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Can Cows Eat Clover? [Clover Forage, Toxicity, and Bloat]

Can cows eat clover forage? Or not?! Moo! That’s the sound of a cow eating. Cows are grazing animals and love grazing on grass, but can your farm cows safely eat clover forage? Clover is a prized forage crop for livestock because it is so high in protein and minerals. 

While cattle may enjoy nibbling on clover forage, it shouldn’t make up a large part of their diet. Clover can contain harmful compounds that can damage a cow’s liver. 

So, while clover is okay in small doses, it’s best to steer clear of this sweet plant if you’re raising cows!

But – there are also other cow clover nuances to consider. Let’s dive deeper into the question of whether or not cows can eat clover.

Shall we?

Can Cows Eat Clover?

Cows can eat clover. However, it should be clover that is specified as feed-safe and mold-free. While a bit of clover here and there shouldn’t harm your cows, excessive amounts of sweet, yellow, or white clover can cause cattle to develop metabolic disorders and bloat, which can be deadly. 

Cows can eat clover, but be wary about feeding too much sweet clover, particularly spoiled or damaged sweet clover. That’s because it can interfere with blood clotting and vitamin K metabolism, potentially leading to hemorrhaging in your animals. Moldy sweet clover may also increase the risk of abortion in pregnant cows. 

Grazing on clover can also lead to bloat. Bloat is a digestive disorder that occurs when gas accumulates in the first two compartments of a cow’s stomach, the rumen and reticulum. 

Therefore, you must ensure that the clover you feed is not moldy and that you are growing low-coumarin clover varieties. Also – stay mindful of how much clover is present in your pastures! Also, consider the grazing conditions at the time to ensure your cows don’t overdo it. 

lovely jersey cows eating clover forage on university of kiel farm
Can cows eat clover? These Jersey cows don’t seem to mind! However, there is one risk associated with cows and clovers you should know. Some clover crops may cause bloat in cows! And after studying why some clover forage makes cattle bloated – we stumbled upon an excellent pasture bloat prevention article from the PennState Extension. They cite how berseem clover has a low bloating risk compared to other clovers and legumes. Good to know!

Does Clover Kill Cattle?

Does clover kill cattle? It’s a question that has long puzzled ranchers and farmers. Clover is a type of legume, which means it belongs to the pea family. Like other pea family members, clover can fix nitrogen from the air. 

Clover’s nitrogen-fixing properties mean it can enrich the soil, making it more fertile. For this reason, clover often gets used as a cover crop or livestock fodder. However, some ranchers believe that clover is poisonous to cattle. We’ve also heard several reports of cattle dying after eating large quantities of clover. 

So is clover a poor snack for cows? It can be, but the good news is that it usually does not kill them. 

To treat vitamin K problems related to the ingestion of moldy or spoiled hay, most vets will give cows an injection to treat the problem.

In minor cases of bloat, your cow may be more likely to get gas and suffer from some discomfort. In extreme cases of bloat, the cow’s rumen will distend and balloon out, which can cause restricted breathing, heart failure, and death. 

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How Bad Is Clover for Cows?

Most of the time, cows can handle grazing clover, especially if it’s not moldy or spoiled. Fresh clover in the pasture is usually fine for cows – and they love eating it!

However, stay mindful of turning your cows out on immature pastures containing alfalfa, red clover, and white clover, especially when there is less than 50% grass in the grassland pasture. Or when it’s cold and rainy. These conditions make it more likely that your cows will produce more gas after eating the clover, and pressure will build in the stomach, leading to bloat.

dairy cow grazing pink clover flowers on rural farm
When studying if cows can eat clover, we found another red clover and alfalfa forage guide from the University of New Hampshire blog. The primary analysis that stood out to us was that dairy cows eating legume-based silages produced more milk than cows eating grass-based silages. However, the guide also indicates the need for more studies to improve the knowledge of ideal grass and legume mixtures.

Is There a Better Cover Crop or Pasture Crops We Can Grow Instead?

All types of clover are legumes, meaning all can lead to bloat. Most of the time, cows can adapt to grazing forage with a high potential for bloat (like clover) if given time to acclimate over several days.

The most significant risks arise when cows are hungry and turned into a pasture where sweet clover is immature and in high quantities – again, waiting to graze until the clover is older or when your cows aren’t as hungry can help. 

Growing alternative crops like oats, annual ryegrass, and cereal grains is a good option, too. 

dutch dairy cows foraging in a field with looming storm clouds
Not even the looming storm clouds could sway this small herd of Dutch dairy cows from snacking on their clover! And while some sweet clovers are toxic for your cattle, we’ve also learned from several reliable sources that clovers can also be tremendously healthy – and stuffed with protein. We read on the South Dakota State University Extension blog that mold is the main problem with sweet clover toxicity! In other words – excess water in the clover hay bales may lead to cattle toxicity. (Ironically – those storm clouds might contribute to clover toxicity – if the rain soaks the drying hay bales. Food for thought!)

How Do You Stop Cows From Eating Clover?

In most cases, you can’t stop cows from eating clover if it’s in a pasture where they are grazing. A hungry foraging cow will munch on whatever is around!

However, you should avoid letting your cattle feast in grassland pastures when there are high amounts of immature legumes, especially when wet. Wait to move cows until midday – when they are less likely to eat – and try strip grazing. (Pasture is also likely plenty dry during midday.)

The best tip when offering clover hay is to be sure it’s dry. Adding corn when you know the pastures are heavy on clover can also help. It is readily fermentable and speeds up digestion, making your cows less likely to bloat.

The most vital tip when feeding cows clover is to ensure you’re not feeding wet, moldy, or spoiled sweet clover hay. Be especially mindful when feeding calves or yearlings this kind of hay, as they are more likely to suffer from sweet clover poisoning. 

Signs of sweet clover poisoning include hemorrhaging, increased incidents of parasite infestations, lesions, and more. 

Discard any portions of hay or silage that are moldy. If you suspect the clover is poisonous, you can have it tested for dicoumarol. You can avoid severe poisoning by alternating sweet clover hay with other types of roughage (if you’re unsure that it is moldy or spoiled). Of course, stacking and baling clover only when it is dry and cured is a good piece of advice, too. 

white and red cow relaxing in white clover meadow
We found this lovely young cow relaxing in a field of white clover. Look closely to see some grass in the cow’s mouth! This breathtaking pastoral scene reminds us of one more talking point regarding whether or not cows can eat clover. After reading the North Dakota University blog, we discovered that white and yellow clover contain coumarin. When mold contacts coumarin – the result is an anticoagulant that can cause hemorrhages in cattle. It’s another critical reason to ensure that all hay bales get dried and cured!

Can Cows Eat Clover Forage – FAQs

By and large – we’re massive proponents of clover! It has tons of advantages over traditional turfgrass. But what about cows using clover as forage crops? Our homesteading friends always wonder – so we assembled a list of related questions. We hope they help you. And your cows!

Can Cows Eat Clover? Or Not?!?!

Clover is a good source of nutrition for cows, providing them with protein, fiber, and minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. However, it is critical that your cows avoid moldy or spoiled clover hay, as this can contain toxins, or to allow them to graze excessively on clover! Doing so can lead to bloat. 

What Clover Kills Cows?

Sweet clover is most likely to kill cows, as it can lead to bloat and toxicity when ingested, particularly in moldy or spoiled feed.

Which Clover Is Best for Cattle?

Red clover is a popular choice for cattle as it is high in proteins and minerals. White clover is another option. White clover is known for its ability to tolerate shade and heavy grazing. 

Is Clover Poisonous to Cattle?

Clover is a type of legume often used as cattle feed. While it is generally considered safe, there have been some reports of cattle becoming sick after eating clover. Usually, this is due to either bloat from ingesting too much clover or from devouring spoiled or moldy hay. 

What Kind of Clover Will Kill Cattle?

Be particularly cautious about grazing cattle on sweet clover, as this is more likely to lead to bloat or toxicity. Wet hay from sweet clover has high-risk factors for cows.

How Much Clover Is Safe for Cows to Eat?

Clover is considered acceptable forage for cows. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. If cows eat way too much clover forage, it can cause them to develop bloat. This condition occurs due to the fermentation of clover in the cow’s stomach. And it can lead to serious health problems. In severe cases, bloat can be fatal. 

Read More!

Final Thoughts

So, can cows eat clover? The answer is yes – in moderation. Clover offers innumerable benefits to farmers, including increases in milk production and improvements in growth rates. However, there are also risks. 

Keep this advice in mind and feed wisely!

What about you and your cows? Do you find that your cows love eating clover?

And – what steps do you take to ensure your hay gets safely dried and cured?

We would love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks again for reading.

Have a great day!

Author

  • Rebekah Pierce

    Rebekah Pierce started a small farm with her husband in 2016 in upstate New York, near her native Adirondack Mountains. With a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in special education, she has been writing professionally since 2017, but only recently left the world of teaching to pursue writing and farming full time. She now writes full-time in the education, business, finance, and of course, homesteading and farming niches.

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