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Sheriff’s officer trades in the badge for beef

Midlife career change is good but scary proposition

News editor

During nine years as a sheriff’s deputy, Mike Ottensmeier has dealt with plenty of wayward, cantankerous cattle that were never as cooperative as most people with whom he has had professional encounters.

“I do have a little experience pushing cows,” Ottensmeier said. “I’ve come to find out cattle are probably among the stupidest animals that ever lived.”

However, Ottensmeier, 48, is about to get more opportunities to hone his cow whispering skills than he ever imagined.

After more than three decades of uniformed service in the Air Force, Kansas Highway Patrol, police departments in Marion and Austin, Texas, and the sheriff’s department, Ottensmeier will be hanging up his uniform for good April 30 and taking on a new title and career — cattle rancher and farmer.

“Frankly, I’m scared to death,” Ottensmeier said. “I’m going into something where I have no earthly idea what I’m doing. I’ve got a lot to learn.”

Fortunately, Ottensmeier has a willing and capable partner in his wife Leah. The couple and their children — Katie, 12; Garrett, 2; and Austin, 15 months — will be moving to the McPherson County farm where Leah grew up.

“We’re going to do this as a family,” he said. “She’s going to be basically the operation side of this whole deal. She already has it down.”

Leah’s grandfather, Dale Becker, and father, Michael D. Becker, developed and own the operation, which had between 300 and 400 head of cattle when she was growing up, Ottensmeier said.

Leah’s mother died last year, and when 68-year-old Michael got serious a few months ago about scaling back, Leah was the one sibling out of four that not only was passionate about keeping the farm in the family, but also was in a position to do something about it.

After the Ottensmeiers studied the opportunity by meeting with Becker’s banker, an attorney, and an accountant, it just made sense.

“We just looked at each other and said it’s the right thing to do for us to be financially sound,” Ottensmeier said. “Leah and I will be able to give our kids opportunities they would never have had otherwise.”

They purchased the house Leah grew up in and the acreage around it, and plan to own the entire operation within three years.

Numerous trips to the farm already have shown Ottensmeier how much he has to learn.

“I’ve never pulled a calf before,” he said. “I got to see the process, I got to help with the process. It got a little messy, but every one of those little calves I see out there I think, ‘That’s money.’”

He was fascinated as his father-in-law explained tagging as they drove around.

“The mama cow has four numbers in her ear tag, and a calf has three numbers that are the last three numbers of the mama’s tag so they can keep track of which ones go together,” Ottensmeier said. “They’re talking about it like it’s nothing.”

A huge change will be leaving the security of regular paychecks for paydays based on when cattle go to market.

“That’s another thing I’m trying to wrap my head around, the amount of budgeting that has to go on,” he said. “I’ve got to educate myself a lot.”

Ottensmeier already has healthy respect for the safety aspects of farming.

“Farming is kind of like policing,” he said. “You make the wrong mistake and somebody can get seriously hurt or killed. On the farm, it’s large pieces of equipment or cattle or an animal that can pin you someplace.”

Ottensmeier plans to continue his business of upfitting new police cars with lights, sirens, radios, and graphics, albeit on a smaller scale.

“I’ve already had two agencies ask me if we were going to continue,” he said. “If agencies are willing to drive up to northeast McPherson County, we’re going to keep the upfitting business alive. But farming is going to take up a lot more time than I’m used to.”

What aspect of law enforcement will Ottensmeier miss the most?

“I think it’s the camaraderie, not just with the guys and gals I work with, or at the courthouse, but also with the public,” he said. “My wife asked, ‘OK, are we going to need to put a radio at the house?’ Probably not right away; we’ve got so much work ahead of us. But someday I might want to listen.”

Ottensmeier will keep his law enforcement license active by taking occasional special assignments and part-time work.

“When the county fair comes up, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see me over there,” he said.

While the prospect of building the farm’s current 250-head operation back to former levels is an exciting challenge, the most satisfying aspect of this career change is what it means for Ottensmeier’s family.

“This opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with my wife and see our kids grow up —we’re going to be around each other all the time, we’re going to be doing stuff together,” he said. “It’s not going to be a vacation, but everybody will be doing things together.”

Last modified March 8, 2018

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