July 12, 2021 at 1:09 p.m.

Dairy Profile: Mike Cottrell

Mike Cottrell
De Pere, Wisconsin
Outagamie County
35 cows

How did you get into farming? My grandpa passed away in November of 1979, and I helped milk the cows until my grandma could sell them in January of the following year. In April of 1980, my dad started buying cows and I farmed with him until November 1984. Dad got out of farming because of the farm crisis of the ‘80s, and in February 1985, my grandma passed away. The way the will was written, her kids were not able to get money out, so they agreed to let me rent the farm. They told me I could rent for five years and then I had to buy. I have been here since November 1985. I started fixing things and was able to buy the farm after four years on a land contract in 1990. My kids are the fifth generation here, and my dad is 80 and still comes to the farm every day.

What are your thoughts and concerns about the dairy industry for the next year? I see so many small family farms being squeezed out not only due to the expenses of farming but also to so many expenses being deducted off our milk check. Between $1,500 – $2,000 is subtracted off my check every month. The high cost of feed is tough too. I buy grain because I don’t have enough land to produce all the feed I need. I try to buy 10 months to a year ahead of time to minimize expenses.

What is the latest technology you implemented on your farm and the purpose for it? I am not very tech-savvy. Our pipeline is probably the biggest technology we have. When I started here, there was no milking system. We milked with buckets, and then in 1990, I put in a pipeline which saved a lot of time. I grew up doing things hands-on and I like it that way. Grandpa still threshed oats while I was growing up and did it that way until he died. I liked watching him and wouldn’t mind seeing the thresher run again.
What is a management practice you changed in the past year that has benefited you?  I started planting more grasses in my hay. The soils around here are a little heavier and flatter so it can be hard to get alfalfa through the winter. Grasses are palatable and they winter really well. Also, I like dry hay and it’s easier to dry grasses than it is clovers and alfalfa. We’ve mostly been putting in orchard grasses, timothy and Brohm. This year, we tried fescue.

What cost-saving steps have you implemented during the low milk price?  We used to buy milk replacer but it got expensive, so we quit buying it. We figured whole milk is better for our calves, and we started feeding that instead.  

How do you retain a good working relationship with your employee(s)? I don’t really have any employees except for family who come and help. We’ve always been the kind of family who can talk to each other. I always try to treat people the way I want to be treated. My sons’ friends always showed up when we needed help baling hay. I still see those friends sometimes, and they always make it a point to say hello to me and ask how I’m doing.

Tell us about a skill you possess that makes dairy farming easier for you. I think the fact I love animals makes dairy farming easier for me. I wake up in the morning and I’m anxious to get going and check on the animals and feed them. I can look at a pen of calves and think maybe they would be more comfortable if they had more bedding or fresh water. I try to look at it from my point of view – how would I feel more comfortable?

What do you enjoy most about dairy farming? To be able to get up in the morning and do something I enjoy is very rewarding. I’m getting a little older and getting towards the end, but I’d love to be able to go back and do it all over again. I also like watching the cow families. When a cow freshens, it’s fun to be able to point out to my sons who her mom and grandma are.

What advice would you give other dairy farmers? The one thing I learned farming with my dad in the early ‘80s is don’t get so much debt ahead of you that you can’t see the end of it. Good prices don’t last forever. If you can pay off some debt, do that. And, don’t get a taste for new machinery.

What has been the best purchase you’ve ever made on your farm? I don’t know if it was necessarily the best purchase I’ve ever made, but the most fun one was buying a Milking Shorthorn show cow out of Stuart Rowe’s Innisfail herd in California. We had fun showing her. This registered Milking Shorthorn herd had registrations that went back over 100 years. When Rowe brought 50 cows to Madison for a private sale, we bought a bred heifer as well that my son showed for a few years. It was fun being able to buy something from that herd.

What has been your biggest accomplishment while dairy farming? My biggest accomplishment was being able to watch my kids grow up here. I also enjoyed watching them show sheep and giving their friends an opportunity to show sheep as well. So many of their town friends got a chance to get involved in 4-H too, and we took anywhere from 11 to 13 head of sheep to the fair every year.

What are your plans for your dairy in the next year and five years? Our dairy is probably not going to continue much longer. My knees are bad, and I will likely have to quit milking. We have a small herd of Shorthorn beef cattle and will probably be transitioning into that.

How do you or your family like to spend time when you are not doing chores? Our family likes to go to fairs. On Saturdays, we still all go to church and have a Sabbath dinner together every week.


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