Establishing Kura Clover: Learn How To Grow Kura Clover Plants

Establishing Kura Clover: Learn How To Grow Kura Clover Plants

By: Teo Spengler

You no doubt have heard about the four-leaf clover, but few gardeners are familiar with kura clover plants (Trifolium ambiguum). Kura is a forage legume with a massive underground stem system. If you are interested in growing kura as a groundcover or establishing kura clover for some other use, this article will help.

Kura Clover Uses

Kura clover plants are not very well known in this country. It was used in the past as a nectar source for honey production. Currently, its use in grazing is on the top of the list.

Kura clover plants are native to Caucasian Russia, Crimea and Asia Minor. However, it is not cultivated very much in its countries of origin. Kura plants are perennials that spread by underground roots, termed rhizomes. The clover is starting to generate interest in this country for use in pasture mixtures.

Kura clover uses for grazing result from the fact that the clover is nutritious. When kura seeds are mixed with grasses, the kura lasts many years due to its large rhizome structure. However, establishing kura clover can be somewhat tricky.

Using Kura as a Groundcover

If you are wondering how to grow kura clover, it does best in climates matching its native regions. That means it thrives in cool weather about 40 to 50 degrees F. (4-10 C.). Establishing kura clover is easiest in these cold areas, and kura clover plants are more productive in cooler than in warmer climates. However, breeders are attempting to create more heat-tolerant strains.

How to grow kura clover as a groundcover? You’ll want to plant it in well drained, fertile soil. It goes dormant during dry periods unless you provide supplemental irrigation.

The biggest issue with establishing this clover is its slow germination of seeds and seedling establishment. The crop usually only flowers once per season, although some cultivars blossom more often.

Your biggest task in growing kura as a groundcover is keeping down competition. Most growers seed in the spring, like other seeded perennial legumes. It is essential not to sow companion grasses with the plant since it can easily fail due to competition for water and nutrients.

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Read more about Cover Crops

Pasture Species Selection for Sheep

Dan Undersander, Extension Forage Agronomist, University of Wisconsin
(Previously published on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension page)

Pasture and hay forage crops generally fall into four categories:

  1. Legumes
  2. Cool Season Grasses
  3. Warm Season Grasses
  4. Alternative/annual forages

The last category includes many perennials crops, such as rape, kale, comfrey, and all annual forage crops, such as sudangrass, sorghum, and various millets. None of these should be considered for sheep pasture other than in emergency situations.

Warm season grasses are generally not recommended for sheep pasture in the northern states. They are generally adapted to warmer climates than Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin because they require high temperatures to grow. Therefore, they start growing later in the spring and quit earlier in the fall than cool season grasses. These include most prairie species, such as switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indiangrass. Warm season grasses are used for ground cover and wildlife in northern states but if grazed extensively will be crowded out by cool season grasses that will come in naturally. Warm season grasses should not be mixed with cool season grasses in pastures because the cool season grasses will predominate in northern states.

Cool season grasses are most adapted to grazing in northern states. They start growing early in the spring and produce the bulk of their growth in May and June. Some cool season grasses will continue to provide good forage through the summer and fall if fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer in June and August.

Cool season grasses generally fall into two categories: sod formers and bunch grasses. Sod formers spread vegetatively by underground shoots and form a solid mat (Kentucky bluegrass is an example). Sod forming grasses suffer less damage when grazed in wet conditions and will fill in spots that have been killed out. Bunch grasses generally establish faster and recover from grazing more quickly, but each plant comes from a separate seed and stands may become ‘bunchy’ as they thin.

Several choices exist for the long-lived grass depending on soil type, location, and needs of the landowner. These are listed in the UW extension publication entitled A1525 Forage variety update for Wisconsin.

Major sod forming grasses are Kentucky bluegrass, smooth bromegrass, and reed canary grass.

  • Kentucky bluegrass is commonly used in many sheep pastures. This grass is more traffic tolerant than most grasses. It is very high in forage quality and very palatable. It is more drought and flood tolerant than many grass species. It is also very tolerant of overgrazing. Kentucky bluegrass grows only 20-24 inches tall so the pastures do not look as rank as when other taller-growing species are planted. It establishes easier than smooth bromegrass or reed canarygrass. However, it is the lowest yielding grass species commonly used in pastures for all but the northern regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
  • Smooth bromegrass, along with Kentucky bluegrass and quackgrass, are the most common species in unimproved pastures in the northern Midwest. It is the most winterhardy grass species we grow. Smooth bromegrass is more adapted to drought and higher temperatures than other cool season grasses and is therefore not recommended in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Michigan. This grass is generally the second highest yielding grass south of a band approximately 100 miles south of the Canadian border. It is slow to establish, though not as difficult as reed canarygrass. The major problem with smooth bromegrass is that two-thirds or more of the yield occurs during May and June with little regrowth the rest of the year. It is also slow to recover after mowing or grazing. This is fine for hay but not for grazing. Smooth bromegrass works well for fields that are harvested for hay in June and grazed the remainder of the growing season.
  • Reed canarygrass is an excellent grass that tolerates flooding and drought. It is frequently sown in low areas. Reed canarygrass is extremely winterhardy. It is the highest yielding grass grown in the Midwest. It grows up to 5 feet tall if not mowed or grazed. It is a sod former and so will fill in vacant areas. This trait has also caused it not to be recommended by some who consider it an invasive species. Seed is expensive and reed canarygrass is slow to establish, often taking a year or more to get a stand. If growing reed canarygrass, be sure to plant low alkaloid varieties, such as Venture, Rival, or Palaton.

Major bunch grasses are orchard grass, timothy, tall fescue, Italian (annual) ryegrass, and perennial ryegrass.

  • Orchardgrass is an excellent grass for either pasture or hay. It establishes quickly, is ready to graze early in the spring and recovers quickly from grazing. It produces more forage in the late summer and early fall than any other cool season grass. It is important to select a good variety because some are not winterhardy enough for Wisconsin and Minnesota. Orchardgrass varieties also vary in maturity. Early types may be planted with red clover. Medium-late to late types should be planted in mixtures with alfalfa or other grasses, so that all species of the mixture mature at the same time. Visit this link for a listing of orchardgrass maturities. Disadvantages are that orchardgrass has moderate winterhardiness and will die out once in a great while. Note in the table how important it is to pick the right variety. Also, because of its quick recovery after haying or grazing, it may be difficult to graze a large portion of pasture while the orchardgrass is in an acceptable maturity range. For these two reasons, we recommend no more than 30% of the total pasture be planted to orchardgrass. It is also very important to plant the right species. We recommend late maturing varieties, which are slightly more expensive than early maturing types, but mature at a time more compatible with other species. When orchard grass gets too mature in a mixture sheep will avoid it and graze only other species.
  • Timothy is an old standby. It is moderately easy to establish. It is very palatable, both sheep and cattle prefer it to most other grasses. However, it is low yielding and tends to be short-lived, lasting only 3-5 years in most stands. It also heads out most of the summer while all other grasses, except the ryegrasses, head only once in May or June and all regrowth is strictly vegetative. Timothy is best adapted to cool, wet soils and should only be grown in central and north regions of northern states. Its seed size is different than most grasses and must be seeded separately or mixed with legume seed. If seed is mixed with other grass seed in the seeder, timothy will settle to the bottom of the seeder and be seeded first. Because of this timothy is seldom seen in pasture mixtures.
  • Tall fescue is an easy to establish bunchgrass that is only slightly less adapted to flooding and drought extremes than reed canarygrass. It is the most traffic and shade tolerant of any of the mentioned grasses. On the negative, tall fescue is very unpalatable. Also, if using, one must be sure to get fungus-free seed. The internal (endophytic) fungus produces an alkaloid that can be detrimental to sheep and other animals. Volunteer tall fescue or that growing in ditch banks or grassed waterways is likely fungus infected. Tall fescue is very common in pastures across southern Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. However, a fungus free type may be the best choice for shady or high traffic areas even in the upper Midwest.
  • Italian ryegrass is a rapidly establishing, high quality forage. It will grow and yield into late July or early August. However, it is lower yielding than many other grasses and will tend to die out over winter. Its primary use is to overseed damaged areas and as a cover crop in mixtures with other longer-lived grasses. Be sure to buy forage types, not turf types. (Note also that ryegrass is different from rye which is a cereal grain crop.)
  • Perennial ryegrass is a rapidly establishing, high quality forage. It will grow in early spring and late early fall. However, it is lower yielding than many other grasses and may die out over winter. Its primary use is in pasture and hay fields in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota where snow cover will keep stands in for 3-4 years. Be sure to buy forage types, not turf types.

The last category of forages important to sheep owners is legumes . Choices available for pastures including alfalfa, white clover, red clover, birdsfoot trefoil, ladino clover, alsike clover, and kura clover. More detail on specific varieties presented in the UW extension publication A1525 Forage Variety Update for Wisconsin.

  • Alfalfa is the most common legume in the dairy regions. It is the highest yielding and generally will persist for 4-6 years. It is primarily a hay and silage crop because alfalfa grows very erect. Alfalfa is also a good grazing crop but will be too rich for most sheep unless mixed with about 50% grass. It can be dual used for hay in the spring and grazing thereafter. It requires a soil pH of 6.8 or higher and does not do well in poorly drained soils.
  • White clover is the most common clover in pastures. It is easy to establish (even by frost seeding) and is the most drought tolerant. It is also the most tolerant of over grazing. White clover spreads by above ground runners called ‘stolons.’ This clover tends to be low yielding. There are several types of white clover and one should be sure to plant the medium or Dutch types. These will grow 6-8 inches tall and are moderate yielding. Common white clover should be avoided because it will only grow 3-4 inches tall and is very low yielding. Taller growing types will tend to be shorter lived and will need to be reseeded periodically. Dutch and medium white clovers are recommended for sheep pastures, especially for mixing with Kentucky bluegrass. Ladino clover is the tallest growing type but is short lived. Soil pH should be at least 6.0.
  • Red Clover is the most common pasture legume species in Wisconsin. It is a fast-establishing clover. It is the highest yielding of the clovers. Soil pH should be 6.2. It is high yielding and establishes quickly and easily. Good varieties will last for four years – cheap varieties for two years. It is possible to frost seed this into grass pastures in most parts of the upper Midwest.
  • Birdsfoot trefoil is a long-lived legume that reseeds naturally. It is high in quality and maintains its quality longer than most other legumes. This makes it good for stockpiling (i.e. allowing it to mature and save it for periods of drought of late fall/early winter grazing. It tolerates wet conditions second only to alsike clover. Birdsfoot trefoil yield is especially good in the northern parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
  • Alsike clover is frequently mixed with ladino clover for use in wet soils. Alsike is easy to establish (can frost seed) and but stands usually only last 2-3 years so other legumes should be used where soil drainage is adequate.
  • Kura clover is a rhizomatous legume (spread by underground runners). It is high yielding and persistent. However it is very slow to establish, often taking up to two years to get a good stand. For this reason, it is not currently recommended for sheep pasture.

When seeding new pasture it is best to seed a mixture of grasses and legumes. However, one should avoid putting too many species in the mix to avoid competition among the components and increase difficulty of grazing management when species do not mature at the same time. A good mix to seed consists of three components:

  1. a long lived grass, e.g. orchard grass, timothy, smooth bromegrass, bluegrass, or reed canary grass.
  2. a legume.
  3. a cover crop or short lived grass, such as Italian ryegrass. Oats have often been used as a cover crop but are not recommended because Italian ryegrass provides better grazing.

Kentucky Bluegrass 15 lbs/a
Medium White Clover 4 lbs/a
Italian Ryegrass 2 lbs/a

Bluegrass is moderately drought tolerant and very winterhardy. It is a sod former so will fill in. It also does not get as tall as other grasses and keeps pastures looking better. However, it is among the lowest yielding grasses. Dutch clover may be substituted for medium white clover.

Bromegrass 10-12 lbs/a
Red Clover 4-6 lbs/a
Italian Ryegrass 2 lbs/a

This is the most common mixture as high yielding bromegrass is extremely winter-hardy and moderately drought tolerant. However, bromegrass does not yield as well through July, August and September as Orchard grass.

Orchard grass 10 lbs/a
Red Clover 6 lbs/a
Italian Ryegrass 2 lbs/a

This is a high yielding pasture mix that will recover quickly after grazing. This grass yields more late in the season than any other mix. However, the mix will not fill in because orchardgrass is a bunchgrass.

In most cases it is wise to plant some pastures to one mix and some to another because each mix will do better under some conditions and at certain times of the year. By having different pastures of different mixtures, you will have good growth during a larger portion of the season and across a wider range of environmental conditions.

Lastly, it is important to remember that seed of vastly different sizes cannot be mixed together for seeding. For example, if bromegrass and clover are mixed together, the clover will settle to the bottom of the seeder box and be seeded first and the bromegrass later. Orchardgrass, bluegrass, timothy, ryegrass, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, and clovers generally will not separate during seeding. All mixtures should be put into seeder near the field to be seeded to avoid separation of mixture components prior to seeding.

About the clover plant

Clovers are creeping pea family plants that produce nectar in large amounts. People from different parts of the world use the plant to control soil erosion on hillsides and riverbanks because they have deeper roots and are strong enough to hold back the soil. The plant is good for animal fodder too and it will grow in most terrains. In fact, it is inexpensive to maintain and attracts honeybees naturally.

Beekeepers that make clover honey generally place the hives in areas with many clover plants. They also plant clovers around beehives so that the bees can have them as their food. Unless your bees are in an enclosed area, there is no guarantee that the bees will visit the plants alone. As a beekeeper, you have little control over where your bees can go during the day and the flowers they can visit. If you are living in an area with a higher concentration of clover, the bees will primarily feed on them but they will visit other types of flowers.

That will introduce some flavors from other flowers too. Each time your bees feed on flowers that have pronounced flavors such as eucalyptus, the secretions will affect the taste greatly. That should tell you that it is hard to get pure clover honey.

Listen, if you want my recommendation for a high quality clover based honey checkout YS Clover Honey Pure Premium, it gets great reviews online and is priced at a bargain!

Cover Crops for Major Cropping Systems


Cover crops are crops that are grown to provide soil coverage during seasons when a crop is not actively growing. Cover crops are useful management tools for enhancing the sustainablity of agroecosystems and reducing negative environmental impacts in the corn and soybean system. Cover crops have potential to decrease soil erosion, provide green manure for incorporation and to produce bioenergy, forage or grain for harvest. Cover crops also improve agroecosystem functioning by recycling nutrients, improving soil structure, increasing soil organic matter, suppressing weeds, and disrupting pest and disease cycles. Cover crops play a unique role in remediation of excess soil nitrogen that can damage water quality by taking up water and nitrates from the soil in the late fall and in early spring when substantial amounts of nitrogen leach through the soil. We will present both annual and perennial crover crops solutions. Winter annual cover crops lengthen the “green phase” of a corn-soybean croppping system by growing in the months between harvesting and planting. We have ongoing programs on five annual cover crops: winter barley, winter peas, hairy vetch, winter rye, and brassicas, and one perennial cover crop: Kura clover.

Winter Peas - A High Value Winter Cover Crop

Winter pea has potential for dual use as a winter cover crop and as a high value food crop. Current cultivars lack sufficient winter hardiness to consistently survive as a winter annual in the Midwest. A Minnesota cropping system use scenario would consist of peas being planted during September and harvested for grain the following June. Following pea harvest, corn would be planted. Austrian winter peas, often referred to as ‘black peas’, have been produced in the Pacific Northwest as a green manure and for mature dry seed production since the 1930s. The USDA-ARS Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology Research Unit at Pullman has been developing improved breeding lines with greater winter hardiness for their climate and higher food quality.

The University of Minnesota has established collaborative relationships with pea breeders from the USDA-ARS and North Dakota State University to evaluate plants for testing in Minnesota. However, our ongoing experiments have shown that plant materials developed by these programs have only a moderate level of winter hardiness and inconsistent winter survival. Minnesota farmers would benefit from the establishment of a dedicated winter pea breeding program, which could provide lines adapted to the state’s unique conditions including winter temperatures, snowfall, spring freeze and thaw cycles, and soil moisture patterns. Specific plant breeding objectives for a winter pea breeding program involve identifying winter pea germplasm that: 1) has sufficient winter hardiness to consistently survive winter conditions, 2) has increased biomass production, 3) nodulates and has a high potential to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the fall and/or early spring, and 4) has early maturity to allow double cropping of corn or soybean after pea seed harvest. In addition, agronomic research is also needed to reduce the risk of planting winter peas for growers.

Our research has shown that winter hardiness in pea is highly sensitive to time of seeding. Survival also depends greatly on snow cover, which is increased by the presence of stubble or other plant material that can hold snow in place over the course of the winter. Agronomic research objectives include 1) determining which areas of Minnesota are most suitable for winter pea production, 2) establishing recommendations on timing and methods of planting, and 3) determining suitable methods of providing cover to catch snow, including no-till planting into stubble and intercropping with other fall-planted cover crops.

Hairy Vetch - A Traditional Legume Cover Crop to Improve Modern Crop Rotations

Hairy vetch is an annual legume that has been used as a winter annual cover crop. It is unique in that it is the only legume that can be fall seeded and reliably overwinter in Minnesota. In addition to providing winter cover and reducing soil erosion potential, hairy vetch can capture and fix nitrogen for subsequent crops through biological nitrogen fixation. A use scenario for hairy vetch consists of planting it late in the summer in standing crops or late in the fall following corn and soybean harvest, killing regrowth in the spring, and planting a grain crop in the spring that requires high nitrogen fertility. In our ongoing research, we have selected Minnesota ecotypes for increased winter hardiness. However, there is a need to enhance this initiative and develop a breeding program with the objectives being 1) to select for additional reliable winter hardiness to allow for later planting dates in October and November after soybean and corn harvest and 2) to select for earlier maturity in the spring.

Winter Rye - Using a Traditional Small Grain Cover Crop to Improve Modern Crop Rotations.

Winter rye grain is an excellent winter cover crop especially in the upper Midwest because of its winter hardiness, ability to scavenge nitrogen and sequester carbon, and ability provide effective ground cover in the fall, winter and early spring. It is the only small grain with sufficient winter hardiness to reliably overwinter in Minnesota. In addition rye herbage contains chemicals that upon decomposition suppress the growth of weeds. A use scenario for winter rye consists of planting it in a standing crop in late summer or late in the fall following corn harvest, then killing the regrowth in the spring, and planting a crop with low nitrogen requirements like soybean in the residue. Unfortunately, there has been no recent variety development of winter rye varieties and all commercial varieties mature in late June nearly a month later than the recommended soybean planting dates. The objectives of the winter rye cover crop breeding program are to develop varieties that: 1) flower earlier in the spring to allow earlier seeding of the subsequent crop, and 2) have increased early season biomass (by May 15) compared to existing varieties.

Brassicas - A Traditional Non-legume Cover Crop to Improve Modern Crop Rotations

Brassica cover crops include radish, turnip, mustards, and winter rape or canola. They are fast-growing, deep-rooted, and excellent nitrogen scavengers. Their rapid growth and high protein content means they have great potential for use as an emergency forage. Spring canola is also grown as an oilseed crop. The University of Minnesota has tested brassica cover crops over the past two years in partnership with Michigan State University. Radish and mustards winterkill in our climate, which makes them well-suited for situations in which an overwintering cover crop is not desired. Winter rape and turnip showed some ability to overwinter in variety trials conducted in St. Paul over the past two winters, but do not overwinter reliably. A use scenario for brassicas consists of planting them in late summer following a processing vegetable or small grain crop or into a standing grain crop, grazing them in late fall, allowing them to winterkill or killing the regrowth in spring, and planting corn and soybean. There is a need to develop a breeding program to select for improved forage quality and increased winter hardiness.

Kura Clover - Living Mulch for Corn and Livestock Production System

Left: Corn planted into kura clover. Right: Kura clover in bloom.

Kura clover is a rhizomatous, perennial clover that has shown considerable promise in the north central United States as a long-term alternative to other short-lived legumes. Kura clover is remarkably persistent and can withstand extreme environmental conditions including drought, water logging, and cold. It can also tolerate a wide variety of defoliation intensities. First introduced to the United States in 1911 from the Caucasus region of Europe/Asia for use as a honey crop, Kura clover has shown superior yield, persistence, and forage quality under a diversity of grazing systems and livestock. Kura clover also has unique applications in soil conservation and as a living mulch crop. We propose to promote use of Kura clover as a living but suppressed perennial sod into which corn or other grain crops is planted into strips killed with an herbicide. When the crop is harvested, Kura clover, which has spreading underground rhizomes, can regrow into the space where the corn was grown. The Kura clover can then be grazed in the late fall and following year.

The Minnesota Kura clover breeding program has selected germplasm for a diversity of traits related to forage and cover crop utilization. These include seedling vigor, early flowering, forage yield, plant architecture, and spreading ability.

However, inadequate seed supplies remain a significant limitation to widespread use of Kura clover. We propose to expand our plant breeding program using our improved populations with the objectives being to 1) improve seed yield and 2) to increase the harvest ability of the seed with improved ease of threshing.


Deborah Allan, Professor Emerita, Department of Soil, Water and Climate

Nancy Ehlke, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Axel Garcia y Garcia, Assistant Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Julie Grossman, Assistant Professor, Department of Horticultural Science

Paul Porter, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Craig Sheaffer, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

M. Scott Wells, Assistant Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

Don Wyse, Professor, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics

The “Perfect” Sheep Pasture

by Ulf Kintzel
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Voltaire

Orchard grass and (Huia) white clover are desirable species in a sheep pasture.

Ryegrass (left) and orchard grass (right) yield significantly different under the same low-input conditions.

Tall fescue yields well but is not much liked.

Letting the stand of red clover mature reduces the risk of bloat.

The tanning agent of bird’s-foot trefoil (yellow flower) inhibits reproduction of stomach worms.

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