THE Partridge family’s White Rocks property at Benger oozes history.
The farm is now headed up by Michael and Leanne Partridge and their children Oaklee and Harrison and Michael’s parents David and Elizabeth Partridge, who also live on the property.
White Rocks was originally bought by Michael’s great-grandfather in 1887.
Back then it was just 300 acres (121 hectares), three of which were cleared, marking the start of a family tradition of developing the dairy farming business.
Now the family has a bit more room to move with cattle on their home block of 526ha and total land holdings of 1214ha, of which a third is leased.
“It was a small start but everything we see and work with here has been developed by generations working hard over 130 years,” Michael said.
“That history makes it a special place, as well as a place of business and a farm.”
Dairy farming has been part of the equation from the very start with a few cows on the property within the first year of his great-grandfather purchasing the place.
“We’ve been milking cows ever since,” Michael said.
“Now we calve all year round and we milk between 700-800 cows throughout the year which keeps us busy.
“But what I really like about the story of our farm is that over the years, each generation has taken the farm to the next level, and that is how we are able to run those numbers of cows on the property now.”
When Michael came home from school in the 1980s, beef represented a large part of the business.
“We were rearing calves and fattening steers with a lot of lease properties, but now we’ve moved back towards dairy as the core business,” he said.
Opting to focus on the milking operation hasn’t meant the family has closed the doors on other options.
“For the past 25 years we’ve also been producing white veal under our own brand White Rocks Veal which is in partnership with Mondo Butchers,” Michael said.
“We own the brand but they’ve got sole rights to distribute and market it.
“I think it was actually one of the first branded beef products available in WA which is a lot more common now, but 25 years ago it wasn’t and these days our brand is recognised in restaurants around Australia which is nice – it’s probably what I‘d call the ‘gourmet factor’ of our business.”
For their white veal product, the Partridges turn off between four to eight head per week at 120kg dressed weight to Mondos for processing, with the calves on a strict diet to keep them within specifications for the niche product.
“It’s a low iron milk and grainfed product which is about constant supply and constant quality,” Michael said.
“Vince (Gareffa) is fantastic – his enthusiasm has taken the veal on an exciting ride.
“But at the end of the day, the heart of the business is grass production and using cows to utilise the grass turning it into milk and beef, but this year grass production has been particularly difficult.”
October rains were a saving grace for many producers, but the lack of rain in autumn and winter meant high feed prices will be felt by dairy producers like the Partridge family for a while yet.
“We’re paying well over $100 a tonne more for grain than we were this time last year,” Michael said.
“It’s our biggest cost by a long way, so this summer people will be looking at their cow numbers and concentrating on harvesting the spring.
“Luckily we’ve had a reasonable spring and the hay and silage being cut at the moment around the place is looking good.
“But I do think there will probably be a fairly high culling program this summer simply because people won’t be able to afford to chase milk with grain.
“We’ll certainly be watching the feeding programs closely over summer.”
Regardless of the season, the Partridges know the importance of keeping their eyes open to potential options for growth.
“We have recently done a conversion from a dairy farmer who had gone to beef,” Michael said.
“We saw the opportunity to go back to dairy on his property, so that’s been an exciting project for me, turning that farm back into a dairy farm.”
There is another smaller dairy on the recently converted property which has been a good add-on for the business.
“There’s a sweet spot if you’re grazing cattle and topping them up with supplementary feeding, which prior to the purchase of that property we had gone past,” Michael said.
“We were buying in more grain and hay than we wanted to but with the new property and dairy which we can walk cows to, we now have more grass area to get us back to that sweet spot balance of grass and supplementary feed in their diet.”
Now, at mid-lactation, the cows are pregnancy tested and those not in calf are walked over to the new property to run with bulls and end up in an extended lactation herd.
The result has eased pressure on the home farm pastures, with more milk produced across the two properties for less cost.
“It’s been a fantastic opportunity for us,” Michael said.
With the new property came new projects, including the installation of drainage systems throughout low-lying paddocks which have seen big improvements in their pastures.
“In my father’s lifetime things went from horses to the mechanical revolution, but in my lifetime science and technology are the two main factors that provide today’s dairy farmers with growth opportunities,” Michael said.
“So we have tried to embrace new ideas that have helped move our business forward.
“It’s certainly an exciting time to be in farming and I’m optimistic for the future a place like this can have.”
When asked about incentives for the next generation of farmers to continue in dairy, Michael said the industry had successfully supported his family for 130 years.
“Everything the family has comes from the dairy industry,” he said.
“So I hope it will continue to offer opportunities for my kids going forward.
“But if they want to stay in the industry, of course it has to stack up with other opportunities out there and I think it does have the ability to do that, as long as we ensure that we continue to become more efficient, manage our costs of production, genetics, science, plant breeding and so on.
“So I am optimistic about this farm being able to offer the next generation good opportunities.”
That optimism translates beyond the farmgate to Michael’s advocacy work as president of the dairy section at WAFarmers.
“It’s another generational thing for me because my father was involved in advocacy but it’s more about just trying to help make things better,” he said.
“It’s always hard to quantify the benefit of advocacy but a lot of it is about removing roadblocks right across the agriculture sector from federal to local levels so I try to do my bit to bring balance to the argument and it is rewarding to have a go.”