It’s September, and the thoughts of most hunters are focusing on the upcoming deer season. At this point, when the season has not even opened yet, not many folks are thinking about the end of the season, but a little foresight in September can do a lot of good for your deer herd. Now is the time to prepare a high-quality food source for the winter and early spring months, when natural food sources are scarce.
I’m talking about clover, which, research has shown, is one of the most productive wildlife crops you can plant. Today’s technologically engineered varieties of clover, if managed correctly, can produce as much as 15,000-lbs. of actual dry-weight forage per acre, with protein levels up to 22 percent. Plus, the clovers dominate alfalfa, deervetch, and all of the peas for resistance to overgrazing.
The only trouble I’ve ever had with clover is keeping all the varieties and families straight, which ones are annuals, and so on. This month’s column is for those of us who are trying to get a clover patch established and want to know where to begin.
First of all, to save money, don’t begin with a brand-name clover, one of those that comes with monster-buck art work on the bag. Some use celebrity endorsements, some use computer-created photos that make it look like a monster buck has a mouthful of their product, and the cost of these promotional tools gets passed on to you. This is not to say that their product is no good: under the right conditions, a brand-name clover will produce just as well as any other clover. The fact is that there are no secret varieties of clover in their bag: you can buy the same varieties at the feed-and-seed for less money. Also, in planning a clover crop, you need to choose a variety that is suited to your land-which may not be in the brand-name bag.
To help me make sense of all the clover families and varieties, I talked to DNR biologist Kent Kammermeyer. Kent helped conduct a research project on Chestatee WMA from 1989 to 1992 that compared different varieties of clover, their production and protein levels, and their usage by wildlife. Kent also helped put together DNR’s recommended clover/small grain planting mixtures, which are listed in this year’s hunting regulations. The following are some of the best clover varietes for Georgia by category, and their strengths and weaknesses, according to Kent.
Crimson: This narrow category of clovers includes only a handful of varieties, like common or Dixie crimson, and it is the clover we all see blooming along the highways in the spring. Crimson is a reseeding annual, and it will come back from seed even if you don’t run a disk through it each September, unless weather conditions are poor. This applies only to the Piedmont; in the sandy soils of the Coastal Plain and in the Mountains, don’t count on crimson to reseed itself. An advantage of crimson is that it is one of the most acid-tolerant clovers. If you are planting in a location where it is not possible to lime the plot, or if you are just going to skip the lime, crimson will be less likely to fail in the low pH soil.
Red: Red clover is a biennial, meaning that it comes back from the root system for two consecutive years. Under optimum weather and soil conditions, red clovers will act as a weak perennial, coming back for three or four years from the root system. It will also reseed itself, whether you encourage it or not, if allowed to go to seed where it is planted. Red is more persistent than crimson when it comes to reseeding.
White: This is the broadest category of clovers, and it includes some of the more popular types, like the ladino clovers. Most of the white clovers are perennials, and will come back for several years without replanting or disking.
Ladino: This variety was genetically engineered for cattle production, and it is, according to Kent, the "cadillac of perennial clovers." Under the right conditions, ladino will come back for up to 10 years without disking. It tolerates a wide range of weather, competes well against weeds, is more bug and disease tolerant than other clovers, and produces like crazy. New varieties of ladino are being developed every year, and some of the familiar ones include regal, osceola and tillman. These different varieties of ladino have virtually identical growing habits, so you can choose whichever one is available where you buy your seed.
White Dutch: This variety is also a persistent perennial, and it can handle a fairly low pH (though liming is always recommended). White Dutch is a tough variety, and if you’re looking for something to throw in the food plot and forget about, go with white Dutch. The only problem is that it is nowhere near the forage producer that ladino clover is. White Dutch has been found to produce in the neighborhood of 1,000- to 2,000-lbs. of forage per acre per year, where the ladinos are known to produce 10,000- to 15,000-lbs.
Arrowleaf: This is a white clover that is a reseeding annual rather than a perennial. Also known as Yuchi clover, arrowleaf has become a favorite for food plots because of its high protein content. It is not as dependable a reseeder as crimson, and it is not as acid tolerant, but it is well-adapted to the Coastal Plain and Piedmont, and it is low-maintenance. Arrowleaf is not very cold tolerant, and winter temperatures below 10 degrees can kill it, so it is not recommended for the upper Piedmont or Mountain regions.
If you can’t decide which one of these clovers is for you, don’t worry: you should not pick just one. Your best bet is to plant two different types of clover in the same plot so that the strengths of one cover the weaknesses of the other. It is also recommendable to plant your clovers along with a grass.
"I would never consider growing clover without a grass," Kent said. "That partially defeats the purpose. You are losing advantages immediately when you do that."
Planting a grass like wheat or rye along with a clover has several advantages. First of all, the grass acts as a nurse crop to the clover; since the grasses spring up quickly they establish a root system that prevents soil erosion and holds more moisture in the soil. The grass itself can shelter the clover seedlings from the hot sun, and act as a buffer to overgrazing in the early stages. In the reverse, the clover fixes nitrogen from the soil and provides it for the grass, so you don’t have to.
Through trail and error, Kent and other DNR biologists have produced some recommended mixes of clover and grass that are balanced to offset potential problems, like too much shade on the clover if the grass is sown too heavily.
A good perennial clover/grass mixture is a ladino clover (5-lbs./acre), a red clover (10-lbs./acre), marshall ryegrass (10-lbs./acre), stacy wheat (30-lbs./acre), and wrens abruzzi rye (30-lbs./acre). This mix will do well in any region of Georgia, but in the Coastal Plain do not choose sandy soil. A sand/loam or sand/clay mix will do fine. You can expect this mixture to remain in clover and ryegrass for three to five years if you start it off with the right fertilizer and lime, mow it in the spring and summer to control weeds, and fertilize it each September.
This mixture is calculated for broadcasting, because it is assumed that some of the seed will be turned under too deep. Clovers do not need to be planted more than 1/4-inch deep, so dragging something over the field, like a log or chain-link fence, is preferrable to disking. If you are using a seed drill to plant this mixture, cut the amount of each item in the mix by half, because the seed drill will deposit all of the seed at the correct depth.
In the southern half of the state, a good annual clover mixture is crimson or arrowleaf clover (20-lbs./acre), marshall ryegrass (30-lbs./acre), and stacy wheat (40-lbs./acre). Disk this stand lightly each August to get it to reseed.
Before you plant any clover mix this month, be sure to run a soil test through your county agent, and indicate on the soil-sample bag that you are planting a clover/grass mix-otherwise the recommendations for grass alone or clover alone will not be what you need. Also, when you scatter the fertilizer, throw in 1-lb./acre of 20-Mule Team Borax. This provides boron, a micronutrient that is required for good seed production in clovers. This guarantees a good seed crop and a good stand next season.