Neptune messina – a new pasture legume for saline soils prone to waterlogging

Page last updated: Friday, 7 May 2021 - 10:04am

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Neptune messina is an annual pasture legume for winter-wet saltland areas of southern Australia with more than 375 millimetres (mm) annual rainfall and soil pH(Ca) of 5.5 or more. It has higher combined tolerance to salinity and waterlogging than all other current pasture legumes. Neptune messina can be safely used for grazing and will supply nitrogen (N) to soils that are generally highly N-deficient, provided it is inoculated with the salt-tolerant Rhizobium strain for messina.

What is Neptune messina?

Messina (Melilotus siculus) is an aerial-seeding annual legume up to 0.8 metres (m) tall – native to the Mediterranean basin – that grows on saline, waterlogged soils. It is derived from a wild plant collected in Israel, and is adapted to winter-waterlogged areas where soil salinity in the top 10 centimetres (cm) is 8–30 deciSiemens (dS)/m ECe (highly to severley saline) in summer-early autumn.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), as part of the Future Farm Industries CRC, identified messina, in 2003, as the only pasture legume able to persist on severely saline, waterlogged soils. Neptune was subsequently selected as the most productive and persistent variety of messina. Its main identifying features are shown in Figure 1.

four photos 1. leaf, showing typical early season red-orange flecking; 2. flowers; 3. developing pods; and 4 mature pods and seed
Figure 1 Neptune messina: (a) leaf showing typical early season red-orange flecking; (b) flowers; (c) developing pods (d) mature pods and seed

Climatic and soil requirements

  • areas with ≥375mm annual average rainfall
  • soils prone to winter waterlogging with summer-early autumn surface (0-10 centimetres) ECe levels of 8–30 dS/m ECe (moderate-severe salinity)
  • soil pH(Ca) ≥5.5 or pH(water) ≥6.0 – this is important as the messina nodulation is sensitive to soil acidity (liming may be required)
  • soil texture from sands to heavy clays.

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Salt and waterlogging tolerance

  • Neptune has higher salt tolerance at germination than other available pasture legumes (as at 2019). It had 99% germination in a 300mM NaCl concentration (~55% sea water concentration), compared to 65% for Scimitar burr medic, 27% for Jota white melilot and 12% for Frontier balansa clover. This is critical for saline soils in southern Australia, as topsoil salinity levels are highest over the summer-autumn period, when germinating rains occur.
  • Messina plants are more salt tolerant than other pasture legumes (as at 2019). In one study by the University of Western Australia (UWA), messina continued to grow and produce new leaf after 14 days in a 550mM NaCl solution (seawater concentration).
  • Glasshouse studies by UWA have confirmed messina has similar waterlogging tolerance to balansa clover.

Flowering and hardseededness

  • Neptune starts flowering around 98 days after an early June sowing in Perth, Western Australia – three days later than Frontier balansa clover.
  • Neptune is moderately hardseeded. An experiment in Perth showed 26% of Neptune seeds remained hard in June, compared to 42% for Scimitar burr medic and 6% for Frontier balansa clover. This will ensure good germination levels in the year after sowing, while keeping seed in reserve for germination in future years.
  • Its delayed seed softening gives greater tolerance of false breaks and defers germination until rainfall is more likely to flush salts from the soil surface.

Biomass production

Neptune messina was the most productive and persistent of 21 varieties over three years on saline, waterlogged soils at Darkan and Tambellup in WA and three sites in the Keith district of South Australia (SA). It produced more biomass across the five sites than Frontier balansa clover, Scimitar burr medic and Jota white melilot, currently the three best pasture legumes for saline land. At the two WA sites total dry matter yield of Frontier, Scimitar and Jota over three years was only 17%, 16% and 3%, respectively, of Neptune messina (Figure 2), which had a highest annual plot measurement at Darkan of 7.6 tonnes/hectare (t/ha).

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Figure 2 Mean biomass production of Neptune messina, Frontier balansa clover, Scimitar burr medic and Jota white melilot (as a per cent of Neptune) over three years at saline, waterlogged sites at Darkan and Tambellup.
man standing next to pasture crop
Figure 3 Plots of Neptune messina (foreground) and Frontier balansa clover (background) three years after sowing at Darkan (Note the Frontier plot is dominated by button weed (Cotula sp.))

Grazing value

Data from SARDI has shown that green plants of Neptune have high nutritive value:

  • 82% digestibility
  • 28% crude protein
  • 31% neutral detergent fibre
  • 13 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg) of dry matter (DM) metabolisable energy
  • no known toxic chemicals.

A sheep grazing trial in SA showed pure Neptune poses no threat to livestock health and produces meat acceptable to consumers (Figure 4). However, Neptune was less palatable than sub clover and lower liveweight gains were achieved, but other observations indicate it is readily grazed when other species are also present.

Neptune is, therefore, recommended for use in mixed pastures. The inherent variability of saline paddocks for levels of both salinity and waterlogging will result in Neptune and other pasture components occupying different niches within a pasture.

sheep grazing in pasture paddock
Figure 4 Sheep grazing Neptune messina at Kybybolite, SA

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Recommendations for sowing

Seed inoculation and dressing

  • Neptune messina will be grown on soils unlikely to contain any suitable rhizobia and must be inoculated with the special salt-tolerant messina Rhizobium (strain SRDI554). Other strains of rhizobia will not survive over the summer in the saline topsoil.
  • Seed should be inoculated with a peat slurry, lime pelleted and sown promptly (ideally within 24 hours) after inoculation.
  • Seed fungicides can be applied before inoculation with rhizobia to prevent damage from root rot pathogens.  


  • Sow into moist soil in autumn or early winter.
  • Ideal timing is to delay sowing until early rains have flushed salts from the surface, but before waterlogging occurs.
  • Recommended sowing rate is 10kg/ha.
  • Sowing depth should be 10–15mm deep, similar to subterranean clover (which has a similar seed size).
  • Sow into a well prepared seed bed following good weed control.
  • Apply adequate rates of fertiliser to ensure phosphorous, potassium and other trace elements do not limit production.

Other species

Saltland environments are highly heterogeneous for salinity and waterlogging potential. Species mixtures are recommended to enable different plants to colonise parts of the landscape where messina is less suited and to provide a more balanced feed intake. Neptune can be mixed with other pasture legumes, including balansa clover, burr medic and white melilot and with the perennial grasses, puccinellia and tall wheatgrass. It can also be sown as an understorey species with saltbushes. 

Weed control

The paddock should be weed free prior to sowing. No chemicals are currently registered for use on messina and herbicide testing has been limited.

Pests and diseases

  • Messina should be monitored for redlegged earth mites and aphids during emergence and later in the season and controlled as required.
  • Native bud-worm (Heliothis) can invade developing seed pods and seed production may be reduced if this pest is not controlled.
  • Neptune has some susceptibility to powdery mildew.

Seed availability

Neptune is available to farmers through Seednet, which has the licence to produce and market Neptune.

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