Establishing lucerne

Find out when and how to sow lucerne seeds for successful establishment.

Top tips for successful lucerne establishment:

  • Sow in the spring, from late April, as the soil starts to warm up and throughout the summer, as long as soil moisture is not limiting
  • Make sure seed is inoculated with Rhizobia meliloti bacteria for successful root nodulation and efficient nitrogen fixation
  • Sow into a fine, firm seedbed to a depth of 0.5–1 cm – broadcasting followed by rolling reduces the risk of the seed going in too deep
  • Space rows 10–12 cm apart and roll the seed in
  • You may find it useful to establish tramlines for ease of fertiliser application and spraying for pests or diseases

Lucerne is available in pre-treated half-hectare packs to ensure the correct seed numbers at sowing – similar to maize. For untreated seed, mix with inoculant just before drilling.

The seed is small – going deeper than 1 cm will lead to poor germination.

If you have an organic system, consider creating a false seedbed some weeks before sowing. This allows disturbed weed seeds to germinate and then be eliminated before the re-seed.

In southern England, it may be possible to sow lucerne up to mid-August (no later), to make sure the crop establishes before winter. However, our research has found that:

  • Spring sowing was more reliable in terms of successfully establishing a crop – 100% of spring-sown crops made it through to harvest, compared with only 29% of successfully harvested late summer establishments
  • Crude protein content was higher in spring-sown crops (19.6%) compared with summer-sown crops (16.6%)
  • Late summer sowings take 12 months to match the productivity and quality of spring sowings because they are likely to continue partitioning resources to the root and crown in the following spring. Therefore there is no advantage to late summer sowing and a greater risk of unsuccessful establishment

AHDB Dairy Grassland, Forage and Soils Research Partnership

Seed rate

You can grow lucerne as a pure stand or with grass, or under sow into a cereal nurse crop. Mixtures can provide a crop yield in the establishment year and help to suppress weeds.

Select grasses carefully so they do not outcompete the lucerne seedlings. Generally perennial, hybrid and Italian ryegrass are not appropriate.

Seed rates for different systems of growing lucerne

Cropping system

Seed rates

Pure lucerne

20–25 kg/ha

Lucerne with grasses such as timothy/cocksfoot/fescues

Lucerne: 15–20 kg/ha

Grass: 8 kg/ha

Lucerne under sown with cereal nurse crop

Lucerne at 20–25 kg/ha

Cereal seed rate at half rate

Source: Germinal GB Ltd

For pure lucerne stands, the aim is to achieve 500–800 plants per m² at establishment. It is likely that plant numbers will drop to 120‒150/m² after two years.

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