Kura Clover Living Mulch System

Encyclopedia Article

Incorporation of perennial legumes and cover crops into our row cropping systems will reduce tillage, soil erosion and concurrent loss of phosphorus and nitrogen to the surface water. Kura clover (Trifolium ambiguum M. Bieb.) is a relatively new forage legume in North America that can be used in a living mulch system. Living mulches are vegetative covers that are intercropped in combination with cash crops.

Kura clover (also called Caucasian clover) is native to part of the former USSR, the Crimea, the Black Sea coast of the Ukraine, eastern Turkey, and northern Iran. It is adapted to mountain slopes, valleys, and to drier grassy areas, where white clover often fails. Kura clover has performed very well in Wisconsin and Minnesota and may do well in Iowa as well.

Kura clover is known for its persistence, disease resistance, high forage quality, and its ability to survive in many different soils and climate regions. It may be a better alternative to the most commonly used legumes in the upper Midwest, such as white clover, red clover, and alfalfa, because of its ability to survive frost, drought, and heat. Kura clover is adapted to many soils and tends to perform better in cooler regions. It grows best on well-drained, fertile soils and benefits from neutral pH, and phosphorus fertility. 

Kura clover characteristics

The establishment of kura clover is more challenging than other forage legumes, but once established it is very persistent. It is said that kura clover “sleeps” in the first year, “creeps” in the second, and “leaps” in the third year. Development is slowed because energy from photosynthesis is used for production of a large root and rhizome biomass. The rhizomes are storage organs for carbohydrates that are used during regrowth after defoliation occurs. Kura clover produces few upright stems during the first year, and its short stature makes it susceptible to shading from weeds or existing grasses. Kura clover seedlings germinate, emerge, and develop the first three true leaves at about the same rate as other legumes. If the plant is damaged, new growth will be established on undamaged portions of the plants because of the many buds at various depths.

Kura clover is a leafy plant with stem production occurring only in the first spring growth. During the rest of the season, all regrowth consists of leaves and petioles that originate from the crown. Plant heights of kura clover may range up to 8 inches and growth may be erect or prostrate. Kura clover produces only one flush of flowers per season, and leaflets of kura clover are usually marked with a white V. The young flower heads are green, often with thin streaks of red. Initially, flowers are white and usually turn to pink as they mature (Figure 1).

On-farm demonstration projects

There are many benefits of using a kura clover living mulch system. The mulch can decrease erosion, suppress weeds, reduce insect pests, and supply nitrogen to the cash crop. Researchers consider a kura clover living mulch system to be largely nitrogen self-sufficient and result in year-round groundcover. When compared to conventional production systems, it leaves less opportunity for weed invasion, requires less tillage, and reduces soil erosion. Therefore, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, through the Integrated Farm/Livestock Management Demonstration Program, with the assistance of Iowa State University Extension, are currently funding a large on-farm demonstration project. This project educates growers about kura clover living mulch systems for grain crop production.

In April 2004, six fields were established with kura clover in north-northeast Iowa to demonstrate this system with multiple producers under different soils and climatic conditions. The overall project goal is to expand the grower’s knowledge and awareness of alternative management system for corn and soybean that protect water quality with environmental and economic benefits. Our goals with this system are to demonstrate the effectiveness of a kura clover living mulch, compare corn and soybean yield in a kura clover living mulch compared to a traditional production system, to document reduced runoff and nitrogen availability to crops in a kura clover living mulch, and evaluate environmental and economic benefits of this alternative production system over the next 4 years.

Below are numerous presentations given at the 2 workshops that have been held over the past 3 years of this on-farm demonstration project.

2007 Kura Clover Workshop (pdf files)
Educating growers about living mulch systems for grain crop production
Role of kura cover in forage-livestock systems
Experiences with kura clover living mulch systems
Corn response to N fertilization in a kura clover living mulch system
Can cover crops improve biological control of soybean aphids?
Cover crops for midwest farming systems

2005 Kura Clover Workshop (pdf files)
Growing Kura Clover Forage in Iowa.
Utilizing Kura Clover in Pastures for Beef and Milk Production.
Corn Production in Kura Clover Living Mulch.
Soil Erosion - What Will the Future Bring?
Conservation Tillage and Cover Crops.
Living Mulches - A Pest Management Tactic?

Soybean Extension and Research Program