Nitrogen fertilization vs. clover seeding

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By Rick Greenwell

We are at the point where farmers would normally start to apply nitrogen (N) to hayfields to boost spring and early summer production levels.  Current price levels for nitrogen, P, and K are almost identical to where they were a year ago.  As a result, the results/summary and tables used last year are still applicable now and can be viewed at www.ca.uky.edu.

Instead of rehashing last year’s results, the analysis this year will take a critical look at N fertilization by comparing it to seeding clover into hayfields.
Advantages of clover
Clover and other legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air and utilize it for plant growth.  As a result, we can get the benefits of N fertilization without having to apply it.  This transferred N is also utilized (in the long-run) by the grass in the stand and the overall increase in forage growth can be dramatic.  Another important advantage of incorporating clover into the hay stand is improved forage quality.  Clover generally has higher energy and protein levels than grass. Moreover, it retains quality much better going into late spring and early summer than grass.  Therefore, clover-grass hay cut in June will have much better forage quality than pure grass hay.  Finally, clovers tend to balance out forage growth better than cool-season grasses.  As a result, a clover-grass stand will have better forage production in summer compared to a pure cool-season grass stand.

Many skeptical farmers often ask the following question: can you really get higher yields from seeding clover rather than using N fertilization? According to the agronomists, the answer is yes (with good management).  I’m not an agronomist, but I like to play one outside my official duties at the University of Kentucky. The pictures below show one of my personal experiences related to seeding clovers into hayfields/pastures. For more details on establishing clover into hay ground and pasture view our website.