Dr. Brian Vander Ley serves as a Veterinary Epidemiologist at the Great Plains Veterinary Education Center out of Clay Center, Neb. that is part of the school of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences – University of Nebraska – Lincoln. His background has shaped his passion for helping people in the agricultural industry and the livestock they raise.
Vander Ley said, “Mostly, we are focused on preventive healthcare for livestock production systems. We are looking at sustainability in all areas – economics, environment and all resources. We are extremely focused on the quality of the food products that come out and how healthy they are for the people that consume them.”
Growing up on a small, diversified dairy farm in South Central, S.D., Vander Ley’s parents started in the late 1970s and built a dairy operation from the ground-up in the early 1980s, “They got hit with the high interest of the 1980s and I saw them work hard their entire lives. Their hard work taught me hard work. My dad was a firm believer in not giving up.”
Vander Ley said watching his parents and being involved in the challenges and successes they experienced, directly shaped where he is today, “In the 1990s, Holstein calves could be purchased relatively cheap and dad could use his own feed with them to generate cash flow. So, he bought a bunch of Holstein calves at the sale barn. That group of calves started to get sick and over time we were giving antibiotics to treat them. I was eight or nine and giving most of the shots. We ended up losing about half of those calves (about 25). No matter how hard we worked, they just died. The thing that was supposed to help them ended up being a crippling event because we used too many antibiotics, thinking more was better, and overdosed those calves. It was hard. But, I learned an important lesson. As I went through high school, that experience, and many other events, played a key role in my desire to become a veterinarian.”
Vander Ley attended Dakota Christian High School and graduated in a class of 13 and decided to attend Dordt College in Northwest Iowa where they have an agriculture program focused on sustainability and ethics. He would eventually go on to Iowa State University for his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree, “My initial goal as a veterinarian student was to educate myself as a 100 percent dairy practitioner. I went through three years of vet school and met incredible people.”
Later, Vander Ley spent two weeks in an advanced, beef production rotation and met Dr. Shaun Sweiger, whom he found much camaraderie with, “The life of a feedlot consultant involves a lot of driving and Dr. Sweiger planted in my head a couple of research ideas that he had. Eventually, we worked out a deal where he hired me to work on some research projects for him and I was placed in the lab at the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa under the direction of Dr. Julia Ridpath. I started a master’s program working for Dr. Sweiger in Dr. Ridpath’s lab. I switched from a master’s to a Ph.D. and spent my entire Ph.D. working on Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus.”
From there, Vander Ley ended up in a faculty position at the University of Missouri where he taught Food Animal Science and Ambulatory Medicine. Then he was recruited for the position in Nebraska and has enjoyed working in the Beef State ever since.
“I am passionate about ways to help connect consumers with producers,” he added. “I think, in a sense, we’ve become accidental adversaries. We would do best to work together. We have beef producers who need to make a living and we have consumers who want healthy, delicious food. However, mistrust and adversity develop because consumers are concerned about the impact of modern agriculture on human health and the environment, and producers are frustrated with demands that could erode producers’ economic viability.”
Vander Ley shared a quote he heard Dr. Glen Rogers, the president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners share in a recent newsletter, “Rogers shared this quote by John Muir and it has stuck with me, ‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.’”
“What I am passionate about is helping people navigate through those unintended consequences,” he said. “My personal mission is being part of restoring trust. We need to take a hard look at some of what we do as producers. At the end of the day, producers are the ones that are driving many of the problems they face. That can be difficult to admit at times, but it is a good place to start making positive changes. We have a duty to the animals and the consumers. Frankly, we need to focus on looking for opportunities to build relationships with consumers and to restore trust in the food supply.”