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Appleton-based veterinarian hard at work defying the trends

Veterinarian technician Sara Carlson, left, assists Dr. Rachel Bakeberg as they check over Coco Hastings in the surgery center of the newly built Appleton Veterinary Clinic. The recently opened clinic is designed for care of both large and small animals, and includes everything from a hydraulic tilt chute for large animals to segregated grooming and boarding centers for small animals. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

APPLETON -- The class of 2002 at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine numbered 76, and of that number, only eight intended to pursue practices involving large animals.

Of those eight, two were women.

One of the two, Dr. Rachel Bakeberg went against the grain another notch by opening her own solo practice, instead of staying with larger group practices as have many of her former classmates.

Flying solo has its costs. "My phone doesn't leave my hip,'' said Bakeberg, who is on call 24/7.

She works seven days a week and responds to calls that can take her to barns in late-night hours or to the middle of snow- and wind-swept pastures in subzero weather.

She also has all the headaches of owning a business, from loads of paperwork to the most recent: Dealing with overruns in construction costs for which she has yet to hear an answer.

It also has its rewards. More than 750 people filed through the doors when Bakeberg held an open house in September at her newly constructed Appleton Veterinary Clinic in Appleton. The community's pride in the new business is matched by its appreciation for the new business owner. "The people are incredibly welcoming,'' said Bakeberg.

She had no idea any of this was ahead of her while growing up in rural Chaska and discovering her passion for the challenges that only veterinary medicine could offer. Her parents had a hobby farm, but Bakeberg also immersed herself in the work of neighboring farms, everything from picking rocks to milking cows.

It wasn't until she was in college and performing a procedure not for the faint of heart or weak of back -- putting a protruded uterus back into a cow -- that she realized that she wanted to include large animals in her practice.

Many believe there is a shortage of large-animal veterinarians, and Bakeberg got an inkling of that while still attending school. Job offers poured in from rural clinics all over Minnesota and Wisconsin.

She decided to go to work for a merged clinic serving a three-county area with offices in Dawson and Taunton. Bakeberg said she was convinced that the livestock industry was stable in this part of the state.

Hard-working, she thought of herself as the "perfect employee'' and had no intentions of ever going solo -- until 2006, when Dr. C.H. Nissen, who had been scaling back his Appleton practice, offered to sell his veterinary clinic to her.

One day after starting her Appleton practice in September 2006, she realized she needed a much bigger place.

She has it today: The new Appleton Veterinary Center offers the complete package in a 4,800-square-foot facility. It includes a drive-through bay and hydraulic tilt chute for handling large animals; surgery center; pharmacy and laboratory; three exam rooms; and spacious grooming and boarding areas for pets.

She estimates that large animals represent about 60 percent of her practice, and the remainder is devoted to pets.

True to her expectations in 2002, western Minnesota remains home to a stable livestock industry. Bakeberg said much of her practice is devoted to cow-calf operations. She also serves a number of dairies.

Her livestock clients typically run anywhere from 30- to 250- head operations. There are a number of operations where younger family members are taking over and expanding the herds, she said. One of her beef producer clients became her husband just about a year ago.

She puts on anywhere from 35,000 to 55,000 miles a year in her pickup truck, covering an area bigger than the broadcast range of most radio stations. Her territory ranges from Morris in the north to Canby in the south, and west to east from the South Dakota border to the Maynard and Clara City area.

The work is everything she expected. She does not shy from the gritty and physically demanding nature of her work, but loves most the excitement and intellectual challenges it offers. Veterinary medicine, especially when it comes to large animals, is all about problem-solving, said Bakeberg.

She anticipated that being a woman in what has been a man's world would require her to overcome some resistance, but that hasn't necessarily been so. She has run into very little chauvinism, she said.

Her bigger challenge right out of the chute was being new: Her clients kept a watchful eye to see that she knew her stuff and had the physical strength and stamina the work demands.

She knew she had made the grade when after completing a very physically demanding procedure a veteran livestock producer raised an eyebrow and blurted: "Golly, you are tough.''

It's a necessity. Asked if she would recommend the path she took to the class of 2010, she hesitated before responding. Yes, she would, but only after advising the students that they should get their feet wet first by working at a rural clinic and making absolutely sure they love the work and the area.

Her goal for the Appleton veterinary clinic is to see the day when she can bring aboard another veterinarian to help carry the work load.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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