Study: Wide-Swath Red Clover Offers Alternative to Alfalfa

11/23/2013 7:00 AM

With its high-protein content and easily digested fiber, alfalfa is the preferred forage crop for dairy cattle, resulting in excellent milk production. But alfalfa requires well-drained soils to thrive, and New York state has thousands of acres of tillable land that are too poorly drained to support alfalfa production, which has become more evident with the heavy rains we have experienced over the past few years.

Red clover is often recommended for these soils because it is more tolerant of wet and acidic conditions and has feed value that is equal to or even exceeds that of alfalfa. It also contains enzymes that inhibit protein breakdown, resulting in more bypass protein in dairy cattle, and inhibits hyper-ammonia rumen bacteria, thus increasing the energy available for milk production. Many farmers, however, don’t like red clover for one simple reason: They say that it is difficult to dry effectively.

The answer, as identified by a recent study conducted by Advanced Ag Systems LLC and funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute, is wide swaths. Modern mowers provide the option of determining how widely the forage will be laid down behind the mower, often within a range of approximately 30-60 percent of the width of the cutter bar or discs. The advantage of a narrow swath is that the forage can then be baled or chopped without raking. However, narrow swaths also dry very unevenly, especially with high-yield first cuttings.

Farmers and researchers are increasingly recognizing that wide-swath mowing results in higher quality and quicker drying times for various types of forage.

During the 2012 and 2013 growing seasons, Thomas Kilcer of Advanced Ag Systems LLC, working with Extension agents from Cornell Cooperative Extension and farmer Scott Rasmussen of Delaware County, conducted research to test whether wide-swath mowing could be used with red clover to speed drying and yield same-day haylage. The team compared wide swath to narrow swath on six different fields, with mowing occurring first thing in the morning on good drying days. Four of these field tests were conducted in extremely wet conditions, with some having measurable rainfall the previous night.

After mowing, the red clover was tested for moisture content throughout the day until it reached less than 70 percent moisture, whereupon it was ready for ensilage. Narrow swaths were found not to be ready for ensile until 24-30 hours after mowing, while wide swaths were ready to ensile after just six hours of drying time. With the addition of tedding two hours after mowing, the wide swaths could be ensiled in less than five hours.

An essential element of wide-swath red clover is that the swath be at least 80 percent of the width of the cutter bar. As noted earlier, many modern mowers limit wide swaths to 60 percent of the cutter bar width, which presents a problem. In this study, Scott Rasmussen found that the deflector shields present on his mower, even when set as widely as possible, did not reach 80 percent. Additionally, the deflectors caused the red clover to clump, further inhibiting drying. Scott solved this problem by removing the deflectors entirely, resulting in perfect wide swaths.

Red clover can produce yields equal to or exceeding those of alfalfa during the first two to three years after planting. Utilized in a short rotation with no-till corn, very high yields can be achieved on soils that have not traditionally produced a reliable forage supply. Wide, low-density swaths can produce the same quality forage on somewhat poorly drained soils as is produced by alfalfa on well-drained soils.

Information about same-day haylage from wide-swath red clover will be presented at the upcoming Northeast Region Certified Crop Adviser Training, scheduled for Dec. 3-5 in Syracuse.

For more information, visit

New York Farm Viability Institute

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