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Red Clover Hay Supplementation Grows Fat Cattle

By   /  September 21, 2020  /  1 Comment

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To jump right to the end of the story, researchers have found when 15% of the diet of steers in pasture was a supplement of red clover hay/ with about 3 pounds of dried distillers grain, they gained more weight than those on pasture alone – 2.45 pounds a day compared to 1.94. That’s interesting and helpful information, but it leaves out information that tells us why we care and what we can do with it. So let’s go deeper.

Why Red Clover?

To answer this question, we need to know a little more about the rumen and how it functions. Ruminant digestion is a process that relies on billions of bacteria and microorganisms. While beneficial bacteria break down fiber and turn forage into nutrients, there are some that “steal” protein and turn it into methane excreted as gas, or ammonia excreted in urine. One way to prevent this theft is feeding low-levels of antibiotics. Antibiotics suppress these “Hyper Ammonia-producing Bacteria” (HABs) so that the animal can absorb nutrients that otherwise would have been lost and can gain weight more rapidly.

In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked feedlots and producers to phase out the use of antibiotics as feed supplements over concerns that it could lead to more antibiotic resistant bacteria. The hunt for a replacement ramped up, and Red Clover was explored as one option

Red Clover contains an isoflavone called biochanin A. In lab tests biochanin A prevented HAB from growing. It also promoted cellulolytic bacteria. Those are the bacteria that break down all the cellulose in the grasses and other forages ruminants eat, converting them into usable sugars. Knowing this about biochanin A, the next step was to test it in actual feeding trials. Researchers found that animals fed biochanin A while grazing on pasture gained more weight than those without: 2 pounds a day compared to 1.5 pounds a day.

How Do We Convert This to the Pasture?

red cloverFeeding pure biochanin A is too expensive to use commercially on pasture, plus it ignores the potential synergistic activity of other chemicals in Red clover. To eliminate these short-comings, in their next trial, researchers used red clover hay as a supplement with an eye toward how results could be translated into simply grazing pastures interseeded with red clover.

Over two spring grazing seasons, Angus cross steers were supplemented with two levels of red clover hay on endophyte-free cool season grass pasture. One group was fed 30% red clover and the other 15%. A rumen-fistulated Holstein steer was included in each treatment as a microbiological tester to see what was happening in the rumen. Researcher’s hypotheses were that red clover hay supplementation would

1) increase average daily gain and that more red clover would be better than small amounts,
2) suppress HAB;
3) promote cellulolytic bacteria and fiber degradation.

More is Not Better

Of course, I already told you the punchline. The steers gained the most weight on the 15% red clover diet.

Fig 2 from the paper showing the effect of dried distiller’s grains (DDG) with or without red clover hay (RC) compared with a pasture-only control on the ex vivo dry matter digestibility of cellulose by predominant cellulolytic bacteria in the rumen of steers grazing a mixture of endophyte- free tall fescue (Lolium arundinaceum), Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata) during the early season (9 June– 22 July, 2016; 18 May– 29 June, 2017).


This is important to keep in mind in case you were thinking of adding lots of red clover to your pastures. Biochanin A is a phytoestrogen, meaning that it is chemically similar to estrogen, and has the potential to impact fertility. Sheep are the most vulnerable with amounts of 25% or more in their diet reducing ewe fertility rates and lambing. Results on beef cattle are inconclusive and the the Forage-Animal Production Research team will be running experiments with ram lambs and market cows in the future. It seems the best idea at this point is not to go overboard with red clover.

One more thing in the list of “Why Red Clover is a Great Forage” is that biochanin A also helps prevent fescue toxicosis. You can read more here:

Can Red Clover Cure Fescue Toxicosis?

And…if you want to know more about planting red clover, we’ve got that for you too!

How to Establish and Manage Red Clover

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Gieseke says:

    Are we to conclude that 15% mix of red clover in a pasture is good for growing fatter cows and emitting less greenhouse gases?

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