Red Clover Haylage

Red Clover Haylage

Quality Seeds “Santa Fe” For Improved Yield & Persistence

by Joel Bagg, Forage Development Specialist & District Sales Manager, Quality Seeds Ltd

Red clover haylage can be a good alternative to alfalfa in areas where alfalfa is limited by low soil pH, imperfect drainage, and where chronic alfalfa winterkill is a problem. Red clover is more tolerant of soils that are too acidic or wet for alfalfa. Under conditions where low soil pH or drainage are not issues, alfalfa will usually out-yield red clover and is the preferred forage legume species. Red clover feed quality is similar to alfalfa and can be included in dairy and feedlot rations. Quality Seeds double-cut red clover variety “Santa Fe” has been bred and selected for excellent forage yield and persistence.

Red clover is a short-lived perennial and requires a shorter rotation than alfalfa. Red clover has a weak taproot with many fibrous, side-branching roots. It establishes easily, has strong seedling vigour, rapid spring growth, but lacks drought tolerance. Red clover is also commonly used in pastures and as a cover crop in winter wheat rotations.


Types & Varieties

There are two types of red clover:

1.  Single-cut (or "mammoth") red clover

Single-cut is slower growing and matures about two weeks later than double-cut. Single-cut does not flower in the seeding year, or after the first cut in succeeding years. Single-cut types have significant root growth and are more commonly used as cover crops and plowdown.

2.  Double-cut (or "medium") red clover.

Double-cut red clover will flower in the seeding year, with vigorous regrowth after cutting and higher yields. Modern double-cut varieties are preferred in forage production situations.


Older red clover varieties tend to be productive for just two years (including the establishment year), and then thin dramatically in the third year. Diseases such as northern anthracnose, mosaic virus, powdery mildew, and root and crown rots are responsible for its short life span. Newer disease resistant varieties, such as Quality Seeds “Santa Fe”, have been developed by plant breeders to be longer-lived with a productive third year of continued higher yield. Where high yields and improved persistence is required, avoid using “common” seed, “single-cut”, and older double-cut red clover varieties.



Seed red clover early in the spring to ensure adequate moisture for establishment. Seed is less expensive than alfalfa. Red clover establishes easily and rapidly, and is very competitive with other species. Red clover establishes well with no-till seeding. Although red clover is often frost-seeded into pasture and cover crop situations, this is usually not recommended for haylage production.

Red clover can be seeded in pure stands, but is often seeded in grass mixtures to improve wilting, to fill in the spaces left as the red clover thins out, and to provide nutritional advantages. Red clover stands should be seeded at 10-12 lbs/acre when seeded alone. Typical red clover – grass seed mixtures seeded through the small seed box include 4 lbs/acre of timothy or 5% late-maturing Dividend orchardgrass. Where drills have a coarse seed box, red clover and 4 lbs/acre of Milk Max (Dividend orchardgrass, Cowgirl tall fescue, Tetragain perennial ryegrass, Lofa festulolium) has been used very successfully. Evolution Italian ryegrass is sometimes no-tilled in the spring to thicken uneven or thin stands of red clover.

Red clover is usually too competitive at establishment to be included in an alfalfa mixture. The red clover is usually not as long lived as the alfalfa, which eventually results in a thin alfalfa stand. Red clover is a good companion crop for the establishment of reed canarygrass. As the red clover dies out, it is replaced by the slow-to-establish but very persistent reed canarygrass.

Red clover establishment is similar to alfalfa. Seeding can be done with or without a cereal companion crop. Red clover establishes well under a cereal companion crop due to its excellent shade tolerance. For optimum red clover establishment, and quality forage with early forage yield, cereal companion crops should be harvested as forage at the boot-stage. Direct seedings may require chemical weed control. Most soils have adequate natural levels of the Rhizobium trifolii necessary for red clover nodulation. If you are unsure, be sure to use seed that has been inoculated.


Harvest Management

Harvest recommendations are similar to alfalfa. Quality may not decline with maturity as quickly as alfalfa. High producing dairy cow quality red clover haylage should be harvested at the late bud stage, or before the early (20%) bloom stage of maturity. If grasses are included in the mixture, their stage of maturity and declining nutrient quality should also be considered. With other livestock where nutrient requirements are not as high, red clover can be harvested in a 2-cut system with the first cut taken at 20% bloom or later, when yield is greatest. Smothering can result if a great deal of fall growth is left over winter (because of red clover’s large stems and leaves). Taking a third-cut in late fall close to a killing frost is an option. Red clover haylage will require a longer wilting time than alfalfa to reach proper ensiling moisture.


Feed Quality

Red clover is usually made into haylage or baleage, since it is difficult to cure as dry hay without being "dusty” or “mouldy". Feed analysis of red clover is similar to alfalfa in crude protein, ADF, NDF and minerals, but there are some differences. Red clover contains polyphenol oxidase enzymes that inhibit protein breakdown in the silo. Fermentation does not break down red clover protein to the same extent as alfalfa, so red clover has more undegradable protein. Bypass protein of red clover haylage is typically 25 – 35%, while alfalfa is 15 – 25%. Red clover often also has higher fibre digestibility (NDFD) than alfalfa.

In feeding trials comparing alfalfa and red clover haylage at the USDA Forage Research Station in Wisconsin:

  • dairy cows had reduced feed intakes with red clover based diets, but had similar milk yield and produced less manure
  • less crude protein was converted to NPN, which improved protein utilization efficiency and reduced manure nitrogen

Heavy feeding of red clover haylage can result in black, loose manure, but this is not usually a concern. To enhance feed intake, red clover haylage can be blended with alfalfa-grass haylage or corn silage.

Consider Santa Fe red clover as a haylage crop where alfalfa production is limited due to low soil pH, frequent winterkill, or poor drainage. Consult your nutritionist to ensure that the unique qualities of red clover haylage are accounted for in ration balancing.