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Crimson clover brings boon to farmers and soil

Crimson clover, a common cover crop, has nitrogen-producing qualities that make it a potential boon to both the environment and farmers. The crop is being promoted nationally for its functionality.

Crimson clover, a common cover crop, has nitrogen-producing qualities that make it a potential boon to both the environment and farmers. The crop, which turns Oregon fields a striking red in springtime, is now being promoted nationally for its functionality.

Oregon State University field crops extension faculty Nicole Anderson has been working with the Oregon Clover Commission to develop a market for crimson clover seed. More than 95 percent of the crimson clover seed in the United States is produced in western Oregon, Anderson said, mostly in Washington and Yamhill counties.

Crimson clover sales from Oregon in 2010 totaled about $2.5 million, but Anderson thinks that number can increase.

"This is a sustainable market Oregon seed producers can be invested in," she said.

Anderson and the Oregon Clover Commission have been try to expand the market by developing partnerships with local extension agents, crop consultants, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and growers in other states. A brochure touting the benefits of crimson clover, which was produced by Anderson and the commission, has proved popular among those groups.

As fuel prices increase so does the price of nitrogen fertilizer. Crimson clover can reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer needed. The clover puts nitrogen, a crucial nutrient in crop production, into soils to the tune of an estimated 50-150 pounds of nitrogen per acre without reducing yield.

"Crimson can be a more expensive seed, but it's likely that it's consistently giving back a fairly high supply of nitrogen," Anderson said. "You may be paying for the seed, but it's returning money to you in fertilizer cost savings and improved soil quality."

The sale of crimson clover seed is targeted at the Midwest, where corn and soybeans are major crops. Unlike western Oregon, where growers often produce crops during winter, fields in the Midwest and other regions often don’t. Those areas use cover crops to protect and nurture the soil during months when crops aren't growing and the soil is bare.

Loren Behrman has been growing crimson clover on his Washington County farm for several decades.

"When people in the Midwest started looking at the increasing cost of nitrogen and the amount of pounds they were using, it seemed like a natural fit," said Behrman. "We didn't go look for that market per se, they came to us."

However, the crop was unfamiliar to growers from other parts of the country so Anderson and Behrman traveled to several Midwest states last spring, helping growers find the best methods for the crop, including planting depth, sowing time and irrigation.

Environmental impact

In addition to the monetary impact, there may be environmental benefits to growing crimson clover. Anderson said some research suggests nitrogen from plants is more stable and less vulnerable to leaching into water sources than that from manufactured fertilizer.

Europe has already begun to restrict nitrogen fertilizer, and Behrman believes it’s only a matter of time until similar restrictions turn up in the U.S. A cover crop can prevent up to 98 percent of runoff, Anderson said. Crimson clover, with its nitrogen-building capability, could be an especially beneficial cover – and that’s the message the team has been trying to spread.

"There's an opportunity here, and we’re optimistic about the prospects," Behrman said. 

Other benefits of crimson clover as a cover crop include erosion control, improved moisture-holding capacity and increased soil organic matter.

Crimson clover could also be a boon to organic farms, which usually use alternative nutrient sources such as composts, meals or manures for fertilizer. 

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