Red Clover Vs Lucerne – Nutritional aspects to consider

Published 10 July 15

Red Clover Vs Lucerne – Nutritional aspects to consider

Legumes such as red clover and lucerne offer a useful source of crude protein in the diet of dairy cows  and it also reduces the farm’s dependence on imported feed protein. When considering their use in the diet it is important to appreciate some of the nutritional differences between the two crops, and the effects these have on production, says Tom Goatman, AHDB Dairy Technical Extension Officer.

Table 1: Typical nutritional value of red clover and lucerne


red clover


Dry Matter (g/kg)



Crude Protein (g/kg DM)



ME (MJ/kg DM)



WSC (g/kg DM)



Source: Young, 2002

Table 1 demonstrates that lucerne has a higher DM and CP content but lower ME than red clover. However, absolute values will vary depending on management and conditions around harvest time. There are also other nutritional properties specific to each crop that can have an effect on animal production characteristics.


Effect on Dry matter intake (DMI) and yield


Steinshamn (2010) reviewed eight experiments comparing red clover silage with lucerne silage and reported that, although lucerne had higher DMI, there was no significant increase in milk yield (see Table 2).

Steinshamn explained the similarities in milk yield, despite the higher DMI of the lucerne, by the higher net energy value of red clover in comparison to lucerne. This difference in energy content was also reported by Broderick et al. (2001), where they estimated that the net energy for lactation was 18% greater in red clover silage than for the lucerne silage used in the study. Again, these differences are largely dependent on management of the crop. For more information on growing lucerne, see the AHDB Dairy guide on growing and feeding lucerne.

Table 2 Summary of the results from 8 experiments comparing Red clover and Lucerne silage


red clover


Dry matter intake (kg/day)



Milk yield (kg/day)



Milk fat (g/kg)



Milk protein (g/kg)



Source: Steinshamn, 2010

Effect on milk protein content

In the review by Steinshamn, milk protein content (+ 0.8g/kg) and yield (+ 0.2kg/day) were higher for lucerne than red clover. This marginal improvement may be due to the lower DMI reported for red clover diets. Compared to non-legume silages, the tannin content in red clover and lucerne silages reduces the amount of protein broken down during fermentation in the silage pit, and during fermentation in the rumen. This results in a higher portion of plant amino acids being available for milk protein production compared to grass silages. AHDB Dairy’s research partners have recently completed feeding trials on lucerne compared to grass and maize silages. A summary of these is currently available on page 18 of our latest research booklet.

Effect on milk fat content

Reduced milk fat content is, typically, observed where legume-based diets are fed to dairy cows, a number of mechanisms are put forward to explain this. Firstly, the effect may be caused by the digestion of legumes producing higher levels of intermediate products that inhibit milk fat synthesis.  Secondly, Steinshamn (2010) reported that the lower milk fat content may be due to increased supply of long-chain fatty acids to the mammary gland, which are also known to limit milk fat synthesis. This is because the higher tannin content of red clover inhibits breakdown of fats in the rumen meaning a higher concentration of long chain fatty acids are available for milk synthesis.  This increased supply of long-chain fatty acids will also influence milk fatty acid composition.

To summarise, legumes such as red clover and lucerne offer an important source of crude protein in dairy cow diets. The studies discussed outline work where either the red clover or lucerne were fed as the sole forage. However, it is more likely that each will be included as a forage mix with maize or grass and it will be important to assess not only the nutritional values that each forage can bring to the diet but also the ability of the farm to produce legume forages.

Further information on AHDB Dairy-funded research relating to lucerne and red clover can be found on the website