Balansa Clover for Deer

Balansa clover (white flowers) and crimson clover (red flowers) are blended in this test plot in a study at the University of Tennessee. Photo by Dr. Craig Harper.

Balansa clover (Trifolium michelianum) is somewhat of a newcomer to the deer food plot scene. Historically, its primary use has been as a cover crop in the agricultural community, but it has many unique qualities that can make it an excellent choice as a deer forage depending on your food plot objectives and property features.

Species Description

Balansa is considered a cool-season annual legume. It has rounded leaflets that are serrated along the edges and hairless. The flowers bloom in early summer and are whitish or pink colored. Balansa is highly productive and produces an abundance of nutritious forage and can reach 2- to 3-feet tall in the spring but rarely does so because of heavy grazing pressure by deer.

It produces a large tap root that often runs 2- to 3-feet deep. This can help break through hard pans that may have developed in your food plots over time due to repeated tillage, which can cause soil compaction and limit forage production. This type of root system improves soil drainage and increases microbial growth, which improves overall soil quality.

FIXatioN is the most popular variety of balansa clover managed in food plots.
It is very cold tolerant, so it is suitable virtually anywhere whitetails exist. In fact, it has been reported to withstand temperatures down to -15 degrees F!

Balansa has hollow stems that are fleshy (similar to berseem clover), which increases palatability and nutritional quality compared to other clovers that have more fibrous or woody stems. This characteristic increases the portion of the plant that is beneficial for deer to eat.

Balansa prefers soils with a neutral pH (greater than 6.0) and grows well in a wide variety of soil types. It is also fairly tolerant of dry conditions thanks to its large tap root that can access soil moisture. Conversely, perhaps one of the best attributes of balansa is its ability to thrive in poorly drained soils and even periodic standing water! This is important because very few quality deer forages have this ability, and balansa provides an excellent option for hunters and food plotters whose property is bottomland or the food plots are soggy during winter.

Being an annual, balansa germinates relatively quickly compared to other clovers, so it provides excellent early season attraction and hunting opportunities. As previously mentioned, Balansa is rated extremely high in terms of deer preference and digestibility. Crude protein levels are very high and have been reported in the
25 to 30 percent range.

Because of its aggressive nature, balansa clover tolerates heavy grazing pressure very well. When planted in the fall, you can expect quality forage to be available until the following May or early June – depending on where your property is located geographically – which captures the early antler growth period. In terms of forage production, you can expect to produce 2 to 3 tons per acre in dry weight during its growing season if managed properly, which is impressive.

Soil Preparation

As always, a soil test should be conducted to determine lime and fertilizer requirements specific to clover. As I mentioned earlier, balansa clover performs best with a neutral pH in the 6 to 7 range. This will ensure nutrients will be available for plant uptake to maximize nutritional quality and attractiveness of the clover stand.

Because balansa clover is a legume and can produce 150 to 200 lbs./acre of nitrogen on its own, 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, which is based on what your soils are lacking. If a soil test is not conducted, apply a minimum of 40 to 50 lbs./acre of phosphorus and 60 lbs./acre of potassium at establishment.

Planting

Balansa is very easy to establish and can either be broadcast at a rate of 8 to 10 lbs./acre into a well prepared seedbed or drilled at 5-6 lbs./acre with a no-till drill. In the South, it should be planted in September to October. In northern states it should be planted in August.

Because different food plot species germinate and provide forage at different rates, I always recommend planting a mixture unless specific objectives call for a single species planting, such as dealing with problematic weeds that may require this for effective control. Planting a mixture also helps extend the window of forage availability that can impact deer for a longer period.

In the sidebar I’ve shared a couple annual mixtures containing balansa clover. Seeding rates listed here (pounds of pure live seed per acre) are for broadcast planting. Seeding rates for drilled applications should be reduced accordingly.

These mixtures are quick to establish for early attraction and will persist until the following summer with excellent forage quality if managed properly. In the Bottomland Mixture, the cereal rye or wheat may fade out over time if soils become too wet by late winter. However, balansa and frosty berseem will be readily available by then and providing abundant forage through mid-summer.

As stated previously, balansa clover is a legume, so seed should be properly inoculated prior to planting unless using pre-inoculated seed. If seed is pre-inoculated, remember to determine your seeding rate by calculating PLS (pure live seed) to account for the weight of the seed coating and the germination rate. Otherwise you will not plant enough seed per acre to achieve the desired plant density within your plots.

If broadcasting seed, be sure to prepare a smooth, firm seedbed to ensure optimum germination and seedling establishment. This process should begin several weeks prior to your anticipated planting date to achieve a quality seedbed for planting. Balansa seed is very small, so be sure the field is free of deep furrows from disking and large clods and debris, all of which can lead to covering the seed too deeply. Cultipacking prior to sowing the seed will assist with achieving the ideal seedbed 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 firmly press seed into the soil for good contact. Alternatively, if no-till planting, be sure to kill the existing vegetation with glyphosate a few weeks prior to planting to eliminate weed competition prior to drilling.

Weed Control

Balansa is aggressive and produces a significant amount of biomass. These characteristics help suppress many weeds. However, if weed competition is a problem, several herbicide options exist depending on which weed species are present and the other types of forages you may have included in your mixture. If balansa is planted alone or with other broadleaf forages such as chicory, winter peas, or brassicas, then grass weeds can be effectively controlled with Clethodim, Poast, Arrow or other grass-selective herbicides.

Pursuit is another option that can control many grass and forb weeds if balansa is planted alone or with other clovers. However, be sure clovers are well established – with at least two trifoliate leaves – prior to applying Pursuit or it may damage the small seedlings.

If you include cereal grains in your mixture, none of the aforementioned herbicides will be an option, as the cereal grains will be killed. However, if you know you will have competition from grass weeds but still want to include a cereal grain in your planting mixture, one option is to use wheat. You can plant wheat along with balansa and other broadleaf forages and still be able to apply Axial or Achieve to control problem grass weeds, such as annual ryegrass, which is most prevalent in the South. Otherwise, if you expect grass competition in your plots, it would be sensible to only plant broadleaf forages in your mixture to allow more herbicide options.


About Ryan Basinger

Ryan Basinger of Alabama is a certified wildlife biologist and the Wildlife Consulting Manager for Westervelt Wildlife Services. He has a broad range of professional experience managing wildlife populations and their habitats on public and private lands throughout the Southeast. Ryan has conducted research on a variety of species and habitats where he examined the effects of various forest management techniques on browse production, availability, preference, and nutrition for white-tailed deer. Ryan also has conducted extensive food plot research where he compared production, nutrition, preference, and availability of various forages planted for deer. He earned his bachelor's degree in wildlife science from Mississippi State University and his master's in wildlife management from the University of Tennessee.