By Emme Troendle
Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh article in a series highlighting significant contributions of women associated with SimGenetics.
As the North Dakota State Veterinarian and advocate for the beef industry, Dr. Susan Keller, Keller Broken Heart Ranch, Mandan, ND, is one of many influential women in the Simmental community.
Susan Keller, DVM
Born and raised in Kelly, Kansas, Susan Keller was widely exposed to ranch life as a child, milking dairy cows and working with their small beef herd. Keller’s love for animals started as a young girl who preferred being outdoors but grew as she started her first job in animal care at their local veterinary clinic.
“I came home from working at the vet clinic on my sixteenth birthday with a sick calf that had a colostomy. My family and friends had a surprise sixteenth birthday planned, but even then, all my friends knew that I was more into what was going on with the calf than my birthday.”
Her passion for veterinary work propelled her into a career as a strong voice promoting animal health and agriculture as the North Dakota State Veterinarian.
During the summer between her junior and senior year at Kansas State University, Keller interned at a veterinary clinic in Mandan, ND, where she met her future husband, Dwight. Initially, after veterinary school, she worked at a clinic in Bowman, ND, but soon transitioned to a clinic in Mandan closer to Dwight and the ranch. After their marriage in 1985, she opened a mobile, large animal practice, which eventually transitioned into a clinic on the ranch.
“One of the clients we had when I was interning in Mandan was the Keller family. Dwight was shy, but he eventually asked me out. The running joke at our wedding was that we never did quite cure all the dairy cows with Staphylococcus aureous that summer, so Dwight married me since he couldn’t afford the vet bills,” she laughed.
While raising her three children, Luke, Jake, and Tess, and simultaneously growing her veterinary business, Dr. Keller realized that she needed to either hire someone or she was not going to be spending any time with her family. “I was so busy trying to keep up with ranch and clinic work. I decided to fill out an application for a deputy state veterinary position because I knew I had to do something to balance being a mother and a veterinarian. I interviewed and surprisingly to me, ended up being offered the job.”
After seven years as the deputy state veterinarian, Keller accepted the state veterinarian position where she works diligently with a great staff to handle state animal import permits, disease prevention and management, and welfare cases.
“I never thought I would work for the government, but I found out over the years that I am very passionate about animal health regulations. You don’t realize the impact animal health regulations can have on animal health each day — locally, nationally, and globally.”
Keller explains that communication and coordination behind the scenes is a large part of her job. She coordinates within ND and neighboring states to make sure the ND Board of Animal Health (BOAH) is aware and on top of any possible health concerns. If there is a health concern, the issue is dealt with as quickly as possible. Her office communicates directly with the BOAH, the Ag Commissioner, veterinarians, and local producers.
“We are expected to keep up with what is going on around North Dakota in case we get a call inquiring about a particular animal health issue. The staff examines all the health certificates and archives each one in a searchable database. We are accountable for being able to determine if our state can retain our state free status for diseases. Disease traceability is the most critical part of what we do,” she explained.
“Animal agriculture is all about feeding people. We have to educate ourselves in agriculture and need to be pleasantly assertive — whether it is a family get together, a public event, or something on social media, — to engage with people and educate people who are so unaware of what really goes on day-to-day on a farm or ranch. That is a lot of what I do as a state veterinarian.”
After working full-days as the face of animal health in ND, Keller spends her evenings and weekends helping out on the family’s Simmental and SimAngus™ seedstock cattle operation. Today, her kids are grown and have taken over many responsibilities that Keller used to handle, but she continues to help, when time allows, where needed.
“I still enjoy sorting and working cattle. Sometimes, I end up with project cows. Right now, we have a cow that got bit by a rattlesnake. I spent many hours treating her wounds and wrapping one of her legs. I love projects with animals that have an injury or something that is a challenge, but has the potential to have a good outcome — it keeps me grounded as a veterinarian and engaged with our family operation.”
Keller concludes, “Everyone has to eat. Food production and animal agriculture will always have a place in the world. There will always be a demand for protein, and we need to be good stewards so the public can look at what we are doing and feel good about buying beef. That is very important.
“We also need to all work together to spread the message that there is no man-made model that will ever replace or compete with the most symbiotic and truly sustainable protein production system in the world! Think about it: a ruminant forages on lower quality proteins, in the form of grass or other feedstuffs, and converts it to a very high-quality protein which is a healthy food source for humans to enjoy eating and thrive on! God knew what he was doing when he created the bovine. I have been so fortunate to work with them throughout my lifetime.”