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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Crop and Soil Environmental News, December 2001

Is 2002 a Good Year to Frost Seed Clovers Into My Pastures?

Ray Smith
Forage Extension Specialist

Have you ever made a "silk purse out of a sows ear"? Well this year you may just have the chance. The dry fall of 2001 has forced many of you to graze your pastures closer than you may have liked, but close grazing is one of the most important factors for successful establishment when frost seeding with red and ladino clovers. Follow the recommendations below if you want to improve your pastures by frost seeding with clovers.

  1. Proper Soil Testing is a Must - It is a waste of time and money to try to establish or improve stands when the pH and/or soil fertility are too low to support productive plants. Fertilize and lime according to soil test recommendations prior to seeding. Ideally, lime should be applied at least six months in advance of seeding so it has time to react with the soil and increase soil pH. Red and ladino clovers grow best when pH is maintained over 6.0 and ideally a 6.2 to 6.5.

  2. Minimize Competition from the Existing Sod or Cover - Every effort must be made to prevent weeds or existing forage plants from competing with the new seedlings. Heavy thatch and plant growth tall enough to shade the soil surface must be removed. Grazing and/or application of herbicides are the primary means for reducing this competition prior to seeding. When frost seeding graze close enough so that you can clearly see the sole of your boot. If you have weed problems, check with your local Extension Agent for herbicide recommendations.

    When clover seedlings start to emerge, periodically graze or mow the regrowth of existing pasture or hay plants to favor growth of the newly established seedlings. In other words, graze away spring grass regrowth until livestock just start to "nip" the tips of the clover seedlings. Do not overgraze your frost seeded pastures.

  3. Seed on the Proper Date - In Virginia frost seeding should occur between late January to late February (depending on location). Usually the earlier the better. Your goal is to seed when the sod is not growing and the soil still has a tendency to freeze at night and thaw during the day. Its important to have several weeks of this freezing/thawing action so that the seed becomes buried.

  4. Use High-Quality Seed - Use red and ladino clover varieties that are adapted to Virginia and use seed with a high germination percentage. Check with your local Extension Agent or seed dealer for this information. Cheap, low quality seed is often the most costly item because it results in low productivity stands or thin, weak plant density. Recent research from Kentucky shows that stands planted common or VNS red clover often only survive for one year, but improved varieties survive two or more years.

    Recommended seeding rates are 6-10 lbs/acre for red clover alone or 4-6 lbs/acre red clover and 1-2 lbs/acre ladino clover when seeding a mixture. Some use lower seeding rates and frost seed more often.

  5. Seeding Method - Most people frost seed by broadcasting seed on the soil surface. If the existing stand is grazed or cut closely this method often works well as long as you have planted early enough for frost action to bury the seed. It never hurts to drag a field to help bury the seed and using a no-till drill further improves your chances for success. If you are late getting the seed out then a no-till drill is essential to make sure the seed is buried (drill at a shallow depth inch).

    Note: Use a no-till drill when seeding grasses or alfalfa. Frost seeding sometimes works with these forages, but a no-till drill greatly increases your chances for success.

Remember that pastures benefit from frost seeding with clovers on a regular basis so every year is a good year to consider frost seeding (or at least every other year).

Adapted from the soon to be published revision of "No- Till Seeding of Forage Grasses and Legumes" by Ray Smith, Harlan White, Scott Hagood, Dale Wolf and Jon Repair

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