Loren - There are many factors to consider in choosing a good soil
building crop. Clover is adaptable to a much wider range of soil
conditions, it starts faster, and produces much more biomass in the
seeding year than alfalfa will. When alfalfa is mowed regularly, it is
likely that alfalfa will produce more biomass in the second year.
Alfalfa produces a fairly substantial taproot which can loosen the ground
deeper than clover can and may bring up nutrients and water from the
The method of seeding either alfalfa or red clover is important to your
success. If you have had a recent soil test, that could be relevant in
your decision. If your calcium level is low, alfalfa could be a failure
or at least will start poorly. Red clover is far more tolerant to lower
fertility soils, especially low pH/low calcium soils. Alfalfa would
probably be more tolerant of high pH, and is used more heavily on land
that tends to alkaline. Alfalfa will not do well on poorly drained
In general, I would strongly recommend seeding a cover crop with a nurse
crop, such as oats. This will provide faster ground cover, good weed
control, and produce a lot more biomass early. The oats should be mowed
at heading or could be left to harvest as grain. Both alfalfa and clover
should also be seeded with a grass, such as timothy, to give more
diversity. When we add grass seed, we generally use 12 lb/A alfalfa plus
4 lbs/A of timothy OR 8-10 lb/A clover plus 4 lb/A timothy.
The roots of clover tend to leave the soil more friable and are much
easier to plow down. Clover is higher in sugars, which tends to
stimulate greater soil microbial activity and earthworm populations.
This will speed the breakdown of the clover residue. Generally clover
will not become old and woody when not cut when young, as alfalfa will.
Clover will make successive growths, going down and regrowing through,
while alfalfa will tend to go to maturity.
You may also wish to consider sweet clover, which has some of the
advantages of both, though it can get very woody if not mowed regularly.
Alfalfa seed is much more expensive than red clover or sweet clover seed.
On a wet soil, alsike clover may have an advantage.
So - sorry this isn't a simple 'flip the coin' answer, but there are many
factors to consider if you want to get the best success out of a soil
building crop. Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens
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