A cousin to alfalfa, red clover can produce yields equal to or exceeding alfalfa for two to three years. Wide swath plus tedding greatly enhances dry down.

THAT wet slop my grandfather once grew that never dried down at harvest.” While that statement may hold merit, what our grandparents knew and what we know now are very different.

The biggest criticism with red clover, its perceived difficulty getting dry, is now a nonissue. The reason is the New York Farm Viability Institute-funded (NYFVI) research clearly showed, with heavy yields and under very adverse drying conditions, that we could get red clover to under 35 percent dry matter the day it was mowed.

Competes well with alfalfa

Red clover has feed value equal to or exceeding alfalfa cut at the same time. It can be harvested a little later and still have the feed quality of alfalfa harvested earlier. Thus, you are opening a wider window for hay crop harvest. This reduces risk in our more variable weather, as you now have two chances (alfalfa peak and clover peak) to get the quality forage necessary to feed cows a high-forage diet (over 65 percent of the ration) and still support greater production and components throughout the entire lactation.

More importantly, from a nutritional standpoint, red clover has enzymes that inhibit protein breakdown for more bypass protein. Bypass protein is incredibly expensive even though it is added in small amounts, so using red clover can produce milk at a lower cost. Michael Flythe with USDA’s Agriculture Research Service found clover also contains a compound that inhibits hyperammonia rumen bacteria from destroying protein thus boosting the metabolizable energy for milk production (plant

The author is an independent agronomic consultant and researcher with Advanced Ag Systems LLC, Kinderhook, N.Y. breeders are trying to move it to alfalfa, but you can have it today in clover).

To enhance dry down

With key help from the Farm Viability Institute and Cornell Cooperative Extension agents, the drying problem was solved by adapting techniques from successful and proven wide swath alfalfa. The research encompassed both 2012 and the first cut of 2013, with four of the six studies in extremely wet conditions. Several tests had measurable rain the previous night. Due to weather delays all first cuts were one-quarter to full bloom with stands greater than 90 percent clover.

The first unexpected finding was that conditioning had no effect on reducing the time for drying to 35 percent dry matter. Clover has a thick, succulent stem which was assumed to respond to conditioning. In a replicated wide swath, no conditioning, and a wide swath with intermeshing roll conditioning trial, both dried for silage at the same rate of moisture loss.

By not damaging the stem, the capillary flow of moisture to and out of the leaves will dry the stem and plant faster than any mechanical process. This is very similar to what we found in alfalfa. Unless you are making first- or second-cut dry hay, there is no need for conditioning.

Also, a tine conditioner was not effective as it removed high-nutrient leaves.

Another unexpected but more critical finding was when the mower’s deflector was lowered to make a wide swath. The soft stem, highly digestible, heavy first cutting clover impinged into a lump on the deflector, and then dropped to the ground. This dramatically inhibited drying. When the shields were completely removed, the forage could disperse unimpeded (see photo above).

As you can see in the figure, the narrow swath did not dry sufficiently to make silage until after 24 hours. The wide swath created by the deflector shield, which resulted in thin material interspersed with many soccer ball-sized compressed lumps of wet clover, resulted in a swath which did not dry much better than the narrow.

Meanwhile, on the Hunter farm in Jefferson, N.Y., we removed all the shields when we mowed the wide swath. It resulted in a very uniform and fluffy swath with NO lumps. As the graph shows, this dramatically enhanced the drying rate and gave uniformly dry forage.

Wide swath matters

We found, similar to findings in NYFVI wide swath alfalfa research, that mower design and shields present on mowers kept us from achieving an effective wide swath. As with many mowers, when the shields were opened all the way, they only left a swath width that was 60 percent of the cutterbar width.

The original wide swath study on alfalfa by myself and another study by Dr. Cherney of Cornell University found that it is critical for the swath to be greater than 80 percent of the cutterbar width for same day haylage to be consistently successful. With the slightly higher moisture and the lower rigidity of the stems in clover, the 40 percent of the forage in the outer edges of the machine-limited narrowed swaths were compacted, nondrying mats.

Tedding was valuable

Recognizing these mechanical hindrances to drying, and the heavy yield of first-cut clover’s impact on drying, these limitations were corrected by added tedding two hours after mowing. Proper tedding lifts and loosens the swath, spreading it to 100 percent-plus of cutter bar width. More importantly, it brings the lower layers of material to the surface and the critical sun for photosynthesis drying. In the early drydown phase, moisture moves out of the leaves exposed to sun and pulls moisture from the stem. Thus, the stem dries first and the leaves last. Because of this, the leaves are very flexible and not easily lost in correctly timed tedding.

Tedding gave us another unexpected surprise in this research. Many of the farmers tedd as they were doing light third-cutting alfalfa. The tendency is to go through the field at high, forward speed regardless of the thickness of the crop. The high, forward speed on heavy yielding red clover forced the tedder to snatch too big of a wad to disperse.

Instead of plucking the swath apart, it caused very compressed wads. This resulted in areas of thin clover, and very compacted clover clumps folded around where the tine had been. When forward speed was reduced to adjust for the heavier yield of the crop, the tedder was able to spread red clover loose and uniform for rapid dry down.

In all of the studies on first cutting red clover, the narrow swaths were not ready to ensile (under 30 percent dry matter) until 24 to 30 hours after mowing (see table). In five of the six studies, the wide swath not tedded was ready to ensile in just over seven hours (these swath widths were not under 80 percent of cutter bar width, thus required more extended drying). This included the one wide swath-not-tedded test with excessive lumping from the deflectors which dried very poorly.

In all of the studies, wide swath red clover with tedding two hours after mowing was ready to ensile in just over five hours (same day haylage). Second cutting red clover, with a swath width greater than 80 percent of the cutterbar, may not need to be tedded at all depending on yield. Earlier studies on first-cut red clover in more normal weather, cut on time, with no conditioning, and swath at 90 percent of the cutterbar, the tedded treatment only required four hours to reach ensiling dry matter. In this latter study, the ensiling time was only a short interval behind alfalfa cut at the same time as the clover.