The use of clover in grassland to replace fertiliser nitrogen (N) can substantially lower greenhouse gas (GHG) and ammonia emissions from pasture-based production.

James Humphreys, a Teagasc researcher and Dan Barrett, farm manager at Teagasc Solohead farm, outlined clover sward fertiliser management from the 12 years of research at Teagasc Solohead farm.

Using Clover to replace fertiliser N

Averaged over 12 years at Solohead, research found similar pasture production from grass-clover swards receiving 95kg/ha of fertiliser N applied in spring compared with swards receiving 245kg/ha applied across the growing season.

Clover has a higher temperature requirement than grass for growth and therefore chemical N was applied in February, March and April to compensate for this.

Most of the N fixation by clover takes place during the summer and autumn and research has found little or no benefit from applying fertiliser N to well-managed grass-clover swards from May onwards.

Don’t neglect P and K

Stopping the application of N can mean that phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) can get neglected during the summer and autumn.

Clover is a shallow rooted species with around 15% of the root density of perennial ryegrass making it much less competitive for soil nutrients.

Regular applications of a P and K compound fertiliser throughout the growing season are necessary for high levels of clover productivity and biological N fixation.

This can be achieved by applying an N-containing compound fertiliser in spring such as 24:2.5:10 or 18:6:12. Sulphur should be included in these compounds in sulphur deficient areas, particularly in April.

Also Read: Don’t overlook the importance of sulphur

Small regular applications of a non-N compound fertiliser are beneficial from May onwards; for example, a half bag of 0:7:30 per acre after every second grazing is very cost-effective.

Achieving Nitrogen fixation

Nitrogen fixation is a biological process that is regulated by soil pH (lime status). Optimum soil pH for biological N fixation is in the range 6.5 to 7.0, which is higher than is typically recommended for grassland (6.2 to 6.5).

The aim at Solohead was to keep soil pH levels at around 6.5. This is achieved by regular soil testing and application of ground limestone. It is important to be aware that soil pH levels >6.2 are not recommended for high molybdenum soils.

This does not mean that clover should not be grown on such soils; it means being careful about applying lime and ensuring livestock are adequately supplemented with copper.

Your soil test results should indicate whether or not you are in a high molybdenum area.

Image source: Teagasc

Average daily pasture growth rates over 12 years on grass-clover swards receiving 95kg/ha of fertiliser N in spring (green line) and swards receiving annual fertilizer N input of 245kg/ha (blue line) at Solohead research farm.