Basic management practices for soil health which have been known for generations are still important today, members of the Ulster Grassland Society (UGS) have been told.

Speaking at the UGS annual conference in Antrim, Dr Elizabeth Stockdale said applying lime and farmyard manure were two simple steps that can have major benefits for soil health. “It’s not rocket science. There is nothing very complicated about it. If your grandfathers were here in this room and we asked them ‘how do we make soils work well?’ they would say ‘put muck on’.”

Stockdale, who is a soil scientist at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, explained that soil health is an interplay of three properties, namely chemical, physical, and biological.

UGS members were told that drainage is an important physical property of soils, and a key chemical property is soil pH.

“Certainly if you are reseeding, you don’t want soil pH less than 6.3. Even across your farm as a whole, you shouldn’t think of 6.0 being okay. The aim should be 6.3 because some soils will probably always be below target,” Stockdale said.

Ultimately, each property of soil health is as important as the other two. The example was given of adequate drainage (physical) and soil pH (chemical) being critical for microscopic bacteria and fungi to thrive in soils (biological).

Likewise, other soil biology, such as earthworms, can help alleviate soil compaction and improve drainage, which improves the physical property of the soil.


Aside from applying farmyard manure and other nutrients, grass plants also feed the soil by capturing carbon from the air through photosynthesis, then releasing some of it through their roots into the soil.

“Feeding those soil organisms through a diverse roots system is very important. Even in ryegrass swards, having diverse varieties so we get differences in heading times and growth patterns can be really important for supporting the biology below the ground,” Stockdale said.

Increasing soil organic matter levels can have benefits for all three properties of soil health. This can be done by applying manures, but also by increasing the amount of crop that is not harvested or utilised by livestock.

Interestingly, Stockdale suggested that increasing nitrogen fertiliser use can lead to higher soil organic matter levels in many instances.

“If I use fertiliser to grow better grass, then I can have more grass and more roots, so I get more returns from the system into the soil,” she said.

Mitchell family win UGS grassland competition

Gordon Mitchell from Banbridge, Co Down was named Ulster grassland farmer of the year at the UGS conference on Tuesday. The Mitchell family milk 80 Holstein cows with an average yield of 8,200 litres and 3,695 litres coming from forage.

Runner up was Jonny Hutchinson, who milks pedigree Jersey cows in Tobermore, Co Derry. The other runner up, and winner of the UGS grazing cup, was Strangford beef and sheep farmer Dale Orr.

The special commendation award went to Josh Morton, who runs a spring calving dairy herd on a leased farm in Co Armagh.

At the start of the conference, Kilrea man David Linton was elected UGS president, taking over from Ahoghill dairy farmer Harold Johnston. Linton is UK commercial manager for grass seed company Barenbrug, and also farms part-time.

Dairy farmers get green bonus worth 2p/l

Milk suppliers to British dairy co-op First Milk receive a 0.5p/l regenerative farming bonus, Lanarkshire dairy farmer Jim Baird told the UGS conference in Antrim.

The scheme started in April 2022 and requires farmers to have a written plan which sets out steps for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing biodiversity. Attendance at environmental workshop events is also a requirement for the payment.

“We’ve looked at dung beatles, we’ve counted earthworms, we’ve tested water penetration, we’ve dug pits. Over 300 farmers have attended which is a fair percentage of our membership, although it does help that we get a 0.5p/l bonus,” Baird said.

During his presentation, Baird pointed to dedicated milk pools that First Milk have in Cumbria and Ayrshire which supplies the multinational food and drink conglomerate Nestlé.

“Nestlé are way ahead of the game with all this stuff. Those two groups can get a 2p/l bonus over the average member by doing a whole host of things [for the environment]. You can be assured that what they have now, we all will have in two or three years’ time. That is the direction of travel,” he said.