Crimson Clover for Deer Food Plots

July 21, 2021 By: Ryan Basinger

Versatile. Rugged. Productive. Attractive. Nutritious. Resilient. Persistent. These are some of the characteristics that come to mind when I think about crimson clover. Maybe that’s why it is one of the most popular species of clover ever planted for deer and other wildlife over the past several decades. In fact, I have a co-worker who doesn’t even know there are other species of clover available to plant!

Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) was introduced to the United States from the Mediterranean region and has many uses, ranging from soil stabilization and improvement, pollinator enhancement, pastures, hay production, and aesthetics or beautification. 

Species Description

Crimson clover is a short-lived cool-season annual legume. It has rounded leaflets that, along with the stem, are covered with many fine white hairs. This is the easiest way to differentiate crimson clover from most other clovers. Also, the leaflets do not have the white “V” that is characteristic of many clovers. Not to be confused with red clover, which has pink flowers that bloom in mid- to late summer, crimson clover has deep crimson flowers that bloom in the spring, usually April to May. The seed heads are cone-shaped, and plants typically reach 1- to 2-feet tall at maturity.

Crimson performs well in a wide range of soil types, ranging from heavy clay to sandy soils. It is also more tolerant of soil acidity than most other clovers and can produce quite well with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.0. However, for optimum forage production, attraction, and nutritional quality, the soil pH should be managed in the neutral range if possible.

Perhaps one of the most attractive qualities of crimson is its prolific re-seeding ability. If managed properly, plots can be regenerated from year to year with minimal maintenance and expense. More on this later.

Germination and initial growth of crimson is fairly quick, providing a good source of attraction during the early season. It is also highly preferred by deer when compared to other popular deer forages and is resistant to heavy grazing pressure, making it well suited for small plots and areas with a high deer density. 

Crude protein levels of crimson clover can easily reach 25 to 30% in well-managed plots. It is also one of the most digestible forages when compared to many other popular species planted for deer. 

In terms of overall forage production, crimson is one of the highest producing clovers and can produce 6,000 to 7,000 lbs./acre dry weight. This is comparable to some of the highly productive summer forages with much larger leaves, such as soybeans, cowpeas, and lablab! 

This classic blend of awnless wheat, crimson clover and arrowleaf clover combines annuals that provide nutrition and attraction for deer from September to June.

Soil Preparation & Planting

Because crimson clover is a legume, it doesn’t require the addition of nitrogen fertilizer for optimum production, however, phosphorus and potassium should be applied at levels recommended from a soil test. Although crimson can tolerate soil acidity better than many other deer forages, lime should be applied according to a soil test to achieve a balanced pH. This is especially important considering that other forages will likely be included in the planting mixture that are more sensitive to soil pH. Taking care of these important steps will help ensure healthy, vigorous plots that can better withstand adverse weather conditions like drought or deep cold, heavy browsing pressure, weed pressure, disease, and the list goes on.

Crimson clover is very easy to establish and can either be broadcast at 25 lbs./acre into a well prepared seed bed or drilled at 15 lbs./acre with a no-till drill. In the South, it should be planted in late August through October. In northern states it should be planted in August or in April for spring/summer planting. 

Prior to planting, it is important to inoculate crimson clover (strain R) unless using pre-inoculated seed. Most crimson clover comes pre-inoculated these days, however, be sure to consider the weight of the seed coating material that contains the inoculant when calculating your seeding rate. Most popular varieties of crimson clover contain 50% coating material per bag, thus a 50- lb. bag of crimson only contains 25 pounds of actual seed. Then when you consider the germination rate of that bag, which is probably 80%, the amount of viable seed decreases even more. Be sure to factor this in when figuring your seeding rate. You essentially would need to double your seeding rate for crimson to achieve the desired amount of seed per acre. 

If broadcasting seed, be sure to create a smooth, firm seed bed to ensure optimum germination and seedling establishment. Seeds are very small so be sure the field is free of deep furrows from disking and large clods/debris to prevent covering too deep. If the soil is “fluffy” from repeated tillage, cultipacking prior to sowing the seed is recommended to assist with achieving the ideal seed bed and enhance germination, as loose soil will reduce germination.

When covering the seed, be sure it isn’t buried more than 1/4-inch deep. If rain is in the forecast, you can simply allow the rainfall to work the seed into the soil. If not, cultipack the field again to firmly press seed into the soil for good contact. If no-till planting, be sure to kill the existing vegetation with glyphosate a few weeks prior to planting to eliminate weed competition and create a clean field prior to establishment. 

A classic fall mixture containing crimson that will perform well in most plots and provide excellent attraction and nutrition for the deer herd from September to June is included below.

The Poor Man’s Plot

As previously mentioned, crimson clover is an excellent re-seeder. If a successful stand is achieved and crimson is allowed to flower and produce seed in the spring, plots can be regenerated the following fall without replanting. Simply allow the field to go fallow over the summer after the clover dies out. A few weeks prior to fall planting dates for your area, spray the plot with glyphosate (1 to 2 quarts/acre). After the existing vegetation is killed with herbicide and breaks down, spread wheat (50 lbs./acre pure live seed), lime and fertilizer according to a soil test, and mow the plot or lightly disk to expose some of the soil to stimulate germination of the crimson clover seed contained within the seed bank. This is another reason to consider adding arrowleaf clover. Arrowleaf has the same re-seeding capabilities but lasts about one to two months longer into the summer than crimson, which extends the life of the plot further into the summer to benefit deer well beyond hunting season.

Weed Control

Because crimson clover can establish rather quickly, many weeds are often suppressed during establishment. However, if weed competition is a problem, several herbicide options exist, depending on which weed species are present, as well as the other types of forages included in your mixture. 

Grass weeds can be effectively controlled with Clethodim, Poast, or any grass-selective herbicide. 2,4-DB (Butyrac) is an option for controlling certain broadleaf weeds while Pursuit can be used (post-emergence only) to control many grass and forb weeds in pure clover stands, but it will kill other species if a mixture is planted. Also, when using Butyrac or Pursuit, make sure the clover has at least two trifoliate leaves before spraying or damage could occur. 

Many food plots in the South contain ryegrass that germinates naturally that will choke out your planted crops if not controlled. The mixture provided above can be sprayed with Axial XL or Achieve to control ryegrass. However, don’t wait until spring to spray ryegrass, because by then it will be too late. Spray in December or earlier if possible. Lastly, when using any herbicide, be sure to check the label for specific weed species controlled and follow all safety precautions according to the label.

About Ryan Basinger:

Ryan Basinger of Alabama is a certified wildlife biologist and the Wildlife Consulting Manager for Westervelt Wildlife Services. He has a broad range of professional experience managing wildlife populations and their habitats on public and private lands throughout the Southeast. Ryan has conducted research on a variety of species and habitats where he examined the effects of various forest management techniques on browse production, availability, preference, and nutrition for white-tailed deer. Ryan also has conducted extensive food plot research where he compared production, nutrition, preference, and availability of various forages planted for deer. He earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife science from Mississippi State University and his master's in wildlife management from the University of Tennessee.

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