Red Clover Haylage

Red clover haylage can sometimes be a good alternative to alfalfa. Under ideal conditions alfalfa will usually outyield red clover. However, in areas where alfalfa winterkill is a problem, red clover better tolerates imperfect drainage and lower pH levels, and can be grown in fields that are too wet or low pH for alfalfa. Red clover feed quality is similar to alfalfa and can be included in dairy and feedlot rations. Red clover is also grown for pasture and as a cover crop.

Red clover is a short-lived perennial and requires a short rotation. It establishes easily, has rapid spring growth, but lacks drought tolerance. Red clover is productive for the first two years but tends to thin dramatically in the third year. Diseases such as Northern anthracnose, powdery mildew, and root and crown rots are responsible for its short life span. Red clover has a weak taproot with many fibrous, side-branching roots.


The two types of red clover are double-cut or “medium” red clover, and single cut or “mammoth” red clover. Double-cut will flower in the seeding year, with vigorous regrowth after cutting and higher yields. 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 are used as cover crops and plowdown.

Older red clover varieties tend to live just 2 years, behaving like a biennial. Newer, disease resistant varieties can be longer-lived and frequently have a productive third year. Where higher yields and improved persistence is required, avoid “single-cut” and “common” seed. Ontario double-cut red clover variety performance data is available at .


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 can be seeded in pure stands, but is often seeded in grass mixtures. A small amount of timothy or late maturing orchardgrass is sometimes added to improve drying, and to fill in the spaces left as the red clover dies out. 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 is usually too competitive at establishment to be included in an alfalfa mixture.

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 good shade tolerance. For optimum red clover establishment and early forage yield, companion crops should be harvested as silage at early heading. Direct seedings may require chemical weed control.

Red clover stands should be seeded at 10 lbs/acre when seeded alone, or 8 lbs/acre when seeded with 3-4 lbs of timothy. Red clover is one of the most successful forage species with no-till seeding. Red clover also establishes reasonably well when frost seeded into winter wheat.

Many Ontario soils have adequate natural levels of the Rhizobium trifolii necessary for nodulation, but if there is any doubt, be sure to use an inoculant. Alfalfa inoculum will not work with red clover.

Harvest Management

Harvest recommendations are similar to alfalfa. Quality may not decline with maturity as quickly as alfalfa. Red clover is sometimes harvested in a 2-cut system with the first-cut taken at 20% bloom or later, when yield is greatest. However, high producing dairy cow quality haylage should be harvested at the late-bud or early-bloom (20%) stage of maturity. Smothering can result if a great deal of fall growth is left over winter (because of red clover’s large stems and leaves). A third cut taken after 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 most often stored as silage 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 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 efficiency and reduced manure nitrogen

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

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