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Sixth-generation farmers embrace change

By Rick Bayne

FOR A dairy farming dynasty that stretches across six generations and 136 years, the Whites like to stay on the move.

Current patriarch of Hillgrove Farm and Dilee Holsteins at Leongatha South in Gippsland is Les White, who is in partnership with son Russ who manages the operation. Les’ grandson Rhys is doing a farm traineeship, making him the sixth-generation in the enterprise. Two other grandsons help out as casual milkers.

They’ve had a few moves over time, never too far from the Gippsland base, but the first part of this century might have been their most progressive.

The list of upgrades and expansion over recent years since moving to the current farm in 2001 is certainly impressive. Two new out-blocks purchased over the past four years have boosted capacity and the home farm has benefited from a new rotary dairy, laneways, water system, sheds, concrete silage pits and a feed pad.

They’ve also embraced technology and automation with calves and cows both on identification systems.

“From seven days the calves go on auto feed three or four times a day so they can’t get double-fed and the machine tells you if they haven’t been fed,” Les said.

The cows use a different ID band system on their feed that tracks their production and heat.

Les said he had been a farmer since he was born and that was never going to change.

The 71-year-old is proud of his predecessors who settled at Krowera — about 30 minutes from the current farm — in 1882.

Les was on the original farm until 1970 when he married Dianne and they shifted to nearby Kongwak. They remained there until 2001 when Russ returned to the farm.

“We weren’t able to expand at Kongwak so we shifted to Leongatha on a flatter farm,” Les said.

“Making the big break from milking 100 cows at Kongwak to 280 was a huge step. Since we’ve come out here we’ve made a lot of improvements to the farm. There’s not an over-abundance of money but we get by all right.”

The Whites have milked Holsteins since the late 1970s, but their connection to the breed goes back much further.

Les’ great-grandfather Joseph White and current Holstein Australia chief executive officer Graeme Gillan’s great-grandfather came out together on the boat from England in 1882, and settled side-by-side in Gippsland.

“It was a real hilly place with blue gum trees,” Les said.

“It was a hard grind and you wonder how they did it. My great grandfather had a wooden leg and had to walk up and down the hills on one leg. It’s a remarkable story what they did in those days.”

Les and his next generations continue to write a new history for the family.

They now milk 340 cows on 200ha, boosted by a 30 ha block purchased four years ago and another former 85 ha farm added two years ago. The new properties have been redeveloped, re-sown and re-fenced.

“You’ve got to keep moving,” Les said

It’s not always smooth sailing. About five years ago 23 000 New Zealand pine trees planted as windbreaks started dying when infected by a bug and had to be removed.

“We had 95 semi loads of timber go to the pulp mill from our farm and the same from the neighbouring farm. It’s all been re-planted with natives and they’re all growing well,” Les said.

He takes the setback in stride. “When you’re born and bred into it you put up with the highs and lows.”

The farm’s strong production helps through the tough times. “We’re steady at around 10 000 litres per cow. We’re quite proud of the herd and their production.”

Les attributes the success to artificial breeding, particularly with the Ollie family of cows now spreading through two-thirds of the herd.

“We’ve had a lot of success from one foundation cow.”