Sow Cold: Frost Seeding Clover

Jan 03, 2022

Sow Cold: Frost Seeding Clover
Even with all the technological advances of 21st century agriculture , sometimes the best practices involve simply letting Mother Nature do most of the work. Such is the case with frost-seeding. This method of pasture management is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to improve hay and forage quality and , ultimately , realize more livestock gains , especially in multi-species grazing.

Greg Brann’s 800-acre Adolphus , Kentucky , farm is a prime example. Not only does Brann graze around 150 beef cattle , but also 125 hair sheep , 40 wool sheep , and around 20 goats. A flock of chickens even browses across Brann’s fields. Some 250 acres are devoted to pasture , and each is carefully studied and managed by Brann. That should come as no surprise. When he’s not working his farm , Brann travels across the U.S. as a grazing management consultant , visiting with farmers and speaking to agricultural groups. “I’m a bit of a seed and pasture addict ,” admits Brann , whose resume also includes 23 years of a 40-year tenure with the Natural Resources Conservation Service as the Tennessee State Grazing Land Soil Health Specialist. “Discussing pastures and grazing is kind of my bag.”

One of Brann’s favorite subjects is that of clover — why it’s good and how to establish it on pasture ground. He points out that used in combination with tall fescue , legumes like white and red clovers provide a multitude of benefits to livestock producers , not the least of which is nitrogen production. “Clover essentially pulls nitrogen from the air and stores it in root nodules ,” explains Brann. “As the roots rot , that nitrogen then becomes available to any neighboring species — like tall fescue — which reduces the need to apply nitrogen fertilizer. Clover also provides high-quality protein for live-stock , which can equate to additional gains of more than a quarter pound per day in comparison to similar pastures without clover.”

There are several different methods for getting clover seed into the ground , but frost-seeding is one of Brann’s favorites. “It’s easily the most cost-efficient way to establish clover ,” he says. “At the very least , you can get by with a hand broad-caster , a bag of seed , and nothing else.” The practice involves sowing both red and white clover seed onto the designated pasture ground during late winter — preferably February — when soil is in a freeze/thaw cycle. Legumes are particularly well-suited to the method because of their rounded seeds and their ability to germinate at low temperatures , thus getting a head start on spring.

"I like to sow when the ground is standing up in a honeycomb pattern ,” Brann says. “When it falls , the ground pulls that seed in and covers it with soil. Then , when temperatures finally rise and stabilize , the clover seed is ready to take off. January seeding is a little risky because we’ve recently had some warmups followed by cold snaps that can damage new growth. February is better.” He adds that another good option is when snow is on the ground and the applicator can keep track of his or her progress by referring to their tracks. “One of the biggest benefits [to frost seeding] is that you can be on the field in any conditions ,” Brann says. “With a seed drill , for example , you don’t want to be out there when it’s wet or you’ll compact your soil. But you can frost-seed with a small ATV outfitted with a Herd seeder or , like I said , just a hand-held seeder.”

First steps begin with a soil test. Greg Aston , southern seed representative for Allied Seed and longtime advisor to Brann , recommends pulling a soil test of the field in question for several years during the same month , to establish an “apples to apples” comparison. “For clovers , you want to adjust your soil pH to achieve something close to a 6.5 ,” Aston says. “In that range , your elements become more available to the plant. They’re available below that , but to a lesser degree.” After soil fertility is addressed and weather conditions are correct , Aston says to allow the pasture to be grazed to around 3.5 inches. “This is one of those times that you want to pull it down to expose the soil ,” he says. “But you have to be careful; if you take it down too low , you’ll stress your grass to where it can’t recover , and then you’ve defeated the whole purpose of inter-seeding. Remember , you want the legumes working together with the grasses to create great forage.”

Brann adds that the optimal stand of legumes should be 30 to 40 percent. When the existing plant population is at the right height and the weather cooperates , use a seeder to broadcast 1-2 pounds of white clover and 4-6 pounds of red clover per acre. “It’ll usually be at least three to four weeks before plants appear ,” he says. “If it stays cold , that could be even longer.” After clover seedlings begin appearing , Brann recommends allowing livestock to graze the field. “This will keep the competitive species in check and allow light to reach the seedlings , which is critical ,” he says. “The cattle won’t do much damage to the clover , and when that plant comes up , it’s got to be able to use that solar panel to get the energy it needs to thrive. I’d then remove the animals until the clover reaches close to six inches in height. At that point , you can put the field back into the regular rotation. Then , let the magic happen!”

For soil testing and help with your pasture management plan , consult with the agronomists at your local GreenPoint Ag location.

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