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Annual Clovers Suitable for Organic Production System

in Ask an Expert/Crop Production/Fall 2017/Land Stewardship/Seeds

Saikat Kumar Basu

Clover is the common English name for different species of plants belonging to the genus Trifolium comprising over 250+ species distributed across the planet. These are legume plants that belong to the plant family Leguminaceae (Fabaceae) indicating these are plants capable of successfully fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Clover is commonly used as a pasture and/or forage crop and is usually highly palatable and nutritious for the standing livestock. Annual, biennial, and perennial species of clovers are reported across the planet and are treated as an important legume forage crop. Clovers are also called trefoil. Wild clovers are most common in the temperate Northern hemisphere but high altitude species are also common around the tropics.

Clovers usually have trifoliate leaves with dense spikes of small white, yellow, red or purple flowers. Clovers are known around the planet to be an excellent pollinator plant attracting diverse species of bees, beetles, moths and butterflies. Clovers are a low maintenance nitrogen fixing crop that produces abundant flowers and high quality seed under both irrigation and rain-fed conditions depending upon specie(s) or cultivar(s) used. They are successful under variable soil conditions including some acidic soil and are often used for reclamation purposes. They reduce the application of synthetic fertilizers on the farm and are hence economically viable. Clovers can be grown singly or in combinations with other cereal crops or forage crop like alfalfa as parts of mixed legume pastures. Clovers are of particular interest to organic farmers due to their suitability for the purpose of green composting.

Photo: Frosty Berseem Clover. Photo Credit: J.Hall

For organic green manure/nitrogen fixation purposes, these crops should be grown alone and either grazed or harvested as hay or alternately combined with soil post maturity (“plowed” down). If growing with a companion/cover crop as in with silage or with a cereal in an organic system, for Best Management Practices (BMP), kindly consider the following:

1. Plant the clover first—either broadcast and harrow pack or shallow plant with a seed drill to cover as much ground space as possible.

2. Wait 7-10 days to give the clover an opportunity to germinate (head start).

3. Plant the cover crop over top of the clover. Plant the cover crop at 40-60% of the normal planting rate.

4. While harvesting these crops for fodder, do not remove foliage below the lowest leaves (about 6 inches) or the crop cannot regrow. Additionally, once the crop flowers, it will have limited vegetative capacity so plan your management according.

5. Consider limit grazing the crop as it produces a mass of vegetation and animals will trample the crop and waste a lot of the forage.

6. Alternately, you can consider planting clover in alternate rows (for example two rows of cereal followed by one row of clover). This will work better with wider row spacing (like 10 inches).

Two new annual clovers, namely, FROSTY Berseem clover and FiXatioN Balansa clover have great potential for organic farmers in Western Canada. Both clover seeds are small (FiXatioN at 265,000 seeds/lb after coating); and are therefore extremely cost effective in comparison to traditional species like Crimson Clover and Hairy Vetch. Due to the smaller seed sizes, it is better to plant the crops shallow at approximately a quarter inch, to allow for optimum emergence. Both clovers are annual and function best as either a fall planting to overwinter or spring planting. These annual clovers are fall planted in several locations to allow a full productive crop the following spring. They both have excellent winter survival but can suffer from winter kill. It is advisable not to plant clover crops too early in the spring. The one exception might be in old alfalfa stands where later planting may affect the remnant alfalfa.

Photo: FiXatioN clover. Photo credit: J. Hall

FiXatioN Balansa Clover

FiXatioN is excellent high quality, annual, legume forage with low/no incidence of bloat and high amount of biomass production. Can be planted on its own or in combination with other forages. The crop can be planted on its own to produce high yields of quality legume forage and to fix nitrogen for subsequent cropping.

Post emergence, FiXatioN will have limited growth for 20-40 days as it develops a significant root system to then allow extensive dry matter growth. The crop will start out in a rosette stage and then grow both laterally and vertically. The lateral growth provides very good soil coverage and will often smoother other volunteer crops and weeds, making it a great tool for annual nitrogen fixation and weed control in an organic farming system.

The crop is excellent in nitrogen fixation. Trials conducted in Illinois and Oregon in the US has demonstrated 200 lbs N per acre. FiXatioN has deep taproot system breaking hardpans and scavenging soil nutrients; thereby accessing nutrients that are trapped deep in the soil and bringing them up to be available for subsequent crops. Root channels developed by the root system of the crop provide paths for water to penetrate deeper soil zones. It can be sown for the dual purpose of improving soil health along with the benefit of excellent annual legume forage. Plant 5-8 lbs/acre; 3-5 in mixes.

Frosty Berseem Clover

Frosty Berseem Clover can survive early season frosts; and can be planted on its own or with other forages (like alfalfa) resulting in high yield of quality forage legume for the purpose of harvesting or to graze. The salt tolerant crop has big tap root system and can fix nitrogen efficiently, scavenge nutrients, break up hardpan and also serve as an excellent pollinator crop. Can be planted as a cover crop for establishing alfalfa (10-20 % of mix), giving an opportunity for earlier cutting. Also works well to be planted with established alfalfa stands in either thin parts or bare patches. Frosty grazes well alone or in a variety of mixing options. Frosty can be used as key legume in your annual forage mixes or used as an emergency crop in years short of forage. Frosty is a well-grazed annual clover, with low bloat/no bloat legume (less filling). Plant 12-15 lbs/ acre, 5-7 in mixes.

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, traveling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation.

Acknowledgements: Grassland Oregon (USA) & Performance Seed (Canada)

Photo Credit: J. Hall

Ask an Expert: Pollinator Mix

in Ask an Expert/Land Stewardship/Seeds/Summer 2017

An Important Solution for Conservation of Bees and Other Insect Pollinators

Saikat Kumar Basu

Insects such as bees (Order-Hymenoptera), some species of flies (Order-Dipetra) and beetles (Order-Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Order-Lepidoptera), under the Class-Insecta and Phylum-Arthropoda constitute an important army of natural pollinators that help in the process of pollination in several important crops and forest trees. Pollination is the process of transfer of pollen grains form anther (male reproductive organ) to the stigma (female reproductive) of the same flower (self-pollination) or a different flower (cross-pollination). Cross pollination is achieved either by non-biological agents like wind, air and water; or via biological agents like different species insects as mentioned above, mollusks (snails and slugs), some species of birds (such as humming birds) and animals (such as bats).

Unfortunately, the populations of insect pollinators like honey bees and native bees are showing drastic reduction over the past few decades due to parasitic diseases, over application of pesticides and other agro-chemicals in the agricultural fields, fluctuations in climatic regimes, ecological and environmental stresses, and lack of ideal foraging habitats for season long abundant food and nutrient supply to mention only a handful across the United States and Canada.

Diversity of native bee species in western Canada. Photo credit: S. Robinson

Over 700 native bee species have been reported in Canada with around 400 species located in Western Canada alone across various habitats and ecosystems. Since the native bee populations across Canada are going down drastically, serious, comprehensive, sustainable and environment-friendly efforts are necessary to successfully conserve bee populations (both native bees and honey bees) and thereby secure the future of Canadian agriculture and apiculture industries from a long term perspective.

Use of pollinator mix or bee mix by Canadian producers such as organic growers can help significantly in promoting the conservation of native bee and honey bee populations across the nation by establishing ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries. A pollinator mix is a specially designed seed mix of several annual and/or perennial species of native wild flowers and grasses or annual/perennial wild flower-forage crop mix that can flower over a long period of time and help bees and other insect pollinators by providing them with ideal habitats to forage and nest over an extended period of time.

Pollinator mix can be seeded along the fences of crop fields and ranches, along hard to rich area of the farms, unused or agriculturally unsuitable patches, uphill or downhill farm patches difficult to crop, or unused, undisturbed weedy patches along water bodies, along irrigation canals, low traffic and undisturbed parts of local parks or gardens, backyard kitchens or ideal spots of a hoe lawn, in and around golf courses, provincial parks and gardens.

Radish plot attracting native bees. Photo credit: S. K. Basu

Pollinator Mix rich in some annual/perennial forage legumes can also help organic producers to fix nitrogen and micro nutrient deficiencies of the soil, fix nitrogen, and help in building quality bee habitats for pollinator dependent crops like seed canola, seed alfalfa, tomatoes, berry crops, orchard, and forest trees to mention only a few. Creating ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries in long or short stretches or commercial production of pollinator mix by organic producers can significantly help the dwindling bee populations of Canada.

How can the Pollinator Mix be useful:

1. Protecting honey bees, native bees, and other insect pollinators, thus allowing pollinators to get established and thrive in their natural ecosystems and helping in the process of pollination.
2. Bee sanctuaries for cities, municipalities, golf courses, ranch, and pastureland or in unused or polluted areas not suitable for agronomic and real estate enterprises can generate green spaces helping secondary target species such as smaller birds and animals to thrive.
3. Bee sanctuaries can also serve as ideal bird habitats for birds such as ducks, geese, pheasants to visit, forage, nest, and hide from predators.
4. Better yield and environment for organic producers growing both pollinator dependent/independent crop systems.
5. Environmental stewardship and establishing better farm environment and environmentally sustainable farm practices for growing pollinator dependent crops by both organic farmers and conventional non-organic crop producers alike.
6. Replacing weedy patches in and around farm area and establishing ideal bee habitats or bee sanctuaries reduces the seasonal outbreak of weeds in the organically producing farm areas.
7. Enrichment in soil quality and soil nutrient profile vital for organic producers to secure quality crop production due to presence of legumes and soil fixers in the Pollinator mix.
8. Utilizing unused areas of farm, hard to reach areas, inaccessible locations, around fences, roadsides, boulevards, around shelter belts, undisturbed and unused parts of the farms, around water bodies, irrigation canals, lakes, ponds, ditches, and swamps could significantly contribute towards increasing the vulnerable Canadian native bee populations.
9. Establishing high quality and sustainable bee sanctuaries in and around pasture, rangelands, and ranches. Pollinator mix with higher proportion of pollinator-friendly forage seed mix could be grown within rangelands left fallow for a season and could be even grazed by animals later in the season when the flowering period is over.
10. Promoting sustainable agriculture.

Fig 4. Annual forage clover: An important forage pollinator species. Photo credit: S. K. Basu

List of some important wildflower species attracting bees and other insect pollinators:

  • Erigion (Flea bane)
  • Arnica (Wolf bane)
  • Aster conspicuus (Showy aster)
  • Gaillardia (Blanket flower)
  • Allium (Wild onion)
  • Asclepias (Milkweed)
  • Viccia sp. (Vetch)
  • Solidago canadensis (Canada goldenrod)
  • Chamerion (Fireweed)
  • Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
  • Delphinium (Larkspur)
  • Campanula (Hare bell)
  • Phacelia (Scorpion weed)
  • Dahlia purpurea (Prairie purple clover)
  • Helianthus annuus (Annual/Perennial Sunflower)
  • Borage officinals (Borage)
  • Aquilegia canadensis (Wild columbine)
  • Annual/Perennial Gaillardia sp.
  • Alyssum maritimum (Sweet Alyssum)
  • Myosotis sp. (Forget-Me-Not)
  • Nemophila menziesii (Baby Blue Eyes)
  • Tradescantia ohiensis (Ohio Spiderwort)
  • Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower)
  • Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan)

Saikat Kumar Basu has a Masters in Plant Sciences and Agricultural Studies. He loves writing, travelling, and photography during his leisure and is passionate about nature and conservation. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, AB, Canada & Performance Seed, Lethbridge, AB; email: saikat.basu@alumni.uleth.ca

Acknowledgement: Performance Seed (Lethbridge, AB), S. Robinson (UFC, Calgary, AB) & W. Cetzal-Ix (ITC, Campeche, Mexico)

Feature image: Bee foraging on wild flower. Photo credit: W. Cetzal-Ix

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