Frost seeding red clover into winter wheat

Frost seeding red clover into wheat has many benefits.

Frost seeded red clover in wheat stubble.
Frost seeded red clover in wheat stubble. Photo by Paul Gross, MSU Extension

With spring right around the corner, we are approaching the ideal time to frost seed red clover into your winter wheat crop. Frost seeding is the practice of broadcasting red clover into winter wheat just prior to green-up. In most years, the ideal time is between mid-March and early-April. It is important the snow melts prior to frost seeding. Deep snow will cause the seed to move to the lower areas of field as the snow melts. The result can be a poor stand. Seasonal freeze-thaw cycles cause the soil to repeatedly develop small cracks on the surface, allowing the clover seed to achieve good soil contact for germination. Seed inoculation is highly recommended in fields where red clover has not been grown within the last several years. Make sure the label states the inoculant contains Rhizobia trifolii.

The MSU Extension Cover Crops Program has had excellent results frost seeding mammoth and intermediate red clover in winter wheat. Seeding rates range from 6 to 18 pounds per acre. Red clover seeded at 12 pounds has shown to produce the most consistent stand. Many farmers are using ATVs with spinners to seed red clover into wheat, covering a lot of ground without rutting or causing compaction.

Uniformity of the stand is important to get the full benefits of the red clover. One effective strategy to ensure uniformity and avoid skips is set the spreader at half the intended seeding rate, spread the seed, then go over the field a second time applying the second half of the rate driving half-way between the tire tracks left by the first application. Many ATVs are equipped with GPS systems that can also be used to ensure accurate coverage.

A red clover cover crop has several benefits, including:

  • Contributing up to 120 pounds of soil nitrogen for the following crop rotation
  • Reducing soil erosion and surface water pollution
  • Increasing soil organic matter, improving soil health and increasing water holding capacity
  • Reducing weed pressure
  • Serving as a forage and pasture for livestock

What nitrogen credit can I expect?

The amount of nitrogen credit depends on the density of the stand of clover that is achieved and the time of year the clover was killed. Typically, spring-killed clover contributes more nitrogen than fall-killed clover. The actual nitrogen available depends on variables such as soil temperature, precipitation, soil texture, tillage and the maturity of the red clover. If you are planning on using the clover as a nitrogen fertilizer it is suggested that you take a pre-sidedress nitrogen test (PSNT) to get an accurate measure of how much nitrogen is in the soil.

Additional cover crop information can be found at the Midwest Cover Crops Council (MCCC) website.

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