Friday, December 8, 2023

Feeding and breeding are vital

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A desire not to be anchored to machinery led Mike and Vicki Cottrell to try something new. They headed for the hills and have spent a quarter-century running sheep and cattle on medium to steep back country near Taihape. They told fellow Rangitikei farmer Andrew Stewart about facing the on and off farm challenges of the farming life.
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Venture southeast from Taihape and you come across the farming community of Omatane.

It is here that clean, green hills are punctuated with river chasms and rim rocks. In the distance Mt Ruapehu provides a stunning but sometimes chilly backdrop. Loosely translated from the Maori dictionary, Omatane means a fleeing man. 

But for Mike Cottrell and wife Vicki Omatane represents more of a homecoming than a place they have run from after moving to the area 26 years ago. 

The Cottrells farm 610 effective hectares in two blocks separated by a mere kilometre at the boundary and connected by a quiet country road that is more like a private lane. 

It is about as different as you could get from their previous farm on the North Canterbury plains. 

Mike admits he was not into the machinery needed on the mixed cropping and finishing farm and the thought of spending the rest of his career sitting in tractors ate away at him. He longed to find a strong hill country farm where he could run sheep and cattle and pursue his real passion with stock. 

They looked far and wide for suitable farms and finally stumbled across a block near Taihape. They did their research thoroughly, talked to family and friends in the district and took the plunge to move to Omatane with their children Anna, James and Libby.

Having farmed through some tough years in Canterbury during the 1980s, the Cottrells hoped for an easier ride in the North Island. The move to medium to steep hill country was a tough learning curve but ultimately a very rewarding one. 

The local community embraced them as their own, always willing to lend a hand or offer advice in times of need. In true Taihape tradition that is still the case today with a scattering of community halls providing a strong focus for farming families. 

Mike might be a traditional stockman at heart but he is not afraid to throw out the rulebook and try new things. 

A chance conversation with a bank manager in 2009 led to a totally new concept of share farming that is still going strong today. 

Ross Humphrey, from Brookfield Romney stud near Feilding was looking for a satellite farm to expose some of his stud ewes to solid hill country and also expand his flock size. The two put their heads together and came up with a plan, with no formal agreement, and the relationship is still going strong today. 

It provides the Cottrells with a stable revenue stream, improved returns from the finished lambs and exposure to top-class Romney genetics. 

Mike treats the extra ewes just the same as his own flock and takes great pride in feeding them well. His simple mantra for all stock is “feeding and breeding” and the results are clear to see scattered across the green hills. Last year they docked 150% in the stud mob, a result consistent with their main flock of 2400 ewes.

The satellite flock does mean extra work at various times. Lambs have to be tagged at docking, meaning each lamb must be confirmed as being re-mothered with its ewe. But with multiple sets of satellite yards around the farm Mike takes his time to ensure all data captured is as accurate as possible. 

Mike has also branched out with his cattle breeding programme this year. 

Muddied but ready to go. Let me at them boss.

Despite having a clearly sharp and analytical mind Mike has been living with a mild case of multiple sclerosis (MS) since 1997. He began losing his hearing, the feeling down one side of his body and experienced electric shocks in his neck. 

Despite multiple tests and hospital visits Mike remained undiagnosed and worried about what was happening to his body. 

Vicki stepped up more to help on the farm but one fateful day had an accident that left her needing an emergency evacuation. Mike flew in the rescue helicopter beside his wife with no thoughts about his own condition. 

But on arriving at Palmerston North hospital a trauma nurse took one look at the way he was walking and thought MS was likely causing him his medical problems. 

Unknown to Mike and Vicki she conferred with Vicki’s father, who was also a GP, and following further testing and an MRI Mike was confirmed as having MS. 

Although the news shocked them both it went a long way to easing the mental stress of not knowing what was ailing him. 

“It’s the unknown that’s the biggest fear. Once you know what you are dealing with you know a lot more about what’s happening to you and you can deal with it,” he said. 

Vicki spent eight weeks in hospital recovering from her injuries and though she wishes it never happened she is thankful they finally got to the bottom of what was affecting her husband. 

Luckily, Mike’s MS has been mild so far and apart from two more serious episodes he has enjoyed good health. 

“We’ve been very grateful that it has only been as mild as it is,” Vicki said.

“We just hope that Mike stays as fit and healthy as he currently is so he can continue farming and doing what he loves.:

They are also very thankful they took an income protection insurance policy before he was diagnosed because it relieved the financial pressure that came with his diagnosis.

The children have grown up and left the family nest. They are all following their own careers and none plans on returning to run the family farm but they still call Omatane home. 

But for Mike and Vicki that doesn’t matter. 

Having already moved regions once they are comfortable they might again one day if they decide to. For the immediate future their heads and hearts are entrenched in the Omatane and greater Taihape communities they call home. 

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