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New cold-tolerant clovers

The first arrivals are cover crops, but forages are on their way

When it comes to trying something new, it’s common for growers who rely on their forages to stick with what works. That’s understandable, given the demands for consistency, especially by dairy producers. Yet standing still is rarely a path to success on the farm.

Now, in spite of growing concerns surrounding climate change, one seed company is expanding its offering of cold-tolerant clover varieties in the U.S. and Canada.

Grassland Oregon, a seed company based in Salem, Oregon, has launched FIXatioN Balansa and Frosty Berseem clovers, making them available to producers in Canada. Both varieties are capable of withstanding temperatures as cold as -26 C and -5 C (without snow cover).

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At present, the primary focus is on using them for cover crops but eventually the plan is to have them available as forage varieties.

FIXatioN Balansa and Frosty Berseem have been in the breeding pipeline for more than 10 years with evaluations starting in 2004. According to Don Baune, co-founder of Grassland Oregon and partner in sales for North America and Canada, the process began after noticing that some Berseem and Balansa plants survived the cold winter conditions in Oregon.

Initially, the research team was simply testing 800 to 900 different selections of the two varieties, when more than 99 per cent died that winter. But the team became intrigued and encouraged by the survivors and began the selection and screening process, with the goal of developing tolerance to colder temperatures.

“A lot of times when you start to breed into those things, as one trait is developing, you’ll lose something from a variety,” says Baune. “You’re going to get cold tolerance but you might lose disease resistance, or a lot of times when you develop these things, you start to lose yield.”

By the fall of 2014, however, Grassland Oregon breeders were making their selections. Since then, the company has been involved in the patenting process, as well as choosing three Canadian companies through which they can market their varieties, first as cover crops and then as forage crops.

Riding the wave

Marketing the varieties as cover crops is helpful as it’s building on the growing recognition of soil health as a vital component to improved production. Growers, extension personnel and researchers all see the need for building organic matter, improving water-holding capacity and reducing the impacts of compaction. And use of cover crops is one way of accomplishing all three of these goals.

Frosty Berseem, can help with compaction issues and mine N from deeper in the soil.
photo: Courtesy of Grassland Oregon

Scott Bowman, general manager of Speare Seeds, one of the Canadian companies chosen by Grassland Oregon, echoes many of Baune’s statements concerning the soil health angle that goes with cover crops. He acknowledges that the subject of cover crops has become a huge issue, and that growers are showing greater interest, not just in one or two types of covers, but multi-blends.

“We were able to get our hands on some seed for these two varieties for this year, and we continue to bring in more,” says Bowman, who’s based at the company head office in Harriston, Ont. “This is our first real exposure to these as cover crops for our growers, so it’s still pretty new to us. We’re trying to have Don educate us, and then we’re trying to educate our growers and learn from their success stories, and that will take place later into this fall and even into next spring.”

Baune has heard from several farmers who have been very pleased with Frosty Berseem’s and FIXatioN Balansa’s adaptability as cover crops, and he has corresponded with one grower who said they did better on wetter ground because of their ability to withstand lower temperatures. Such traits suggest the varieties could be popular candidates for a feed crop as well.

Forage forth

“We haven’t quite got all of the ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ filled out with it, to be using them as a forage, under Canadian regulations, although they’re extremely good forage,” Bowman says. “They have excellent palatability and digestibility, and they’re ideal because of their nutrient values and huge yield potentials. We’ve had crude protein range — in our tests in the U.S. — anywhere from 22 to 28 per cent with a relative feed value ranging somewhere around 277, so they’re going to make excellent forage when they become available.”

In some regions in Oregon, the company says it has seen as high as 10,000 lbs. of extremely high-quality dry matter from a single cutting.

On the NDF and ADF values, the two have tested out at 25.4 and 17.1, respectively, lower than typical values for alfalfa (around 36 and 30). But one other advantage of Berseem and Balansa is their ability to drive through plow pans and break the compaction cycle. Both varieties send a tap root more than 30 inches deep before winter and into early spring as a crop comes out of dormancy.

“Its aggressive nature below ground during the off-season breaks up that hard pan, and creates large channels for improving water infiltration and opens airways into the soil, which also helps the microbial growth into the soil,” says Baune. “It’s also excellent for mining nutrients deep down in the soil and bringing them back up into the plant, so that when you’re terminating it (as a cover) it’s all right there and breaks down very quickly for the subsequent crop.”

Additional benefits

Baune has seen the cold clovers used as a cover crop for vineyards as well, where some producers have seeded the runways with triticale, oats or phacelia, in an effort to loosen the soils. Baune spoke to one operator who initially expressed doubt about either variety, wondering about how it might grow under the vines. But when he saw a penetrometer knife through the soil, he told Baune that he’d figure out a way to make it work.

There’s also a fertility advantage with these clovers. With the deep tap root, Baune says growers are seeing more of a short-term payoff planting into their cover crops. Using triticale or fall rye, they might get a little less compaction or a spot in a field where they were mining more of the nitrogen and returning it to the surface.

“In some of our areas, we’ve been able to produce up to 300 lbs. of N per acre the following year,” adds Baune. “Farmers are starting to see this and it’s adding up a little bit faster with these annual clovers before we released them four years ago.”

Another advantage of the two varieties is in the newly emerging trend of no-till forage production. Baune agrees that farmers can broadcast their seed — with an inoculum — during that mid-August to mid-September planting window, or it can be seeded within that same time frame.

With its current registration as a cover, Bowman also believes cold clover has a place as a no-till option.

“What we’re finding is that farmers want to move to a no-till situation, and they’re trying to figure out — when it comes to a cover crop — what is the best cover crop that they’re going to be able to grow?” says Bowman. “And the issue with cover crops that are designed to overwinter is that as the springtime temperatures rise, those fields sometimes become tough to no till into.”

Bowman doesn’t anticipate any issue with Frosty Berseem or FIXatioN Balansa, although he concedes that working with cover crops can create some reluctance in growers: they may not be set up for such a move using their current farm practices or equipment.

This article was originally published in the 2017 issue of the Forage & Grassland Guide.

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