One of the primary reasons berseem clover hasn’t gained much traction since its introduction to the U.S. in 1896 is that it lacks winter hardiness. Likewise, its use as a deer forage has been limited. However, several improved varieties of berseem clover have been developed over the years in an effort to resurrect its use in the agricultural community because it exhibits many favorable qualities.
Bigbee berseem clover is one of the improved varieties developed for enhanced cold hardiness and re-seeding ability and which has application for managing quality food plots for deer and other wildlife. In fact, although many food plotters don’t take the time to read seed labels, you often find this “ice cream plant” in many commercial blends. The reason is because it germinates quickly and produces lots of highly attractive and nutritious forage. In forage trials I helped conduct in Tennessee, Bigbee received a higher deer consumption rate over other popular forages, such as ladino clover, chicory, crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, wheat, oats, and forage rape. The photo above shows one of my test plots of Bigbee berseem clover, and the browse exclosure cages reveal heavy use by deer.
Berseem clover is a cool-season annual legume. It has oblong-shaped leaflets that are fairly large relative to other clovers. The flowers bloom in late spring/early summer and are whitish or ivory colored. Berseem clover produces high yields and can reach 1½ to 2½ feet tall.
Berseem clover prefers soils that are slightly alkaline (pH greater than 6.0) and grows well in all soil types except deep sands with low moisture retention. It is fairly tolerant of dry conditions, as well as high soil moisture, making it very adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions.
Berseem clover is a weak re-seeder because it does not produce an adequate amount of hard seed. However, the Bigbee variety does produce hard seed, and stands can be regenerated successfully if managed properly, similar to crimson or arrowleaf clovers.
As previously mentioned, berseem clover is not very tolerant of prolonged cold, so it is best suited as a fall crop for the southern half of the U.S. It will be winter-killed when exposed to temperatures below 20° F for several consecutive days. This is why the Bigbee variety is recommended for food plots. However, even with Bigbee you can still expect dieback during the coldest parts of winter. As winter begins to fade and temperatures increase, berseem will revitalize and produce quality forage through early summer.
Early fall plantings in the North can provide excellent attraction and nutrition for deer until winter sets in. For this reason, using Bigbee in a mixture with other forages is important, which will enhance their production as the berseem dies out and releases nitrogen into the soil. In the Deep South, a fall planting of Bigbee can persist until late May or early June, capturing the early antler growth period.
Berseem clover is rated extremely high in terms of deer preference and digestibility, with crude protein levels typically ranging from 20 to 30 percent in soils with good fertility. Because of its vigorous growth rate, berseem clover tolerates heavy grazing pressure quite well.
As always, a soil test should be conducted to determine lime and fertilizer requirements specific to clover. As I mentioned earlier, berseem clover performs best when the pH is greater than 6.0. This will ensure nutrients will be available for plant uptake to maximize nutritional quality and attractiveness of the clover stand.
Because berseem clover is a legume and can produce 150 to 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre, little nitrogen is needed for establishment. Applying additional phosphorus and potassium is important and should be applied at levels recommended from a soil test for optimum production, attraction and nutritional quality. This is the goal of a food plot, right? If a soil test is not conducted, apply a minimum of 40 to 50 lbs./acre of phosphorus and 60 lbs./acre of potassium.
Berseem clover is very easy to establish and can either be broadcast (20 lbs./acre) into a well-prepared seedbed or drilled (12 to 14 lbs./acre) with a no-till drill. In the South, it should be planted in September/October. In northern states it should be planted in early August, or in the spring as a summer crop after danger of a frost has passed. However, using berseem as a summer forage in the North may not accomplish your objectives if maximizing forage availability in your plots is desired. Indeed, berseem produces abundant forage but it does not compare in overall production to other summer annuals, such as soybeans, cowpeas, or lablab. Berseem can also be successfully frost-seeded in northern regions but frost risk is significant.
Because it is a legume, berseem clover should be inoculated (strain R, same as crimson) prior to planting unless using pre-inoculated seed. If broadcasting seed, be sure to prepare a smooth, firm seed bed to ensure optimum germination and seedling establishment. Seeds are very small so be sure the field is free of deep furrows from disking and large clods/debris to prevent covering seeds too deep. Cultipacking prior to sowing the seed will assist with achieving the ideal seed bed and enhance germination. Loose soil will reduce germination.
When covering the seed, be sure it isn’t buried more than 1/4-inch deep. If rain is in the forecast (as it should be if you are planting!) you can simply allow the rainfall to work the seed into the soil. If a dependable rain is not in the forecast, cultipack the field again to press seed firmly into the soil for good contact. If no-till planting, be sure to kill the existing vegetation with glyphosate a couple weeks prior to planting to eliminate weed competition prior to establishment.