Julie Trask serves a unique roll in her rural community of Elm Springs, a small unincorporated town in Meade County, South Dakota. 31 year old Julie is one of 12 siblings and is the area’s only mobile large animal veterinarian, making her a crucial part of operations on many of the region’s working ranches. The ebb and flow of Julie’s business changes with the seasons like a rising and receding tide. When her family is calving, her neighbors are doing the same, which creates long days with many calls ranging from a breech calf to a prolapse cow. When work slows and the summer days grow long, you’ll find Julie and other ranchers sitting atop a tractor and cutting hay. “People are more of a rare commodity,” she explains about living and working in such a sparsely populated ranching community. “I love doing what I do. I love thinking about what we do and how that feeds people.”
Story and photography by Kristina Barker.
Julie has been working as a large animal vet for more than 4 years in South Dakota and is completely mobile, giving her the flexibility to reach clients in remote places. Here, she prepares her hydraulic chute before caring for bulls at Marvin Willaims’ ranch near Owanka, S.D. The testing she performs, along with observations about their hooves provides information about the strength and virility of each bull. That information will then be used by Williams to maximize breeding in his own cattle operation, or as documentation about each animal when the time comes for him to sell the bulls.
Julie looks up a Marvin William’s number in the phone book, a well-used directory in rural South Dakota, after arriving at his corrals to test bulls. Her truck serves as her office, call center, equipment storage unit and many times her dinner table if she eats while commuting.
Julie and Marvin Williams visit while Trask gathers her belongings and packs up her chute trailer. Julie commented often that her favorite part of her work is the people she gets to work alongside. Her neighbors and family friends were her earliest supporters out of veterinarian school, and she takes great care in valuing their support for her business. Given how many miles and acres separate neighbors in rural South Dakota, she enjoys being able to catch up with clients during her work visits.
“THIS IS WHERE I LIVE AND WORK AND THESE ARE THE PEOPLE THAT I RELY ON.”
Julie is driven to succeed both in her business and at being an advocate and voice for the region’s agriculture community. She has become involved in her county’s tax assessment appeals, fighting rising taxes that threaten to drive families – including families like her own – off the land if they can’t afford to pay the rising cost.
“IT’S MY RESPONSIBILITY TO SEE THAT THEIR LIVELIHOOD CONTINUES.”
Julie gets a lot of “windshield time,” a phrase you often hear when talking about travel around western South Dakota. The miles of open highway or dirt roads that cross the rolling plains offer solitary and quiet time for reflection.
When going to a job site, it’s important that Julie Trask’s prep work is thorough. Often times she may be an hour’s drive down gravel roads which doesn’t make it easy to turn around to grab a forgotten tool or vial of medicine back at her home shop.
Julie Trask and her cousin Mick Trask roll a sedated horse onto it’s back in preparation for castration. The horses are given a sedative to calm them and keep them from moving for about 15 minutes. Julie must work efficiently to complete the task before the sedation medication wears off and the nearly 800-pound animal wakes up. A castrated horse is more tame and easier to work with, increasing the level of safety of the ranchers and other animals. The sedative not only ensures Julie and Mick’s safety, but it also ensures the horse’s safety. When the sedative wears off, the horse will slowly regain all of it’s mobility.
Tom Trask has lived in Elm Springs his entire life. He ranches along Elk Creek with his son Mick and is a strong advocate for the rights of ranchers and farmers.
Julie catches up with her uncle Tom (above, right) after working together on his ranch. Below, Julie and her uncle bring the conversation inside with her cousin Mick Trask, center. Although the families don’t live too far apart, they may only see each other every few weeks and they are sure to take the opportunity to catch up while they are together. “Everybody helps each other. You see each other on the roads. You visit.”
Julie lives in her grandmother’s 1943 Sears and Roebuck kit house.
It was assembled by the previous (original) owner of the home who transported the pieces “buckboard by buckboard” or on horseback from the train depot in Wasta, S.D., approximately 19 miles away. She’s making improvements to the house as time allows, changing the paint in many of the rooms, gutting the basement to provide increased storage for her veterinary business, and making plans to refinish the original hardwood floors. The house has several beds for guests and weary travelers, and Julie enjoys hosting Christmas dinner in the basement where a long wooden kitchen table can accommodate their large family.
Julie, left, her brother Joe, center left, and father Pat, right, visit with neighbor Baxter Anders. As Julie’s classmates from her 4-room schoolhouse grew up, not many young families have returned to Elm Springs. While some young people are coming home after college and trying to put their roots down again to carry on the family business, it’s often difficult to afford buying the business from your parents or grandparents, let alone afford acreage to claim as your own. This truth is at the heart of why Julie fights to keep taxes under control. If new laws reevaluate how taxes are measured (causing a significant increase), ranchers will have even more financial pressure than they already do, and younger generations will not be around to continue the family business. In that case, large corporate structures will take over the smaller ranches, eliminating the core of these communities. “I view that as a very healthy sign, when your children can come home to make a living.”
Julie hugs her sister Maria, 21, after coming inside from a snow shower while her mother RoseMary looks on and her father Pat takes a call. Julie says it’s typical to see her father on the phone, describing in jest the near-constant rings of two phone lines as “Grand Central Station.”
“Growing up in the country and on a ranch, we had to work together every day and if we had the free time, we played together. And we ate together,” Trask says about her parents and 11 siblings. “We were together all the time.”
During a recent spring snowstorm, Julie had a rare quiet day and was able to catch up with her family and tackle mounting paperwork.
“The physical work has always been my favorite. The hardest part is pondering the state of the county, the state of the state, and the state of the world.” Though, no matter what comes tomorrow Julie knows that she’ll be there for her community and they’ll be there for her. “Family is always there,” she said.
Get to know Kristina Barker, read what she had to say about South Dakota here.