Using red clover as a cover crop in wheat

What you need to know to succeed with red clover, Michigan’s most common cover crop.

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

Red clover (Trifolium pretense) is Michigan’s most common cover crop. Its easy establishment and shade tolerance make it useful in several cropping sequences. Although classified as a perennial legume, it acts like a biennial and typically succumbs to disease pressure in its second growing year.

Michigan’s three common red clover cultivars are Michigan mammoth, Canadian mammoth (also known as Altaswede clover) and June (also known as medium red clover). Choose a cultivar based on how the seeding will be used. Canadian-grown mammoth clover does not tolerate the increased shading and competition from well fertilized wheat, but works well when seeded with oats. Michigan mammoth and June clover have been shown to perform better when frost seeded into well fertilized wheat fields.

  • A red clover cover crop has several benefits, including:
  • Contributing 30 to 100 pounds of soil nitrogen for the following crop
  • Reducing soil erosion and surface water pollution
  • Increasing soil organic matter, improving soil tilth and increasing water holding capacities
  • Reducing grass and broadleaf weed pressure
  • Serving as a forage and/or pasture species

Last year a team with expertise in Michigan cover crops developed a fact sheet, Using red clover as a cover crop in wheat, to answer common questions from wheat farmers. View the fact sheet to learn the following about red clover as a cover crop:

  • How it works
  • How and when to frost-seed red clover
  • A comparison of seeding dates into winter wheat
  • Its influence on suppressing weeds in wheat stubble
  • Its influence in wheat on giant foxtail seed predation
  • Seeding, inoculating and weed control
  • Managing top-growth
  • When and how to terminate the cover crop
  • Deciding whether to take the nitrogen credit

Additional resources about cover crops: and

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