Because phosphorus (P) is one of the most limiting nutrients in agricultural systems, P fertilisation is essential to feed the world. However, declining P reserves demand far more effective use of this crucial resource. Here, we use meta-analysis to synthesize yield responses to P fertilisation in grasslands, the most common type of agricultural land, to identify under which conditions P fertilisation is most effective. Yield responses to P fertilisation were 40–100% higher in (a) tropical vs temperate regions; (b) grass/legume mixtures vs grass monocultures; and (c) soil pH of 5–6 vs other pHs. The agronomic efficiency of P fertilisation decreased for greater P application rates. Moreover, soils with low P availability reacted disproportionately strong to fertilisation. Hence, low fertiliser application rates to P-deficient soils result in stronger absolute yield benefits than high rates applied to soils with a higher P status. Overall, our results suggest that optimising P fertiliser use is key to sustainable intensification of agricultural systems.