Cool Season Perennial Clovers for Deer Food Plots

This article is intended to give you some help in choosing the right cool season plants for your deer food plots. This article focuses on the perennial and biennial clovers for your food plots.

The most common perennial or biennial “cool season” choices are certain clovers (ladino white, white- dutch, red, alsike, birdsfoot trefoil, and sweet clover) alfalfa (legume) and chicory (herb).
White Clover

White clover is a long-lived perennial in the north (through Hardiness Zone 4), a short-lived perennial or winter annual in the south (disease and drought weaken stands). If not cut or grazed to stimulate new growth, the buildup of vegetation on aged stolons and stems creates a susceptibility to disease and insect problems.

White clover is available in several varieties. Each variety has slightly different characteristics. The lowest growing type (Wild White) best survives heavy traffic and grazing. Intermediate sizes (Dutch White, New Zealand White and Louisiana S-1) flower earlier and are more heat-tolerant. The large (Ladino) types produce the most N per acre of any white types, and are valued for forage quality, especially on poorly drained soil.

white clover map distribution in the usa

Seeding at least 40 days before frost heaving will generally provide enough time for establishment and lowered losses due to frost. Mowing this clover down to no lower than 2 to 3 inches will help keep white clover healthy. Best overwintering ability is achieved by leaving 3 to 4 inches (6 to 8 inches for taller types) to prevent frost damage in the last mowing of the season.

Map Source: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). (2007). Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Third Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.sare.org/publications/covercrops/white_clover.shtml

It is often combined with annual ryegrass, small grains, chicory and vetch. It can be used with birdsfoot trefoil, berseem, red clover. Remember that birdsfoot trefoil can be easily shaded out in any mix containing rapidly growing grasses. This map is shown to demonstrate where white clover is used successfully. These areas should show good success in food plots as well. The growth of this clover is not limited to these areas but success is better here as soil conditions and temperatures are more conducive to survival.

Red Clover

Red clover is an annual in the south, but it will act as a short-lived perennial (2-3 years) in the north. It can usually survive two weeks of spring flooding, but is not as tolerant to wet conditions as white clover. It establishes itself very readily as the seedlings are very vigorous.

It is often combined with other clovers (ladino white, trefoil) because its growing season extends later in the summer than other perennial legumes. It can also be planted with small grains (wheat, oats, rye) or chicory. Common varieties of red clover include Cherokee, Colenso, Kenland, Redland II, Redland III, and Redlandgraze.

This map shows where Red Clover is used as a cover crop with good success and different areas where it is used as a spring seeded biennial and a winter annual. This will translate well into food plot growth. The USDA map shows where this clover volunteers, which indicates its ability to adapt to a wide variety of conditions in both the United States and Canada.

red clover map usa
Trifolium pratense L.

Map Source: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). (2007). Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Third Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.sare.org/publications/covercrops/red_clover.shtml

Map Source: United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Retrieved From: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=TRPR2

Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil is a good reseeding cool season perennial with some great advantages but also some very specific requirements. It can do well on a variety of soil conditions and can survive flooding in the early spring.

Birdsfoot trefoil map in the usa and canada

The disadvantages are that it may take two years to become established. It can be decimated if used too heavily in the first year and is not winter hardy. Unlike most other legumes the use of nurse crops should be avoided as tall plants that shade this clover out can result in crop failure. It grows best alone or with non aggressive grasses or other legumes.

Aggressive weed control is necessary when growing this legume. Planting it in areas where aggressive perennial weeds such as quack grass or Canada thistle are present is not recommended.

The USDA map shows where this clover volunteers, which indicates its ability to adapt to a wide variety of conditions in both the United States and Canada.

Map Source: United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Retrieved From: http://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_loco6.pdf

Sweet clover

Sweet clover can be used in a variety of ways in your food plots. It can be planted as a winter annual (late winter or early spring seeding), summer annual (late spring, early summer seeding) or biennial (late summer seeding thru zone 6 at least six weeks before heavy frost). In the Northern Plains into Canada, it should be planted by mid to late August.

In food plots it is mixed with small grains and other clovers (commonly red). Another alternative is to overseed into small grain stands that were planted the prior fall. The grain in this instance is used as a nurse crop helping protect the clover in its early development. You can also overseed into existing corn and soybean fields. This clover has exceptional grazing tolerance in its second year. DENTA, POLARA, and NORGOLD are low coumarin varieties that are considered the better for food plots. The presence of coumarin in the plant affects the taste and deer prefer the lower content varieties. The coumarin is not toxic to wildlife when grazed. HUBAM is the most common variety used in the Deep South.

This clover is common in the South because of its deep rooting structure. It is the most drought tolerant legume and can be used to manage deadpan. It can even pull nutrients from soil making them available for use by other plants. Even so, it has a moderate to high requirement for P and K and soil amendments may be necessary.

The seed has a very hard shell and can remain in the soil for dozens of years. It can be established in some questionable areas where other clovers cannot be used such as slopes, old mining trails; game migration trails as long as the pH is above 6.5.

This map shows where Sweet Clover is used with good success and different areas where it is used as a spring seeded biennial and a fall seeded biennial. This will translate well into food plot growth. The USDA map shows where this clover volunteers, which indicates its ability to adapt to a wide variety of conditions in both the United States and Canada.

sweet clover map usa
sweet clover map

Map Source: United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Retrieved From: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=MELIL

Map Source: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). (2007). Managing Cover Crops Profitably. Third Edition. Retrieved from: http://www.sare.org/publications/covercrops/sweet_clovers.shtml

Alsike clover

Alsike clover is a short-lived perennial. It can survive prolonged water logging in the spring (6 weeks) as long as the soil does not completely dry out following the spring flooding.

Alsike clover map usa

It is a tough legume and the most tolerant of cold, frost heaving, insects and diseases.

In wet acidic soils it does well with rye and birdsfoot trefoil. It has excellent winter hardiness.

It is somewhat difficult to control the proportion of alsike clover in a mixture, since this legume tends to dominate the stand for the first one or two years, and then it decreases rapidly.

Two common varieties of alsike clover are Aurora and Dawn. Companion plants include ladino, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, rape, and oats.

This map is shown to demonstrate where alsike grows naturally. These areas should show good success in food plots as well. As you can see this clover adapts to a wide variety of conditions.

Map Source: United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Retrieved From: http://plants.usda.gov/java/nameSearch?keywordquery=alsike+clover&mode=comname

If more detail is needed we have charts available in the 2nd Edition of Deer Food Plots Made Easy that give even more detailed information than that found here.

See our charts in the SECOND EDITION on:

1. Common Cool Season Plants For Deer Food Plots:
Annual, Perennial, Biennial Planting Dates (North and South)

2. Common Cool Season Plants For Deer Food Plots:
Soil and pH Preferences, Till or Low Till, Reseeding Information

3. Common Cool Season Legumes For Deer Food Plots:
Tolerances (Grazing, Growth, Heat, Drought, Shade, Flood/Wet, Low Fertility)

4. Popular Regional Legume + Chicory Plant Choices For Deer Food Plots

Thank you for visiting www.diydeerfoodplots.com

Have a successful year in your deer food plot efforts.

Dr. Judy McFarlen www.diydeerfoodplots.com/ Veterinarian, Alberta Rancher, and publisher of Deer Food Plots Made Easy, Dr. Judy McFarlen has helped a large number of novice and experienced deer food plotters establish and improve their whitetail deer food plots.

From deer food plot location strategies to seed selection, this text is a nuts and bolts kind of reading. It is guaranteed to make sense to even to the most inexperienced grower.