cover clover seed more than 1/4-inch deep.
- Pray for rain. Actually, smart farmers time their planting to precede a forecasted rain whenever possible.
- Watch it grow!
With the clover planting techniques outlined above, we now can concentrate on which clovers to plant. Basically, the farther south you go and the sandier the soil, the more your climate is adapted to growing annual clovers (Table 1). The farther north you go (all the way to Canada), the more your climate is suited to grow perennials (Table 2). There is a lot of overlap somewhere in between, depending on soils, weather, weeds, and diseases. This is not a hard and fast rule, as some perennials can do well in Florida or Louisiana on the right soils (sandy loam or loam) and weather conditions (lack of severe drought). In north Georgia, we use both depending on the situation and application.
All things being equal, I would always plant a perennial clover over an annual clover, which must reproduce from seed every year. The reasons are obvious - you don't have to plant your food plot every year, just once every two to five years. Conditions where annual clovers are the most appropriate choice for you are deep, sandy soils, severe droughts, severe weed problems,
or low pH.
There are two outstanding annual clovers that are tried and true in the South. These are Yuchi Arrowleaf and Dixie Crimson. Both can be excellent reseeders under certain conditions.
Yuchi Arrowleaf is the latest maturing annual clover with growth into mid-June or later under good moisture conditions. It has good reseeding potential, but seedling growth is slow because of small seed size. Early planting in fall enhances stand establishment. Arrowleaf does best on sandy loam but will grow in any soil. Once a seed crop is produced, light discing in late summer can re-establish a good stand. Arrowleaf leaves and stems maintain higher protein for longer periods than Crimson.
Dixie Crimson is adapted to most well drained soils. It has excellent seedling vigor and the best early forage production of the annual clovers. Crimson is the earliest maturing clover, maturing in April, which can make it very useful in a rotation with corn, millet, or grain sorghum. Unlike red or white clovers, it has no warm season value to deer. Crimson is the clover commonly seen blooming in April on the interstate medians in the South. On clay soil, crimson should reseed itself without discing for several years. It may require a light discing in late August.
Other annual clovers useful in the South include Alyce (not to be confused with perennial Alice white), Ball, Berseem, Rose, and Subterranean. Each may have a specialized use but generally do not produce as consistently well as Crimson or Arrowleaf.
Undoubtedly, it can be a huge advantage to plant perennial clovers on hunting land whenever possible. Labor, equipment, and seed costs go way down if your food plot is productive without replanting for two or more years. Perennial clovers may require one or two summer mowings to help suppress weed competition. Annual application of a zero nitrogen fertilizer (e.g., 0-10-20) in September will ensure a healthy, productive stand in year two and thereafter. There are three general categories of perennial clovers - red, white, and alsike.
Red clover is a biennial (two years) in the mid-South or weak perennial in the North. It acts as an annual in the Deep South. It does best on well-drained loam and clay. Spring growth begins later than annual clovers. Seedling vigor is better than any other clover, and it is well suited for seeding into dormant grasses in late winter using a no-till drill or frost seeding techniques. Red clover provides more grazing than ladino clover during summer but, unlike ladino, red clover will not tolerate continuous, close grazing over long periods of time. Many diseases attack red clover, but disease resistant varieties are available. Check with an agricultural extension agent for varieties adapted to your climate and disease complex.
White clovers can be long-lived perennials and also excellent reseeders. They are very leafy plants that spread by runners and form shallow roots at the nodes. Leaves are hairless and usually marked with a white "V." Small or intermediate types of white clover (White Dutch, Louisiana S-1) can be expected to reseed naturally, while giant or ladino types usually do not reseed well in the South. White clovers are adapted to all regions of the eastern and mid-western U.S., but act as annuals on sandy soils of the Deep South. They are best adapted to loams, clay soils, and bottomland soils. White clover is notproductive on "droughty" soils but will survive considerable dry weather. It grows well in association with cool season perennial grasses and with dallisgrass, but generally not with bermudagrass or bahiagrass. White clover is vulnerable to a number of leaf and root diseases. Viral diseases can be the most serious problem in the long run.
Osceola, Regal, California, and Advantage are highly-productive, widely-adapted ladino clovers. By comparison, white Dutch produces about one ton of forage per year versus up to five tons for the highly productive ladinos. Louisiana S-1 is a persistent, intermediate non-ladino clover that is more productive than White Dutch.
Alsike clover is a semi-erect, weak perennial clover available in the North that can be planted in spring (March-May) or August. It does best in a cool climate or wet soils and is tolerant of more acidity than most clovers. Other white clover varieties which need more testing in various parts of the country include Tillman II, Kopu, Pitau, Tahora, Arcadia, Tripoli, Alice, Barbian, and Southern. Many of these are newly imported from New Zealand and remain somewhat questionable whether or not they are adapted to the climate, viruses, and diseases found in the U.S.
Mix and Match
Having described the strong and weak points of clovers, it¹s time to go where the rubber meets the road. Your best clover strategy will probably be a mixture of clovers and grasses to combine the best qualities of each. In the North and mid-South, for a fall mix, many folks have had great success with a mix of Osceola or Regal ladino (5 lbs per acre), Redland III or
Cinnamon Plus (10 lbs per acre) and wheat (50 lbs per acre). With acid soil or bad weed problems (fescue, bermudagrass, bahiagrass, crabgrass, or johnsongrass), use an annual mix planted in February or March with red (10 lbs per acre), arrowleaf (10 lbs per acre), and Arkansas oats (50 lbs per acre), especially if you can mow in August and disc lightly in September to encourage reseeding for a second year. In the Deep South, plant Crimson (10 lbs per acre), arrowleaf (10 lbs per acre), and oats (50 lbs per acre) in October. The same mowing and discing applies.
A word of caution, when at the sportsman shows or the seed store, don't buy the bag of premixed seed just because it has a big buck picture on it. Be wary of mixes that don't reveal what is in the bag. Read the label! In most states, seed vendors are required by law to clearly identify what seed varieties and proportions are in the bag. They are required to identify noxious weeds and they must use plain English descriptions -not scientific names like Trifolium (clovers) or Brassica (turnips).
There are good mixes and bad ones. Compare varieties in this article and look for proven variety names on the tag of the bag. Watch out for mixeswith the "kitchen sink" thrown in. Five or 10 seed varieties, some tall, some short, some cool season, some warm season are thrown together to sell you seed, not make a successful, economical food plot.
Finally, whether you mix your own or buy a mix, make sure that the percentage of grass is kept low enough to keep the grass from shading out the clovers. The same is true of acreage, if you double the seed mix on your acreage or overestimate your actual acreage, you also double the grass rate per acre which will choke out the clover. The grass is there for quick forage, a nurse crop for the clover, and to produce a seed crop later on. It's there to help the clover, not outcompete it. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your clover stands!