FROM the rustic dining table in her restored country kitchen, Gilly Johnson watches over the bucolic pastures of historic Melville Park Farm, at Brunswick, Western Australia, and plots the next step in her plan to build a new beef brand.
Though many might consider hers a hobby farm, she is using the 56-hectare, Brunswick River-side property, on the very edge of the town, to build a market and brand for beef from the inquisitive and friendly Jersey bull calves, which are happily ensconced around her property.
At the moment, 11 large Jersey steers, which form the forward group of a herd of about 120 steers, are being lovingly re-conditioned after a tough autumn season in readiness for the next six months of beef sales.
Across the central laneway is the beginnings of her new micro-dairy herd of Jersey cows, which Ms Johnson hopes to bring together in 2020 to form the nucleus of a boutique once-a-day milking herd.
Jersey Boy Beef is a totally new foray for the project manager and former army officer, who has a farming family background, but has established her first farm business over the past seven years.
And it's not lost on her that what she is quietly working towards, with the support of a small group of local dairy farmers, in her beautiful corner of the South West, resonates with some of the bigger issues facing the broader dairy industry - how to build and maintain a livelihood in a sector under pressure and which surveys show wants major change, with a commodity undermined by supermarket $1 a litre milk, growing animal activism and the need to maintain a social licence and, in the Eastern States more particularly, contention about how to manage the five-day old bobby calves which are a necessary part of the system.
"There have been some interesting things going on in the dairy beef space and the landscape of dairy beef is changing,'' Ms Johnson said.
"I know that I am not the first person to try Jersey beef, but I probably am the first to give it a branding.
"It's important to me that my customers know they are eating Jersey beef and that their support is contributing to strengthening the amount of available beef in our country, by making use of these calves that are already on the ground within the dairy industry.
"We have this group of calves on the ground, they are already here and they have to be here for us to have a dairy industry - so couldn't we find a way to strengthen that and make more out of it?''
To that end, Ms Johnson is now looking to build more partnerships with South West WA dairy and other farmers to build a more consistent supply of beef that can be sold via her farm and also potentially into the retail space.
The partnerships would see producers growing out small herds of Jersey calves to about 18-months-old, enabling Jersey Boy Beef to have an overall larger herd size and for her partners to become part of the Jersey Boy Beef brand.
An important part of her business model is working to commercial standards by having her steers processed at a local processor and then hung for up to seven days at a leading butchering group in Bunbury.
Ms Johnson said both groups have provided great support and helped her to learn more about the commercial systems and processes that lead to high standards and beef quality.
Ideally she likes to process her steers between 400-450 kilograms, as 100 per cent grassfed beef, to maximise the available yield in each carcase.
Ms Johnson is also two years into a five-year MSA program to grade her Jersey Boy Beef.
She said being part of the MSA program had helped her to understand more about her beef in general and to use the data to make butchering and processing decisions.
Early this year, Ms Johnson was part of a Paddock to Plate day for Harvey Shire Tourism and in the near future will be part of a local farm tour for a young dairy network.
"I do believe a partnership model is the future,'' Ms Johnson said.
"I am hoping that by the dairy industry having more exposure to what I am doing, it will help to grow potential partnerships in the future.
Ms Johnson's journey into farming started seven years ago when she bought two adjoining blocks from a subdivision of the historic 121 hectare Melville Park Farm, on the outskirts of Brunswick, 165km south of Perth.
She was returning to Western Australia after about 20 years spent in the Eastern States in the Australian Defence Force and in business, to raise her children closer to her family.
Melville Park, which was settled in about 1849 by the Flaherty family and taken over by Alfred Moore, had by then been owned by several generations of the prominent Shine family.
Her blocks included the grand, Edwardian/Federation style homestead built by Sam McKay in 1895, which she is steadily restoring and a double-storey brick barn and stables, which also remain.
Ms Johnson said Melville Park Farm was a significant local property which had had a succession of prominent owners, also including former explorer, WA surveyor and politician Alexander Forrest, which meant many people had a view about how it should be run and maintained.
"The social licence - and what I call the community licence - for a property like this is enormous,'' she said.
"When a property has been here for so long and so many people have come and gone from the property, they feel a strong sense of ownership - everyone is keen to understand your ideas for the future of the farm and being open to visitors who want to continue their relationship with Melville Park Farm is an important aspect to being part of the local community.''
Melville Park is blessed with productive soils and Ms Johnson is focused on growing her knowledge and skills in how to maximise their potential - within the constraints imposed by the relatively small landholding.
Though WA agriculture has a large portion of broadacre farming, there's still a conundrum faced by many who take on board sub-divided and so-called hobby farms around Perth's fringes and many rural and regional towns.
They are crucial to the survival of country populations but must innovate to create a sufficient farm income to survive and thrive.
"I believe there are opportunities for people like myself to bring new ideas for these properties that may, in some instances, be different to how the property was farmed as a larger enterprise," Ms Johnson said.
"When this property was a 300 acre, semi-irrigated farm, it could work as a traditional dairy farm and cattle stud enterprise.
"Now it can't, it's too small for this to be the only source of farm income.
"You have to look at the price per acre and go 'what can you do price per acre that might bring a better return?'
"Some people will go 'it's just a lifestyle property, you don't even worry about that'.
"If money wasn't a problem, that is what you would do, but money is always part of the equation."
Ms Johnson hopes that within five to eight years she will be making her income solely from Melville Park Farm via a range of farm-related business activities, but in the meantime she continues with project management and consultancy work while building Jersey Boy Beef.
"In my head, when I moved back here, I was looking at what I could do on a smaller landscape,'' she said
"Because the farm had been a dairy, in my head I was exploring that landscape.
"And in the Eastern States they had a strong bobby calf situation, which is still a source of tension.
"While this situation is slightly different in WA, I thought maybe this is where I can add to the conversation a bit, to support local dairy farmers with a potential solution."
Ms Johnson discovered 2001 research from Massey University, New Zealand, that looked at the potential qualities of Jersey bull calves as eating beef and which had done some basic genetic profiling, which suggested Jersey beef was higher in healthy fats and triglycerides than traditional eating beef breeds and that there could be a place for it in the market.
And there are current research projects in Australia looking at MSA grading for dairy beef through feedlots.
"The challenging part of it is that the yield and dressing weights are less than you would get off your traditional beef breeds,' Ms Johnson said, adding that the lighter weight breed can also lose condition more quickly in harder seasons, especially when the focus is on a grassfed product.
"There were old-wives' tales around it too, because it has a creamy yellow fat and is a darker red meat which used to be put on the table as a second-class beef that was not good eating.
"Nonetheless, many times if you ask a dairy farmer what steer did they keep for their freezer, it was the Jersey steer.
"And if you speak to local feedlot organisations, they will tell you that you can grain feed Jerseys and you will get an outcome from it."
Ms Johnson's approach - a sidestep typical of her personality to choose the path less travelled - was to look at developing a "proper partnership'' between dairy farmers and herself as a Jersey beef producer.
Her Jersey Boy Beef packaged beef is now sold from her on farm shop, licensed by the local council.
Traditionally she processes two to four steers at a time and sells these over a four-day period.
Depending on the season, condition of steers and customer demand, her beef sales occur every two to three months.
Ms Johnson has a loyal base of about 100 local and Perth customers, from a Facebook base of about 850 people and her pricing ranges from $19/kg for steak and prime cuts and $16/kg for mince, sausages, diced beef and general beef lines.
Shipping her beef to Perth has become easier, opening up opportunities to grow her customer base.
Ms Johnson has been deliberate about her selling price points - not straying into the $8/kg budget beef lines or the $40/kg-mark premium of many "niche" producers - and is strongly and passionately customer-driven.
She said she was grateful to her customer base who made the trip to her farm for a "single grocery item'' and had learnt about the limitations of buying from a small operator.
"If we run out of steak, we run out of steak - but my customers are the most beautiful group of people and they will work with me,'' she said.
"I know I am not the business for everyone, it's a certain type of customer who comes to me.
"I always say they are people with an ethical elbow.
"If they have time, money and motivation they will travel out to the farm and buy meat from me and they work with what I have got available in the season.''
Ms Johnson has had overwhelmingly good feedback about the eating quality of the beef, backed by her MSA data.
Her customer base is an eclectic mix of people from individuals, to couples, families and even recently extended to a fellow beef producer, who said, "there's nothing wrong with Gilly's beef. It's beautiful'.''
She dreams of the day when the brand is built up to the point where customers go into their butcher and say "have you got any Jersey beef, because I hear it is really good''.
Ms Johnson said she had learnt a lot about the industry, but knew there was still much to learn and some days she felt like running up a "white flag".
She said she had greatly valued the support and encouragement from local dairy farmers and fellow beef producers, her customers, Elders representatives, contractors, processor and butcher and her family and friends - who had helped her to continue the Jersey Boy Beef journey.
"I am trying as much as I can to stay true to how I set up the brand - that was as a partnership with the dairy industry, with beautiful eating beef and an as-simple-as-possible cut sheet,'' she said.
"And I wanted dairy beef, and particularly Jersey bull calves, not to be seen as a by-product of the dairy industry but to be seen as a beautiful product of the dairy industry.
"There is a place for them... and I just want to make a good outcome for everyone involved."
This story first appeared on Farm Weekly
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