Compost and Clover

In 1992, I started farming my northeast Ohio farm. It was a poor farm that had been mowed twice a year and the hay taken off. The hay left the farm and, with it, all the fertility of the soil. Year after year, that hay was taken. No amendments or manure were put on the ground to stop the cycle of depletion. After more than 20 years of these bad farming practices, it was my turn to farm this ground.

As any young guy about to work his own land, I was excited. I knew the difference between good land and bad land, poor soil and good soil, even a poor farm from a great farm, but this land is what I could afford. There was no money in my budget to quickly raise the level of fertility or install drainage, but I did have the luxury of time. I also had a team of horses, a riding horse and a small steer. Those animals provided an amount of manure that started to break the cycle of bad management the farm had seen for the past two decades.

I also started mowing the farm. Everywhere I could mow with the horses and McCormick-Deering #7 mower, I did. The rest of the farm that could be brush hogged, I hired done at least once per year. I mentally divided the farm into parcels and headed down a path to improvement.

Actual, temporary fences took the place of imaginary lines. I used a large section for pasture. Two other sections, close to the house, I used for row crops like corn and gardens; eventually those places were planted to a crop of oats and hay. The oats were mowed for hay but used mostly as a nurse crop for the growing hay crop. I used the small amount of manure generated by those few animals, on these two sections. The pastures got the manure the animals dropped while grazing. I scattered the droppings by dragging the pasture at least annually. Those areas also got the benefit from the rotting grass and weed clippings, and from the mowing but not much else. The balance of the farm was a small hayfield and the “edges” that only got mowed. The pasture, the small hay field and the odd shaped overgrown edges were the first to get frost seeded with clover.

ponies packing
The manure pile cooking in winter.

I added two bred Hereford heifers to our animal numbers, as much for their manure as for the meat they someday would provide. I also added hogs to our mix. These started out as a 4-H project for my son, but quickly became a mainstay for our farm. I used them to turn the compost pile and loosen the bedding packs of the cattle. I put shell corn into the pile and the bedding packs by poking a hole with a spud bar. The pigs rooted up everything as they searched for the shelled corn. I purchased a small horse-drawn spreader. The extra manure, the “work pigs” and the nitrogen fixing clovers started to make a difference on the farm by the third year.

The mowing of weeds, brush, hay and grass, left to rot, at least replaced the nutrients they took up. I continued to frost seed clover every spring on all but the plots that would be plowed for corn. On the corn ground, I concentrated the compost applications until it was sufficiently covered. The rest of the compost, I applied to the areas that would be mowed for hay. This process was slow and steady. The best part for me was that this method was affordable on my tight budget. The clover started to make itself abundant. Soon, the nitrogen fixation could be seen, as the grasses started to flourish. I timed my stocking density with the availability of pasture and hay. The added animals increased my compost pile, which, in turn, increased the farm’s fertility. Compost goes a long way in “buffering” the soil’s pH. It does not adjust pH, but it allows for microscopic areas where a plant can take up nutrients, otherwise “locked” in low pH soils. I needed to lime my acidic soils, but during those first lean years, lime was not in the budget. My only resource was compost, and it worked.

I got to the place where I could plant a unit of corn seed. A unit used to be called a bag of seed corn and would plant about three acres. Three acres of corn was manageable for me. It would provide about 240 bushels of corn for winter feeding. I also got to use the fodder for feed, not a lot of feed value, but feed nonetheless. In the little fields where corn would be planted, I scraped enough money together to apply lime at the rate of about two tons to the acre. I bought five to six tons yearly at a cost back then of about $125.00. The reason I chose that amount is because two tons per acre is about what soil can absorb in one year. I got the maximum benefit that way for the money spent.

I am convinced that the mowing, compost and clover made huge increases in the farm’s fertility. It do now, some 25 years later, using these same practices, the results are undeniable. A bag of clover seed has increased in price since the beginning of my farming venture, but it is some of the best money that I spend. There are more choices of clover seed than there were back then. I used a mix of medium red and flat Dutch in my early years.

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Finished compost ready to be spread on the fields.

I now use birdsfoot trefoil, Alsike clover and medium red clover. I don’t aim for pure stands, but rather a nice mix that shows up well in the stand. Endophyte free fescue and red clover makes an awesome hay for cattle. This same mix stands up well for grazing. The Alsike is a low-growing, white clover like the old standby white Dutch that grows well in dry periods of summer. The Alsike is more prolific with finer stems and abundant leaves. My soils are a heavy clay that alfalfa does not like, but the birdsfoot trefoil does extremely well on it.

The hay mix I use for my horses is birdsfoot trefoil and timothy. This makes a wonderful hay at first cutting. Long, tender stems of timothy and sweet, high protein clippings of the trefoil mixed in. I use a type of timothy now called “Barpenta;” it is a late maturing, wide-stemmed variety replacing the old standby “Climax.” This grows very well on my farm and produces a high volume of dry matter. The second cutting from these fields are very succulent, leafy trefoil and fine-stemmed timothy grass. I have used this regrowth for plastic-wrapped baleage the last two years. This high protein feed is an asset for winter feeding for the cattle and sheep.

Horses can get “slobbers” from clover. I have not had a problem with it ever, but it can happen. “Slobbers,” or Slaframine Poisoning, is a non-lifethreatening irritation in their mouths from plant awns that causes them to drool. It is most often seen in late summer when the horses graze close and eat plants they might otherwise avoid. Also in early spring during wet times, the plants can become affected with a fungus called Rhizoctonia leguminicola. This fungus will also cause “slobbers.” Moving the horse to a different pasture or changing feed if the “slobbers” are coming from a horse eating legume hay will clear the problem up in no time. I think the reason I haven’t had an issue with “slobbers” is because of the ratio of grass to clover in my pastures and the summer pasture rotation. The horses are moved quite often in summer and are fed hay in the barn. They can turn their nose up at anything they want. Wild raspberry can also cause “slobbers” in horses that graze a wooded area and eat them when the grass becomes scarce. The main take away here is: “slobbers” is non-life threatening and easily managed.

My farm’s fertility is the result of compost applied, mowing of paddocks and pastures and the planting of clovers. I choose to frost seed because of the ease of doing so. I walk across the open, frozen ground, scattering the seed with a spin seeder. The freezing and thawing of the late winter soil plants the seed for me. I have no fuel expended, no special equipment needed and only my time and the cost of the seed invested. I use the planting time to walk the fields, plan for the coming year or just enjoy a crisp early spring morning.

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This picture shows our horses grazing lush grass in October, long after most pastures on farms are depleted.
Ralph farms in northeast Ohio. To see more of his writing,visit his blog
at: rh house logo

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