Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Red Clover: Antibiotic Alternative for Cattle

This article comes to us from Sandra Avant, at the ARS Office of Communications and the May issue of Ag Research Magazine.

A compound found in a common forage plant may help to reduce use of growth-promoting antibiotics in cattle, goats, sheep, and other ruminants.

At the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Forage-Animal Production Research Unit (FAPRU) in Lexington, Kentucky, scientists discovered a natural antimicrobial compound, biochanin A, in red clover. They found that biochanin A can inhibit and kill a group of “protein-wasting” bacteria typically treated with antibiotics.

Ruminants are unique in that they have an upper digestive system that consists of four compartments, says FAPRU microbiologist Michael Flythe. The largest compartment, the rumen, contains many types of helpful bacteria, such as those that break down fiber and allow animals to get energy from grass or hay. But other types, such as hyper ammonia-producing bacteria (HAB), are referred to as “wasteful” because they digest protein and convert it into ammonia.

“When the bacteria ferment protein, it reduces protein available to the animal,” Flythe says. “And these wasteful bacteria make ammonia that can pollute the environment. It’s excreted from animals and can end up in groundwater.”

The goal in production is for the animals to absorb the protein from feed, rather than degrade it into ammonia. Traditionally, producers achieved this by giving cattle antibiotics that kill HAB, enabling the animals to get enough protein. However, there is a strong push to reduce antibiotic use for growth-promotion purposes.

Flythe first demonstrated that biochanin A could kill wasteful bacteria in the laboratory. Since then, FAPRU animal scientist Glen Aiken has conducted successful field trials with cattle given feed mixed with biochanin A. Results showed that the compound kills wasteful bacteria and promotes weight gain in animals.

“The red clover compound kills HAB, which boosts the animal’s performance and helps the environment by reducing excretion of ammonia,” Aiken says.

“Red clover is something producers would use with growing beef cattle,” Flythe says. “They would limit its use in cow-calf herds because biochanin A has estrogen-like activity that might interfere with reproduction.”

The compound differs from other treatments in that it doesn’t have to be extracted from the plant or made into a product, Flythe says. It’s found in the clover, which can easily be grown.

“In human nutrition, one trend is ‘functional food,’ which has benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as the beneficial compounds in wine,” Flythe says. “We think of red clover as ‘functional feed.’ It provides protein and is a natural and effective alternative to antibiotics.”


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. We interseeded red clover in our fescue pastures years ago on the recommendations of NRCS. Initially, as a lugume it fixates nitrogen in the soil greatly reducing annual fertilizer costs. Since then, we have really noticed an improvement in our overall herd health, so this study does not surprise me.

  2. okay once I started commenting I cant shut up
    since it was a free talk by jim gerrish at the conservative
    shall we say Utah cattlemans meeting in provo 3 years ago
    Jim Gerrish commented and it was like we should all know!!.
    A cow grazing clover excreates plenty excess nitrogen ie excess protein in the urine 7 times a day.
    for me that meant get that sack of clover setting around
    ….planted !!
    with my no till drill…which you advertise rental for me
    that starts FERTILIZING your grass pasture.
    Its not those few clover plants and roots that fertilize
    like we thought. So I planted and a few blooms showed up in what was thick irrigated orchard grass. next san foin goes in as it is a perennial and proven in Idaho Utah montana

  3. Kathy way to go on clover story ….you continue to amaze me ….after it freezes lets all gather at elko and tour the Maggie creek brush killing project…where Carole and I first met you. Richard parrott buhl idaho

  4. Clover blossoms have for thousands of years been on herbals for humans. Now I know why! Best bet to get cattle off of antibios, put them back on pasture and move often to clean pasture. Fresh, green feed daily makes better beef than graining. Grain to animals is like candy to kids, the less the better. Some, certainly, but not try to live on it. Good article, thank you.

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