Irradiance and soil nitrogen effects on growth, net photosynthesis and radiation use efficiency (RUE) of Brachiaria decumbens were investigated in fertilized and non-fertilized stands. Three levels of photosynthetic photon flux (PPF: S0 = 100%, S1 = 50% and S2 = 30%) and two N supplies, with (N+) and without (N−), were used. Forage biomass and nutrient accumulation, specific leaf area (SLA), leaf area index (LAI), fractional intercepted photosynthetic photon flux (fPPF), leaf photosynthetic response to light and efficiency of radiation use at leaf (A/Q) and canopy (RUE) levels were measured. Shade effects were mostly independent of soil N. Final yield was decreased by 34% (S1) and 57% (S2). Shade increased SLA (25–46%), so maximum LAI (2·4–3·3) was similar among light regimes. In N− stands, reductions in leaf biomass (14%), SLA (17%) and LAI (27%) were recorded, although forage yield was similar between soil N conditions. Under shade, peaks of A were comparable to those at full light, so A/Q was higher around midday. Derived parameters of the A-PPF curves were similar between S0 and S2. A maximum fPPF = 0·8 (S0N+, S1N+) was recorded at LAI = 3–4. Under limited sunlight, relatively high RUE (1·6–2·8 g MJ−1) were observed over both soil N conditions. We concluded that B. decumbens had a high plasticity to shade, thus explaining its success under silvopastoral systems.