Whitetails 365: Utilizing Frost Seeding For Clover Food Plots

By Jessica Graham

As spring approaches hunters begin to plan and strategize over food plots. One staple that should be included in your food plot tactic is clover. Clover is one of the best perennial food sources for deer, and offers birds prime habitat as well. It is beneficial almost all year round. It is one of the first food sources to begin to green-up in the spring, provides habitat and food for wildlife in the spring and summer, and it can withstand a couple of frosts. In fact, deer will paw through the snow to get to clover food plots. Did you know that clover is also easy to plant with minimal equipment? You can accomplish this by frost seeding clover.

What is Frost Seeding?
Clover is a cool-season legume. That means it grows well during cool soil seasons, like spring and fall, and also thrives in the summer. Frost seeding is when seed is scattered on top of the ground, and the freeze-thaw cycles of Iowa’s late winter/early spring will help drive the seed into the ground.

When the temperatures warm during the day time, the ground gets soft and as temperatures fall in the evening, the ground re-freezes. This repeated freezing and thawing of the snow, ice, and ground allows the seed to work its way into the soil. In Iowa, we usually frost seed during February and March. If no equipment is available, you can broadcast by hand, or you can use a mechanical broadcaster to accomplish this.

Use the appropriate seeding recommendations when frost seeding. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends 4 lbs./acre of pure live seed (PLS) for white clover, 2 – 3 lbs./acre for Ladino clover, and 4 – 6 lbs./acre for red clover. Proper seeding rates encourages optimal stands.

Too much seed can create competition, and not enough will leave you unhappy with the clover stand. One of the reasons frost seeding is so successful in Iowa is because clover seed is very tiny. It has a minimal amount of stored energy to help it get the shoot above ground. At times, mechanical seeding can get the seed too deep and the seed will germinate, but will not be able to make it above the soil. When the ground temperatures warm, the clover seed begins to germinate, and you should see it growing in late March.

How to Maintain Frost Seeded Clover
Clover does require a little maintenance to keep a lush stand for several years. Grass tends to be the main competitor with clover. If left without any care, grass will choke out the clover and in a short time, your clover field turns into a grass field. For this reason, grass needs to be controlled. You should use a grass selective herbicide such as clethodim, sethoxydim, or fluazifop-p. These chemicals are selective herbicides that will kill the grass, but leave the clover unharmed. Another way to control weeds, both grasses and broadleaves, is by mowing the clover.

Mowing cuts both the weeds and the clover down and encourages branching out of the clover plant. This will help shade out younger weeds which will also suppress weed growth. When clover is mowed, it encourages young, tender shoots, which are preferred by wildlife including deer, turkey, rabbits and upland game birds. The increased branching potentially can produce more seed heads and offers a favorable environment to pollinators and insects, which also attracts birds to the food plot.

During the growing season, clover will produce a flower head which will then yield seed. I recommend letting the clover go to seed at least once during the growing season for two reasons. First of all, it will disperse more seed that can potentially germinate and thicken your stand. Secondly, by allowing the clover to go to seed during the first year, the clover can put energy into establishing a good root system and crown for over wintering and a good spring growth the following year.

How to Hunt Clover Food Plots
If you have a small parcel, and can only plant one thing, frost seed clover this late winter. This can include a “clover trail” which is just a small strip of clover that leads to your stand. It can be mowed short for hunting and walking. Clover is attractive early in the spring until too much snow prevents deer from digging down to it. Before bow season begins, mow the clover short to encourage tender and palatable shoots for deer. You will likely observe turkey in and around your clover. If you hunt deer with both archery tackle and firearms, clover food plots pair well with a winter food source such as standing corn, standing beans, or brassicas. The clover will be attractive from the spring until the snow is too deep for wildlife to get to the clover. The standing grains or brassicas will give the deer and other animals a food option that requires a little less effort to get to during the coldest snowy days.