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Nutrient management of white clover swards

Nutrient management of white clover swards

The benefits of white clover tend to occur from May onwards, as sward white clover content increases.

The main benefits of white clover inclusion in grass swards are:

  • Increased herbage quality compared to grass-only swards in the summer months;
  • Increased dry matter (DM) intake in summer and autumn;
  • Higher milk production and liveweight gain;
  • Nitrogen (N) fixation – white clover fixes N from the atmosphere, making it available for plant growth;
  • Lower requirement for N fertiliser application in summer.

White clover does not have the ability to fix nitrogen (N) for the first 12 to 18 months post-sowing. Nitrogen fertiliser is important during this period to encourage growth and development. White clover needs a higher soil temperature for growth than grass. Grass starts growing at soil temperatures of 5-6°C, while white clover needs soil temperature of 8°C.

As a result, the contribution of white clover to the sward in early spring is low. As our systems have a requirement for pasture to feed animals in early spring, N fertiliser must be applied at similar rates to those used in grass-only swards.

However, in the summer when sward white clover content is increasing (≥ 25%), N fertiliser application can be reduced. Some N fertiliser is required in autumn, so N should be applied in late-August / early September (before 15th September) to ensure pasture availability in the autumn. Suggested N application strategies for grass-white clover swards with average annual white clover content of 20% or greater are shown in Table 1 and 2.

Table 1: Nitrogen fertiliser application rates by rotation for white clover in dairy swards

Date (rotation)N fertiliser application (kg N/ha)
Early February  28
Mid March 28
April (2nd rotation) 28
Early May (3rd rotation) 9
Late May (4th rotation) 9
June (5th rotation) 9
Early July (6th rotation) 9
Late July (7th rotation) 9
August (8th rotation) 9
Mid September 12
Total 150

Table 2: Nitrogen fertiliser application rates by rotation for white clover in drystock swards (up to 2.0LU/ha)

Date (rotation)N fertiliser application (kg N/ha)
Early / mid-February 20
April (2nd rotation) 20
May (3rd rotation) 12
June (4th rotation) 12
Late July / early August  12
Early September (7th rotation) 14
Total 90

Macro and micro-nutrients

White clover has a poor competitive ability to absorb most soil nutrients compared to grass due to the different characteristics of the root systems of the two species. Perennial ryegrass has a denser longer, thinner and more finely branched root system compared to white clover. As a result, white clover is generally at a disadvantage when it comes to nutrient uptake from the soil. Soil pH is critical for white clover development. White clover is more sensitive to lower soil pH than grass.

  • Soil pH should be greater than 6.3.
  • Low soil pH reduces soil nutrient availability for plant growth.
  • Low pH soils can be deficient in plant available calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) which are necessary for rhizobia (N fixing bacteria) survival.
  • In low pH soils, manganese (Mn) and aluminium (Al) toxicity can have a major effect on white clover development.
  • Formation of nodules for N fixation is reduced below soil pH 5.8.

White clover requires a minimum of soil Index 3 for phosphorous (5.1 – 8 mg/l) and potassium (101 – 150 mg/l). Soil P and K availability are important for BNF which is reduced when there is a P and/or K deficiency. Grasses tend to dominate K deficient soils resulting in low sward white clover content.

In sulphur (S) deficient soils white clover growth and biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) will be reduced. Other soil nutrients such as calcium (Ca), sodium (Na) and molybdenum (Mo) are important for white clover growth. Cobalt (Co), boron (B), Ca Mo, iron (Fe), Co, Ca and copper (Cu) are important for nodule development and function. A summary of the relative importance of macro- and micro-nutrients is grass-white clover swards is presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Relative importance of macro and micro-nutrients in grass-white clover swards

Macro or micro-nutrientImportance
Phosphorous Very important
Potassium Very important
Sulphur Important
Calcium Important
Sodium Somewhat important
Molybdenum Somewhat important
Cobalt Somewhat important
Boron Somewhat important
Iron Somewhat important
Copper  Somewhat important
Manganese Somewhat important (toxicity in low soil pH soils)
Aluminium Somewhat important (toxicity in low soil pH soils)

 This article was adapted from the Mangement and establishment of grass-white clover swards booklets. Access the entire booklet here.

Watch: Selection, establishment and nutrient management of clover swards

Also read: Increasing sward and animal performance with red clover