GREG McNamara is best known for his role as leader of the century old Norco Dairy Cooperative, who speaks on a national platform when it comes to domestic issues and on an international stage when it involves sales and marketing.
At home on Quamby, Greg McNamara is another farmer, in partnership with his wife Sue and their son Todd whose three children are the sixth generation to grow up on the Goolmangar property, only a few kilometres south of Nimbin near Lismore.
The McNamaras migrated as dairy farmers from Jamberoo near Kiama on the south coast in 1897, lured by opportunity on what was then the wild and opportunistic North Coast.
The family, with 11 children, cleared scrub country, planted corn by hand, used pigs to help cultivate and rendered cattle into tallow which was, at that time, a commodity that supported many pioneering efforts in this district.
It was a tough start, with a baby and a child passing away within the first years but beyond that the hard-working Catholic family prospered, first with Illawarra cattle before moving to Holstein Friesians for maximum volume.
These days the family milks between 300 and 350 cows, Jersey/Friesian-cross, with as many as 450 in lactation at some point during the year to produce two million litres of production, at an average lactation of between 5500 and 6000 litres.
The crossbred herd, sporting genetic influence from Canada and the US, is a departure from pure Friesians that dominated the property only a few years ago and involves more work to get the same volume, but Mr McNamara says the drive to increase butter fat and protein came from a desire to take advantage of price realities.
"Consumers are moving back to milk," he says with confidence. "We hope we have read the market signals correctly, that there is a demand for more butterfat over the next two to three years."
Already the positives with Jersey genetics include greater fertility coming through the more moderate-framed cows and a better tolerance to heat, which this summer proved beneficial.
The McNamara farm comprises six blocks, on 300 hectares with another 100ha leased next door.
The farm is pasture-based, with summer kikuyu oversown in autumn with winter rye, clovers and chicory.
This past summer, the worst in the Goolmangar district since 2002-03, tested the resilience of farm finance with the herd fully lot-fed through the heat.
Cows were given a daily ration of 6-7kg of grain, 2kg molasses, which has run-out for the season, and 3-4kg lucerne and rye. The McNamaras also fed oil-palm kernel, which is an healthy omega-rich food which cattle love, yet self-regulate, eating only 2-3kg/day with the price for the product delivered at under $400/t.
The extra cost of feed in relation to stagnant milk prices has meant the farm did not make any money this year and this on-farm situation shared by all of Norco's members is something Mr McNamara thinks long and hard about every day.
"It has been a challenge to meet these costs, and it will be another two to three years before farms repay that debt," Mr McNamara said. "It becomes an issue of resilience. Dairy farmers need to be paid a price that allows them to absorb these bad years. They should be able to manage enough dollars in the good years to offset the bad ones."
Fortunately the Northern Rivers never misses a wet season, even if it comes late, and as the calendar turned over to March billowing cumulus clouds began to amass. A sudden fall of 40mm in the wake of Cyclone Oma delivered a pasture response and more recently a deliverance of 75mm, the first real rain since October, set the creeks running. Now there is hope.
Much of that paddock response has come from innovative approach to management, including effluent re-use, and a move away from urea to more liquid-based fertiliser applied from a "tow and fert" foliar spray buggy, designed in New Zealand, into which the McNamaras pour a brew of liquid lime, molasses and liquid sulphur and potash and some seaweed-based solutions.
"We use less fertiliser but apply more often," Mr McNamara said.
"We are not organic but we are moving towards that by feeding nutrients to soil microbes.
"The farm stays greener for longer in drought compared to our neighbours and responds more quickly after rain."
The family also finds cows graze evenly as a result of the sulphate application, which appears to sweeten the grass, and with this consistent grazing there is a reduction in the need to top pasture with mowers.
Where to from here really depends on whether the next generation of McNamaras wants to return to the farm to make a living.
"There are improvements to be made in the form of energy management. For instance we have looked at a solar scheme estimated to cost up to $300,000 with a pay-back timeline of a decade, which is too long right now."
Considering most energy is consumed cooling fresh milk after morning and evening milkings, after bringing it from the old 24-aside herringbone dairy, a new solar scheme won't save dollars unless feed-in tarrifs improve.
"If children don't come home most properties are broken up and sold off. They become a terminal farm," said Mr McNamara. "Let's hope this doesn't happen at Quamby."