Leprechauns and pots of gold aside, four-leaf clovers aren’t the only lucky legume. Many members of the Trifolium genus, such as red and white clover, have powerful properties that make them a valuable addition to crop fields and livestock diets.
Below the surface, clovers are natural nitrogen fixers, creating relationships with microorganisms in the soil to instill nitrogen into the ground. This reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and promotes field productivity.
Above the surface, clovers are a high-quality protein source for cattle. Red and white clover are highly palatable and can be incorporated into grazing systems at a low cost.
These legumes not only taste good, but they do good, too. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists at the USDA’s Forage-Animal Production Research Unit in Lexington, Ky., discovered clovers act as an antimicrobial and are an excellent substitute to synthetic bactericides in cattle feed.
Hyper-ammonia-producing bacteria live in the rumens of cattle and can inhibit the amount of dietary protein being absorbed during digestion. This can hinder an animal’s growth and overall performance. However, when cattle eat clover, special compounds called isoflavones lessen the amount bad bacteria in the rumen and boost the amount of available protein.
In addition to improved protein absorption, isoflavones also mitigate the danger of fescue toxicosis. When cattle ingest toxic endophytes in tall fescue, they experience adverse health effects, including constricted blood vessels, fertility problems, weight loss, and lowered milk production.
The ARS scientists suggest incorporating clover into pasture mixes to reduce the risk of fescue toxicosis. Its isoflavones dilate blood vessels to promote a healthy blood flow, reversing the constriction onset by consuming toxic tall fescue. Similarly, clovers have even been used to treat vasoconstrictive conditions in humans that cause ailments such as migraine headaches.
Amber Friedrichsen is serving as the 2021 Hay & Forage Grower editorial intern. She currently attends Iowa State University where she is majoring in agriculture and life sciences education-communications with a minor in agronomy. Friedrichsen grew up on her family’s diversified crop and livestock farm near Clinton, Iowa.