Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sowing Clover, Sowing Hope

Sowing Clover, Sowing Hope

In our family, there’s a tradition of sowing new clover on the Feast of St. Joseph, which in case you heathens don’t know, falls on March 19. So on that day this year you could find me, one of the more pious heathens, walking my fields, cranking away on my little broadcast seeder like an organ grinder, sowing red clover seed. Actually, I did it on March 18, but surely old St. Joseph wouldn’t quibble over a mere twenty four hours.

Why clover should be planted on March 19 I do not know, but who am I to question tradition. In my case, March 19, or thereabouts, is the usual time I get around to this first planting of the year. I don’t want to do it when it’s cold enough to freeze my bones, or the field too muddy to walk on easily, or the wind so brisk it would blow the light seed half way across the field. So for me it’s the middle of March with the cardinals singing. It could be that winter sowing might be better, with more time for snow and ice and frost to drive the seed tighter against the soil surface for better germination when the weather warms. My Dad liked to sow clover on top of snow, so he could see if he was getting an even spread— the little dark seeds showing up on the snow like pepper on mashed potatoes.

But even as late as March 19, there’s a good chance here that the soil surface will freeze and thaw lightly a time or two more before warm weather arrives to stay. The freezing and thawing forms little fissures in the soil surface for the clover seed to sink into and get a good firm grip on the soil. That is all that red clover needs to sprout and grow.

I could be sowing white clover or alfalfa, I suppose, but medium red clover is the best legume for germinating on the soil surface. Alfalfa sprouts better when planted very shallowly in the soil— about a quarter inch but definitely covered with a bit of soil.

So over the years I have become a fervent disciple of red clover, if not St. Joseph. I have a vision. I do not think that annually cultivated grains need to be the foundation of animal agriculture. Clovers combined with grass, as pasture and as hay, can supply most of the feed for farm animals.

Red clover generally makes a light stand the first year, then a heavy stand a second year, and if allowed to keep on growing, a light stand again the third year before the plants die out. Therefore to keep it at full yield, every other spring, it needs to be renewed. Some farmers, like my friend, Oren Long in Kansas, have learned to do that naturally, that is by allowing grazing cattle to tramp the ripened blossoms of standing clover into the soil surface and so renew the stand without any broadcasting. I haven’t yet got the knack of that. So in March, I sow new seed on the partially bared soil of the old stand. Then, with the accompanying grasses and good management livestock can get about all the proteins and carbohydrates they need without disturbing the soil with annual cultivation at all.

Sowing Clover, Sowing Hope

To make sure my clover germinates when planted on old clover stands, (that is without cattle to trample the seed naturally into the ground as Oren does) I rely on one tool that makes enough of a seedbed with only the most minimal disturbance of the soil surface. It is the cultipacker— that’s mine in the photo above. As you can see, it has a row of alternating steel rollers and hooked rolling prongs.

Sowing Clover, Sowing Hope

If you look real close (a magnifying glass helps) you can see, in the other photo, a closeup of the tracks made by the cultipacker. You can discern first on the left side, the tread of the tractor tire, which also helps press the seed into the soil and then ridges and grooves made by the steel rollers. If you look real close, you may be able to make out the pockmarks that the hooked prongs press into the soil. All these various actions pack the clover seed against the soil surface. What you can’t see is that there is about an inch of space between each rolling groove-maker and hooked prong, so that as they are pulled fairly rapidly across the field by the tractor, they wobble. This wobbling allows the prongs to ruffle the soil surface to provide a bit of loose soil to allow for better contact between soil and seed. The finest part of this fine art is to perform this operation when the soil surface is soft enough for the cultipacker to do sufficient packing but firm enough that the tractor tires do not gouge the soil. You may have only a few days in the spring when that is the case.

Note also, that this soil surface has some regrowth of old clover coming up (yes, even on March 18). A few more days after this photo was taken, sheep could graze it while the sheep’s hooves also pressed some of the new clover seed more firmly yet into the grooves made by the cultipacker. That’s what writers in old books meant when they referred to the “golden hooves” of the sheep. The old clover growth will also provide some forage along with accompanying grasses while the new clover is establishing itself.

Although my cultipacker is almost as old as St. Joseph, I see it as the wave of the future. In my vision it can replace all the plows and disks and field cultivators and planters that St. John Deere ever invented. But first we have to realize that we can produce our meat, milk and eggs without resorting to annual cultivation of annual grains. Think I will live long enough to see that happen?

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