Re-learning the lost art of cultivating clover

There’s a popular saying that everything old is new again.


Clover is no exception. For 100 years, it’s done great things for New Zealand farming.


Now more than ever, it still has a lot to offer – tonnes of feed in the heat of summer when ryegrass can struggle; superb animal nutrition; and a surprising amount of free, natural nitrogen.


Scientists say even though it has been overlooked in recent decades, clover is a key tool to help meet new and pending environmental regulations on-farm.

In other words, it’s time to go back to the future, and re-learn what we used to know about staying in clover. 


Chances are there isn’t much clover in your pasture at present – maybe 15%, possibly 20% if conditions are ideal, almost certainly not the 30% recommended for optimal performance.  


In some parts of the upper North Island, it’s now more common to see pastures with no clover than with clover. 

There are no hard data available about the current level of clover on NZ farms.


However, there is plenty of science that proves the more N fertiliser is applied to pasture, the more competitive ryegrass becomes, to clover’s detriment.   

And since our N fertiliser use has increased in recent years, pasture researchers agree there’s every reason to assume clover has taken a big hit nationwide.


Add in clover root weevil, higher stocking rates, faster dairy grazing rounds, lighter clover seed sowing rates and ryegrass-centric nutrient programmes, and it’s no wonder clover is MIA in many pastures today.


The good news is that it’s not gone for good, it just needs to be revived and looked after. In return, it will reward you with environmental benefits and production gains.


Best of all, now is an ideal time to take stock of existing clover, and to start reversing its decline.

  1. Soil test paddocks which lack clover, and test clover herbage too. Clover needs 16 nutrients to survive and thrive, and is often described as the canary in the coal mine, because it will reveal soil nutrient deficiencies sooner than ryegrass. In particular, it needs higher soil levels of phosphate (P), potassium (K) and sulphur (S) than ryegrass, and sometimes more magnesium (Mg) and molybdenum (Mo). Clover is also sensitive to soil pH, growing best at 5.8 to 6.2. 
  2. Spin on clover seed. In existing pastures with nil or minimal clover, oversowing 3-4 kg/ha coated clover seed in autumn is a practical, effective way to start re-building clover populations.
  3. Be clover-friendly when renewing pastures this autumn. Clover seed is very small, and needs shallow sowing at 2-3mm. Clover also suffers when sown tightly in the same row as ryegrass seed, so roller-drilling or broadcasting is better than standard row sowing with a coulter drill. 
  4. Let the light in. This is absolutely vital for newly sown pastures. Ryegrass emerges and grows faster than clover. If it is allowed to get too long, too soon, it will shade out and kill baby clover seedlings before you know it.