Alumni spotlight: Holly Neaton

August 9, 2019

Holly Neaton, ’79 DVM, remembers traveling 40 miles from her hometown of Watertown, Minn., to campus for all four of her years at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Her commitment to the field of veterinary medicine and the CVM propelled her through her DVM.  “I felt we had an excellent education,” she says. “It’s amazing what a veterinary degree will lead you to. I think it opens more doors than any other degree.”

Neaton says she has had a passion for veterinary medicine for as long as she can remember and never considered a different career path. She became particularly gripped by large animal medicine while shadowing Leland Thal, ‘54 DVM, as a high schooler in Watertown, where she still lives to this day. “I started out focusing on dairy production medicine as a veterinary student,” she says, “which is what I would still be doing today, if there were still dairy cows around Watertown, but it slowly changed. I sold my part of the practice in the late 90’s and started raising sheep professionally.” Neaton had raised sheep as a hobby prior to that decision.

Her top client? The University of Minnesota. “People started calling about sheep for medical research,” she says. She wound up selling her sheep to the U of M and other clients for 20 years. Neaton sold the business in 2018, but her sheep became something of a staple for human medicine research at the U. “The University is known all over the world for their juvenile cardiovascular work and research. Our sheep have been relied upon for the majority of that research,” she says. Her sheep have been helpful in developing medical products that eventually were approved for release and have improved the lives of many people. 

“That business grew to be too much for my husband and me and it needed some young blood,” says Neaton, who sold it to the Mille Lacs Veterinary Clinic. “Now, I am raising sheep for breeding stock and providing farmer’s markets and local specialty stores with lamb.”

Neaton also provided the sheep for the CHS Miracle of Birth exhibit at the Great Minnesota Get Together, where she is one of six co-chairs, for 15 years. Now, Neaton spends some of her time at the State Fair in a new appointment: one of the official veterinarians.  

Neaton has been involved with the CHS Miracle of Birth Barn since its start in 2001. CVM alumni Mary Olson, ’76 DVM, and Florian Ledermann, ’64 DVM, set out to create an exhibit that reflected how  large animal veterinarians and farmers work together to keep animals healthy and maintain a safe, wholesome food supply. “There were a few birthing barns at other state fairs across the country that [Olson and Ledermann] visited before approaching the Minnesota State Fair about starting one here,” Neaton says. “They knew I raised sheep—because we had all been  presidents of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association at one time—and they asked if I wanted to help. Nineteen years later, we are still there every August!”  

Over the last 19 years, the CHS Miracle of Birth barn has established itself as a state-wide hub for veterinary education, as well as an epicenter for informing the public about large animal health and safety. It also partners with the CVM to host students on rotation and volunteer students from the rest of the classes at the College. FFA high school students also volunteer. 

Neaton says there have been other states that have tried to imitate the Minnesota model—a four-pronged partnership between the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, FFA, the fair, and the CVM—but few have been as successful as the CHS Miracle of Birth exhibit, since all four partners work so well together. “None of us could do it by ourselves.” 

Meanwhile, Neaton’s passion for Polypay sheep is satiated by the couple of hundred sheep she still raises with her husband. To her, this means the operation is “slowing down” as she looks toward a calmer phase of her career, but her love for veterinary medicine continues to keep her at full speed.