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Ashia Trevor-Massey

Case study – Dan Herdman at Acton Farms, member of Regenerate Outcomes

Case study – Dan Herdman at Acton Farms, member of Regenerate Outcomes 1100 1277 Soilmentor

Case study – Dan Herdman of Acton Farms, member of Regenerate Outcomes

We recently caught up with Dan Herdman at Acton Farm, a hill farm in Northumberland, with over 1200 acres running around 600 breeding ewes and 30 cattle. 

Dan uses Soilmentor as part of Regenerate Outcomes, an organisation that helps farmers create revenue streams from the generation of carbon credits and payments for other environmental services on their farm. Regenerate Outcomes offers advice through a mentoring programme which promotes and supports the transition towards regenerative agriculture.

As part of their mentoring, Regenerate Outcomes works with advisory groups such as Understanding Ag and 3LM, a support network aiming to provide advice to farmers on how to reduce input costs, improve plant and animal health and increase profits through harnessing biodiversity on their farms.

Regenerate Outcomes helps their members to baseline, monitor and track changes in their soil health, carbon profile and other positive environmental impacts from their farming methods. To assist with this data collection, Regenerate Outcomes farmers such as Dan are offered access to Soilmentor, alongside their soil coaches, who can access each farmers’ account to give advice based on observations made and soil health results collected.

Historically, Acton had been farmed organically, however in 2013, after 15 years of organic treatment, the farm transitioned to more conventional methods of grassland management, using nitrogen fertiliser to accelerate sward growth, but struggled to make this profitable. Two years ago, inspired after visiting a friend’s farm, Dan decided to start experimenting  with more regenerative methods of grassland and livestock management on 100 acres of his land, including planting species-rich herbal leys and implementing mob grazing strategies. This involved moving livestock onto fresh pasture everyday, allowing a minimum of 30 days recovery and leaving one third of the grass standing to build soil health and improve pasture quality. Now in his second season of mob grazing Dan has really started to see the results!

“We’ve seen massive improvements, I wish I had photos of when the farm was run conventionally, we would make sure the animals had every piece of grass that was available – now moving the herd in a mob grazing system we have so much more grass!”

                          Sheep grazing on herbal leys taken from Acton Farms Soilmentor account

Dan tells us that the regenerative transition has had it’s challenges, but he can see the positives and is keen to carry on progressing:

“I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest thing to do! The old story of just letting your sheep into a field and checking them once a day was easy. Now there’s the added work of putting the fences up and moving their water, but we’re getting there”

“It’s been a slow process, hindsight is a wonderful thing, we should have put the infrastructure such as water in previously, but are looking at finding grants to put water systems in”

One of the biggest obstacles Dan faces at Acton is forming grazing plans around the prolific growth of rushes and heather that still cover around 800 acres of the land, and limits the amount of forage available to his livestock. To combat this, stocking rates are either reduced in these areas or intensified to trample the vegetation down and encourage competition from grasses and other flora.

“I try not to go past that 50-60%, but sometimes I get the parcel size wrong and the animals just decimate it – It’s all a massive learning curve but I see all the positives, that’s the main thing. I can see the grass growing, I can see the diversity coming back, we have so much more wildlife present this year – black grouse, curlews, pewit’s – there’s definite signs that things are happening”

Images taken from Acton Farms Soilmentor account – observing the new presence of insect and flora diversity

This year Dan has decided to convert the whole farm over to a rotational grazing system and is using Soilmentor to support this transition.

Acton farm uses the daily observation feature to keep track of changes in sward growth and record the various plant and animal species returning to the farm. This feature is also regularly used to assist livestock movements – recording how long the herd spent in each parcel and noting areas of soil disturbance caused by overgrazing or reduced ground cover. 

                     Screenshot of groundcover report taken from Acton farms Soilmentor account

Using Soilmentor in this way can help develop a farmer’s understanding of the changes that are happening on the land over an extended period of time. The grazing impact experienced on each parcel of land will affect the growth of grass in the following year, ultimately influencing the health of the soil and the resilience and functionality of the whole farm ecosystem.

“Soilmentor has helped us keep track of the 30 – 35 day rest period we allow for before the animals come back to the same area, it’s nice to look back at the photos and to keep track of the new diversity appearing”

General observations taken on Acton Farms Soilmentor account, noting different sward lengths and trampling effects in mob grazing parcels and areas of high compaction or soil disturbance

Dan is now keen to use Soilmentor to help him develop his understanding of soil health and how it affects pasture quality and livestock nutrition.

Another learning Dan has made through increased observation, is that although his grasslands look healthier after moving to mob grazing, his livestock have not performed so well this year. He has noticed problems with magnesium deficiencies in his cattle during calving time, an issue which he has not experienced before.

Interested in learning more about how soil health affects the quality of his grasslands, last month Dan took part in a webinar hosted by Regenerate Outcomes with live Soilmentor coaching from Nicole Masters, agro-ecologist extraordinaire & founder of Integrity Soils!

During the webinar Nicole and four Regenerate farmers, including Dan, discussed how the Regen Indicator results they gathered from their soil testing can be used to monitor soil health, and influence future management decisions on their farms.

                  Screenshot of the The Regen Platform taken from Acton Farms Soilmentor account

When recording results for the Brix Barometer Dan shared with Nicole that the brix of his weeds was a lot higher than the brix of his grasses. Nicole re-iterated advice from the Regen Platform here – if your weeds have a higher brix than your desirables, this indicates your soil needs some support! If the weeds have a lower brix than your crops, you don’t need to intervene – your crops will outcompete the weeds in time.

Another observation made was the difference in infiltration rates between the fields. Two of Dan’s fields had very low infiltration rates taking over 20 minutes for the water to be fully absorbed, whilst another field with the same recent heavy rainfall took just under four minutes. Nicole explained that the secret to this difference is in soil structure – healthy soil acts as a sponge, absorbing the rain deeper into the profile.

Pictures of soil structure on a field with lower infiltration (left) and the field with high infiltration (right) taken from Acton Farms Soilmentor account, with the right hand field showing stronger signs of aggregation

Nicole then took a deeper dive into what may be causing this lack of stability. It was discussed that regularly fertilising the soil with urine, manure and green matter through mob grazing on a 30 day rotation will only feed the bacteria population in the soil. If a soil becomes bacteria dominated it will start to lose structure, restricting the movement of water through the soil profile.

Nicole went on to explain that although a grassland may have sufficient regrowth aboveground, and therefore look ready to graze, belowground the plant’s roots systems may not have fully recovered. Re-grazing without allowing sufficient rest periods will inhibit the growth of strong root structures reducing water cycling and the formation of aggregates.

As we can see from Dan’s Regen Dashboard the rooting depth of his grass swards are in either amber or red in our traffic light system meaning that they are averaging below what we consider a healthy level and in need of some attention! 

Dan and Nicole then compared two areas within the last sample field. One section within this field suffered with waterlogging, had a lack of soil structure and grew mostly Rushes which reduced its digestibility for livestock. In order to understand what is the limiting factor causing these issues Nicole encouraged Dan to review how the grassland is being managed and consider: is this a soil health issue due to a hardpan deeper in the soil level, high bacteria dominance or a mineral imbalance such as high magnesium and potassium or low calcium (which can cause soil structures to become tight). Or is this an issue caused by previous management decisions or other environmental factors like the presence of a natural spring.

Pictures of soil structure and water saturation in the main area (left) and wet area (right) of the field

Using the Regen Platform, simple on-farm soil tests and daily observation features in Soilmentor Dan can start to build up a picture of his soil’s health and determine what is the limiting factor causing these issues on his grasslands. Once the cause is established Dan will receive regenerative pointers from Nicole through the Regen Platform.

“There is a lot of guesswork as you transition to regen but it’s sort of the educated guesswork that is important.” – Dan Herdman

It was great to talk to Dan and hear how Soilmentor has supported his transition to regenerative agriculture and look forward to working with him on building his soil health at Acton Farm.

This is a brilliant example of the power of soil observation and how important it is to understand what is happening below ground when making management decisions on a farm. We love to be able to offer Soilmentor users a subscription option that incorporates tips from agroecological practitioners such as Nicole and feel these connections provide great value to our community!

If you want to learn more about Soilmentor, and how we might support your operation, get in touch with us on – we’re always happy to chat!