How to manage soil and grassland for an early turnout

Managing an early spring turnout successfully could be hugely beneficial in years where farmers need to stretch out winter feed stocks.

If soils are particularly compacted from the previous year’s weather conditions, special steps should be taken to ensure a productive growing season.

Independent beef and sheep consultant Dr Liz Genever and independent soil and grassland consultant Jonathan Holmes at Lordington Park Agronomy discuss five areas livestock farms can look at in order to gear up for spring turnout.

See also: Guide to fertiliser terminology and spreading equipment

1. Assess soil health: Dr Liz Genever

  • Invest in soil testing. If your meadow/silage ground hasn’t been tested for three years then it’s time to do it. Pasture ground should be tested every five years. This can cost as little as £3-£4/ha or £10/field.
  • Are soils between 6-6.5pH and at the right indexes (2 for phosphate and potash)?
  • Evaluate compaction (see box) but ensure there is enough moisture, or dryness may be mistaken for compaction. If your soils are score 4 or 5, then action is required.

How to assess compaction yourself

Dig 30cm deep with a spade, cutting three times into the sward and push back the sward on its fourth edge to score its compaction.

Score 1: Crumbly: 6mm, rounded soil particles

Sweet earthy smell, lots of well distributed roots, small rounded aggregates

Score 2: Intact: 10mm, rounded particles

Earthy smell, porous, good root distribution, some larger aggregates

Score 3: Firm: 10mm, but some angular soil particles

No strong smell, moderate root distribution, larger soil lumps and angular lumps

Score 4: Compact: >5cm particles, effort needed to break down aggregates

Some red/orange mottling may indicate poor drainage, roots clustered, worm channels visible, may smell sulphuric (eggy)

Score 5: Very compact: >10cm

Some red/orange mottling may indicate poor drainage, roots near surface or down pores/cracks, worm channels

Source: AHDB Healthy Grassland Soils

2. Be flexible with your early turnout: Dr Liz Genever

  • Be prepared to slow rotations down and buffer feed to avoid overgrazing and damage if dry or cold conditions slow grass growth. 
  • If soil moisture remains in deficit be wary of overgrazing and reducing leaf area available to capture sunlight energy. Leave a residual of 1,500kg DM/ha for cattle and 1,200kg DM/ha for sheep.


  • Turn youngstock and lighter animals out first i.e. weaned calves as they are easy to bring back in, then growing cattle, then cows with spring-born calves as calving progresses.
  • Cow/calf pairs might be best turned out when calves are three to four weeks old and can cope with the increase in milk yield that may result from turnout
  • Autumn-calving herds will be best kept with calves on good quality grass. Weaning early could mean body condition becomes hard to manage on cows through the summer
  • Have you gateways and tracks to allow you to manage on/off grazing like a dairy farm?
  • If wet, ensure cattle are kept moving and rehouse if necessary – you may have saved a week or two’s silage.


  • Consider supplementing good quality straw with concentrate or sugar beet/fodder beet at pasture if conserved forage stocks are low.

3. Support soil fertility: Dr Liz Genever

  • Fertiliser at 30-40kg N/ha in urea or ammonium nitrate form could help growth as long as soil temperatures are high enough and it is being applied to responsive grasses (e.g. sown species, with some leaf area to fix sunlight)
  • Soil temperature must be above 5C for five days at 10cm deep for soil biology to make nitrogen available to grass and at 8C for clover to grow.
  • Early turnout requires early fertiliser. Monitor soil temperatures via Agrii monitoring stations on the AHDB weather hub or buy a soil thermometer for about £5 to assess condition yourself.

4. Manage compaction: Jonathan Holmes

  • Surface slitting, chain harrowing or tining grassland can help aerate soil and allow soil microbes to access nitrogen from the air. This removes thatch and can help surface compaction.
  • Sward lifters may have a role to play but it’s best to wait until the autumn and use with careful consideration because subsoiling disrupts soil biology and can lead to short-term productivity losses. 
  • Heavy soils, especially with a high magnesium content, could benefit from calcium.
  • Look into spreading gypsum or calcium prills. This works by attaching negatively charged soil particles to positively charge sodium particles, creating granular soil with more air pockets. 
  • Gypsum is cheaper but slow to enter the soil. Some farmland could benefit from 80kg of calcium prills/ha. 
  • Remember, a healthy soil needs to be roughly 25% air, 25% water, 45% silt/sand/clay and 5% organic matter.
Transferring a soil sample into a plastic bag

© FLPA/REX/Shutterstock

5. Repair failed ryegrass swards: Jonathan Holmes

  • Consider patching up grassland sooner rather than later and risk soil moisture dropping further if you’re a dry farm.
  • Overseeding is best done in April or September if soil moisture allows, or once grazing has reduced competition from established grasses.
  • Marginal fields could benefit from more varied grassland varieties. Lots of ryegrass monocultures droughted off last year. 
  • Ryegrass has a rooting depth of only 50-75mm. Consider a variety of heading dates and rooting depths such as Timothy and Cocksfoot, which can reach down 100cm and head at different times of year. Chicory varieties have 30-50cm of typical rooting depth.