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State veterinarian Dr. Susan Keller set to retire
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State veterinarian Dr. Susan Keller set to retire

Longtime state veterinarian Dr. Susan Keller is retiring at the end of June after nearly 25 years with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA).

She spent 17 years as the state veterinarian and director of the Animal Health Division of the NDDA. Prior to that, she spent about seven years as deputy state veterinarian from 1997-2004.

During her time as state veterinarian, Keller became known for her diligent work monitoring, managing, and controlling contagious animal diseases throughout the state, and working with the North Dakota State Board of Animal Health.

Melvin Leland, former president of the North Dakota State Board of Animal Health, has worked with Keller for the 13 years of his term, and says it will be difficult to find another state veterinarian of her caliber.

“Dr. Keller has always kept up to speed on all the regulations and laws, and has strictly adhered to those laws. She treats everyone the same across the board,” Leland said. “She has always tried to protect the names of anyone on any of the cases we have been presented so that there would be no chance of bias on any decisions we made. I respect that about her.”

Keller Broken Heart Ranch

In retirement, Keller won’t be moving to another position nor going back into private practice, but she will still be her family’s herd health veterinarian and pitch in with cattle work, as she has always done.

She and her husband, Dwight Keller, own Keller Broken Heart Ranch south of Mandan. They operate the ranch along with the help of their three adult children – their daughter, Tessa, who is married to Thomas Osterbauer, and two sons, Luke, who is married to Katy and expecting their first child, and Jake, who works full-time at the family ranch.

The Keller’s children were involved in 4-H and FFA when they were young.

“We took them to 4-H meetings and either Dwight or I tried to attend many of their events. We watched them show at county fairs and we would spend time in the summer helping them when they were young to get ready for the fair,” Keller said. “Our kids helped pick their calves out of our herd and worked with the calf they picked. We thought it was good for the kids to help pick out which calf they wanted to halter break for showing. It was always fun to see how their calves turned out in appearance and how well behaved – or not – they might be by show time.”

Keller hopes to spend more time in retirement with the activities she enjoys doing – especially those involving her family.

“I want to focus more on my family.We have a grandchild coming in July. I have about two weeks after retiring to get organized at home and then Dwight and I are looking forward to our first grandbaby arriving,” she said.

A lifetime spent in agriculture

Growing up in northeast Kansas on a dairy and beef cattle farm near the small town of Kelly, Keller has spent her life involved with agriculture.

In those days, Keller said she stayed busy helping to keep her five younger brothers out of trouble.

“I would sneak away to ride my horse whenever I could. I enjoyed all the aspects of farm life – I really did,” she said. “In particular, I enjoyed always having animals around and being outside.”

Her love of working with animals would be a precursor to her future in veterinary medicine.

Keller earned her bachelor’s degree in animal science and industry and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at Kansas State University.

She came to North Dakota between her junior and senior year before graduation for an externship at the Midway Veterinary Clinic in Mandan.

One of her assigned cases was to go out to Keller Broken Heart Ranch and help out with a case of mastitis the dairy herd was struggling with.

“I am not sure that we ever fully solved that problem, but that is where I met Dwight – in a barn taking milk samples,” she said.

When she went back to Kansas State University for her senior year in veterinary school, Keller recalls that dating included limited phone calls with Dwight.

“Those were the days before cell phones existed, and long-distance calls were expensive, so we might have only talked once a week by phone,” Keller laughed. “Now we’re married, but we usually talk daily by phone.”

After graduation, Keller accepted a position at the Bowman Veterinary Clinic. 

“My favorite large animal clinic professor, Dr. Tom Avery, told me that he thought I would really like the Bowman practice, which was predominately a large animal practice,” Keller said. “I applied and accepted a job working for Dr. Robertson. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of working with the people in the area, the variety of animals, and driving on calls through the beautiful country.” 

Moving closer

The Broken Heart Ranch wasn’t going to move to Bowman, so when there was an opening for another veterinarian at the Midway Veterinary Clinic in Mandan, Keller accepted a position,

“I enjoyed working with Dr. Tom Orchard, Dr. Don Hastings, Dr. John Reifenberger and Dr. Jim Wheeler for several years,” Keller said.

She and Dwight married, and she helped as much as possible on the family ranch – while also working as a full-time veterinarian.

Because she didn’t want to travel as far to work every day, which would leave her even less time with her family, Keller had to make a tough decision to leave the Midway Veterinary Clinic and open her own mobile practice, which operated from the ranch. “Eventually we built a clinic, the Countryside Animal Clinic at the ranch,” she said.

During that time period, the three children had been added to their family. 

“I am so grateful that my husband, Dwight, my mother and father-in-law (Helen and Eugene Keller) and close neighbors helped babysit,” Keller said. “But the days were too long with little energy left.”

Keller knew something needed to change.

Becoming deputy state and state veterinarian

In 1997, Keller saw an ad for the open deputy state veterinarian position. “I really thought it would be easier working for the government,” she said.

In 2004, she was appointed state veterinarian when Larry Schuler, the former state veterinarian, became the Area Veterinarian in Charge (AVIC) for North Dakota.

“I had only been deputy state veterinarian for six years. I didn’t think I was neither ready nor ever intended to be the state veterinarian. I was content being the deputy state veterinarian because that meant someone else was still in charge that I could pass the difficult issues to,” Keller said.

But she knew she could call Schuler for advice when needed. 

After Keller became state veterinarian, they hired a new deputy state veterinarian as soon as they could. 

“Fortunately, Dr. Beth Carlson was hired later that same year. It was great to have someone join us in the office who was enthusiastic, capable, and ready to go to work,” Keller said.

The department also hired additional staff to assist with the development of various programs over time.  

“There have been many different people who have come and gone but were instrumental in getting federal or state programs off the ground and running in the right direction,” she said. “Their contributions mattered a great deal to the state and I am grateful to have been able to work with them.”

Invaluable staff

Keller said the staff in the Animal Health Division has been invaluable to her over the years.

Besides Dr. Carlson, who oversees many program areas including Johne’s, nontraditional livestock, and the Scrapie and Chronic Wasting Disease programs, they also have Dr. Sarah Bailey, the assistant state veterinarian, who assists with further development of the the animal health emergency response plan, including trainings for the Reserve Veterinary Corps, and is currently assisting with the effort to implement an electronic database. She assists with many public health related cases, as well. 

The support staff includes longtime employee Tamra Celley, an administrative assistant, who has worked diligently for four state veterinarians (soon to be five); along with Kathy Hoffman and Peggy Masset, also administrative assistants; Nathan Boehm, field investigator; and Jeanne David, avian influenza coordinator.

“They are all at the core of the daily work that the Animal Health Division is responsible for,” Keller said.

Working with myriad of animals   

Protecting the state’s animals from diseases, controlling disease outbreaks, and enforcing Board of Animal Health regulations to control diseases and keep animals moving seems a large undertaking in a state with as many various kinds of animals as North Dakota is known for. 

“We are predominately a food animal production state – with a lot of cattle. But there are a lot of other types of livestock and animals, as well,” she said. 

In more recent years, some people have acquired different kinds of animals.

“They are not all large commercial operations. There are some smaller operations where they may have a few cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens or other animals,” she said. “And neighborhoods have dogs and cats or sometimes uncommon animals that are now being kept as companion animals, whether in the city or on the farm/ranch.”

There are so many more types of animals in the state than Keller said she realized when she first started the job.

Dealing with TB

One of the more challenging diseases Keller, the board, and the staff have worked with in her time as the deputy and state veterinarian has been bovine tuberculosis (TB).

“When cattle herds are tested and declared negative for TB, we recognize how thankful we are to dodge another difficult situation,” she said.

Unfortunately, sometimes there have been herds where animals had to be euthanized or directed to slaughter-only channels. 

“Those situations are extremely difficult for the producers directly involved,” Keller said.

There have been some national program changes, where animals can be quarantined and tested and allowed to move if the associated disease risk of the animals can be determined.

“It is very difficult for producers if they have feeder cattle or breeding stock that have to quarantine for extended periods of time and have their movements restricted,” she said.

The federal program doesn’t have indemnity for all types of exposed animals as they provided more often in the past.

“The goal is to allow producers to continue to find ways to move and market animals safely, while assuring the rest of the state and trading partners that if there is a risk that they won’t impact other producers’ breeding animals,” she said.

Keller said she is grateful that there is more discussion in recent years addressing how TB is spread between animals and humans and vice versa.

“TB is not just an animal disease,” she said.  Keller recently read that, “the biggest silent pandemic could be considered to be TB. The most important part in any disease eradication or control effort is that everyone is well aware of the disease and how the disease spreads. Then one can take precautions to protect themselves and their animals.”

Disease tracing and biosecurity plans

When it comes to investigating a disease, Keller noted the importance of recordkeeping.

“During a disease investigation, if we don’t have health certificates with a date, names, and identification, and especially correct origin and destination addresses on them for the animals, we really don’t have what we need to quickly trace animals that may have already moved multiple times since they left their original birth place,” she said.

In North Dakota, most producers are good managers.

“We like to see basic common sense management practices and good recordkeeping because we need their help to track down high disease risk or exposed animals,” Keller said. “Some people have files and records on everything possibly needed about their animals and that helps us to quickly mitigate risks of disease spread to other animals.”

She explained that tracing diseases backward or forward is difficult, if not impossible without records or identification of any kind.

“Brands and management tags are also very helpful. But if records aren’t kept or ID tags have been cut out, we can’t be of much help in those situations,” she said.

Keller also hopes all state producers have a basic biosecurity plan in place to prevent diseases from moving onto their places.

“Since most producers have good relationships with their own veterinarians, they can work directly with them on basic disease prevention practices,” she said. “If we ever have to come knocking, we can often use their own veterinarians as third-party verifiers of good management practices.”

Saying goodbye

Keller said it will be hard to say goodbye to all the people she has worked with over the years, but she is looking forward to returning home to the ranch and her family.  

“I most look forward to doing more with Dwight and the family that I’ve not had time to be a part of in the past. I have a lot of catching up to do,” she said.

At the ranch she will continue to work with their cattle when she can. 

“I did invest in an ultrasound machine recently since I doubt that I will retire from preg-checking our own herd and I hear they save the shoulder a bit,” Keller said. “That is one thing I would still like to learn how to do, but I know what they say about old dogs – so we’ll see how that goes.”

The Kellers held their annual spring production sale in March. They raise and sell seedstock Simmental and SimAngus bulls and heifers.

“Compared to fighting blizzards, bad roads, or freezing temps, this was the nicest weather for a sale that I can ever remember,” Keller said.

Like all producers, they are watching the skies for moisture.

“Overall, we’ve had a fairly open winter. We sure appreciate that, but this is North Dakota, so now we need rain to get the grass and the crops growing,” she said. 

“Just like like the weather, many days in my office are unpredictable. One phone call or test result can bring new challenges. But you say a prayer and do your best, and sometimes that’s all that one can do,” she concluded.

 

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