Department of Animal Science to Recognize Block and Bridle, Alumni Awards Winners at Annual Honors Banquet

by Eric Buck | Nebraska Animal Science

Block and Bridle awards
Department of Animal Science to Recognize Block and Bridle, Alumni Awards Winners at Annual Honors Banquet
March 8, 2024

Lincoln, Neb. —The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Animal Science will honor four individuals with awards at its 2024 Honors Banquet. The event will be held on April 20, 2024 at the AKRS Champions Club in Lincoln, Nebraska. The event is being sponsored by Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Pork Producers Association.

John Miller will be the 2024 Block and Bridle Club honoree, while Joeli Walrath, Dr. Bryan Buss, and Collette Schultz Kaster will be honored with awards for their outstanding accomplishments as undergraduate or graduate animal science alumni.

Registration and more information about the event can be found here. Event registration will remain open for attendees until April 10.

University of Nebraska Block and Bridle honoree

John Miller, founder and former President of Oxbow Animal Health, will be recognized as the 2024 Block and Bridle Club honoree. Since 1938, the Block and Bridle Club has recognized individuals who contributed to Nebraska agriculture through leadership, service, youth projects, community activities, and involvement with the university. The candidates are nominated by industry leaders and selected by the club officers and advisors. 

Miller, a 1972 University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate with a degree in Agricultural Engineering, and his wife, Pat, returned to Murdock, Nebraska following his uncle’s passing in 1973. The Miller farm was a traditional grain, hay, and livestock operation, but John’s interest in marketing and value-added agriculture led him to start Oxbow Hay Company in 1980. After researching the pet food and products market and evaluating the feasibility of marketing his premium alfalfa hay to this segment of the industry, Oxbow Pet Products was established in 1992 and its Alfalfa Nibbles product was introduced into the pet food marketplace. The increasing use of the internet allowed for direct sales from business to consumer, and Oxbow became the first to market 12 products specifically designed to provide premium nutrition to the small herbivore market. Veterinarians treating small animals embraced the premium nutrition provided by Oxbow’s products and were instrumental in helping the Oxbow brand gain placement throughout the U.S. and the world. John’s agricultural engineering background guided company innovations throughout the years, as he designed many of the machines and systems used to produce their products, including the machine used to produce their “Harvest Stacks,” which reduced dust by 80 percent and space used by loose hay by 75 percent.

Miller’s innovation led to rapid growth that now positions Oxbow Animal Health as a global leader in small animal nutrition. Its products are the preferred provider in Petsmart, Petco, and Chewy locations. The company was named the Small Business Association’s National Exporter of the Year in 2006 and was recognized as the 2015 Pet Age ICON Award Winner, which is awarded to pet industry leaders that have shown over 20 years of commitment to the success of the pet industry based on experience, integrity, and leadership.

Youth education and outreach have always been a priority at the company, providing programs such as Oxbow Vet Camps, which provide a science-based curriculum on rabbit and small animal care and medicine, and sponsoring 4-H Youth Development programs to improve rabbit care and husbandry. Its Educational Partnership Program (EPP) in Vet School and Vet Tech Programs is present in 30 veterinary schools and 30 vet tech schools across the country. 

John continues to be active at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is a member of the Nebraska Ag Builders and previously served on its Board of Directors. He serves on the advisory board for both the Department of Food Science and the Engler Entrepreneurship Program, and programs he developed at Oxbow Animal Health continue to provide scholarships in Animal Science, Food Technology for Companion Animals, Biological Systems Engineering, and the professional program in Veterinary Medicine. Oxbow also offers scholarships to students interested in pursuing careers in the pet industry or the field of animal health and nutrition to high school, undergraduate, vet school, and vet tech students. They also welcome classes to tours of facilities and encourage staff members to provide lectures for university courses. He has provided financial and personnel support to UCARE research projects, has provided discounted access to Oxbow products to Veterinary Medicine students, and has also placed a high priority on filling positions at Oxbow Animal Health with Nebraska graduates.

Miller is also very active in the small animal, hay, and agricultural industries. He was a member of the Nebraska Agriculture Leadership Council’s LEAD program, including serving a term as its alumni association president, is a member of the National Hay Association, and was a founding member of the Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association. He currently serves on its board after having previously served as president of the association.

Young Alumni of Distinction

Joeli Walrath, B.S. 2019, will be honored with the Young Alumni of Distinction award. Walrath was an active student while at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, participating on the Husker Equestrian team from 2016-19, the Horse Judging team from 2016-17, was a member of the University of Nebraska Rodeo Association from 2016-19, and was a member of the Pre-Vet club from 2016-17. From 2018-19, Walrath served as the executive board promotions officer for the rodeo association, promoting the program to the public and assisting in recruiting efforts through the creation of promotional materials and educating individuals on the performance of the team and club. 

She earned the crown of Miss Rodeo Nebraska 2020 and served in the role from June 2019 through December 2021, traveling throughout the state of Nebraska and the country to educate the public about the state of Nebraska and its agriculture, and to promote the professional sport of rodeo. Unable to travel during the pandemic, Walrath used her experience and skills to pivot her promotional responsibilities by using social media, creating a podcast, hosting online coloring contests for children, and even visiting local nursing homes on horseback to interact with residents outside of their windows to spread some joy during hard times. She later concluded her role as Miss Rodeo Nebraska by finishing as third runner-up in the Miss Rodeo America pageant during the National Finals Rodeo.

She later became the Communications Director at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, in 2023. In her current role, Walrath communicates with producers and educates the public about agriculture by serving as a representative of the center, and having her work published both locally and nationally. 

She continues to serve the community as a board member for both the Miss Nebraska Rodeo Association and Sherman County Prevention Coalition.

Undergraduate of Distinction

Bryan Buss DVM, MPH, DACVPM CDC, B.S. 1995, will be honored with the Undergraduate of Distinction award. Following his graduation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he earned his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1989. He spent the next 15 years working in Nebraska as a mixed animal veterinary practitioner before returning to college to earn a Master’s in Public Health in 2005 from the University of Iowa.

As a CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer and Veterinary Epidemiologist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services since 2008, Dr. Buss began serving as de facto Nebraska Deputy State Epidemiologist, State Public Health Veterinarian, and as a subject matter expert in epidemiology with the State Homeland Security team in 2013. He served as the Senior Epidemiology Lead and Branch Director during Nebraska’s responses to both Ebola virus disease and Avian Influenza. He also assisted in separate investigations of high rates of MRSA among high school sports participants in Nebraska, and a group of illnesses among 24 people that used swimming pools. His efforts in these investigations helped lead to a sustained reduction in MRSA cases among Nebraska high school athletes and the demonstrated benefits of improving pool operator training. All 900 Nebraska public pools now require operator training and certification.

Since 2011, Dr. Buss has managed Nebraska’s Rabies Control Program. His training of staff in 19 local health departments throughout Nebraska allowed the investigations of more than 700 potential rabies exposures per year, leading to a documented annual medical cost savings of more than $500,000 by avoiding unneeded rabies post-exposure prophylaxis. He was the recipient of a formal letter of commendation from agency management for his exceptional senior leadership.  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Buss had logged 3,612 response hours in the CDC’s time-tracker by the end of 2021, including 116 straight days in early 2020 where he averaged 9.5 hours/day, including weekends and holidays, as part of the response. He served as the State’s liaison working alongside federally deployed colleagues managing quarantine activities of repatriated Americans from both Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ship. He went on to serve in four senior leadership roles in Nebraska’s response efforts, first as the overall lead for the state’s early response, next as leader of the Laboratory and Community Testing Work Stream, as Nebraska’s Vaccine Planning Epidemiology lead, and finally as the lead on efforts to develop processes for reinfection and vaccine breakthrough infections to enhance case investigations.

Dr. Buss has authored 15 peer-reviewed publications and 14 CDC Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report publications, including Nebraska’s Rabies Investigation Guidelines, the Information Sharing and Epidemiology and Surveillance Sections of Nebraska’s Ebola and Zika Response Plans, and critical populations sections of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Plan. He also holds an appointment as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, volunteers to teach epidemiology and public health, and serves as a student mentor, career counselor, and capstone project preceptor.

Graduate of Distinction

Collette Schultz Kaster, M.S., 1991, will be honored with the Graduate of Distinction award. Following her graduation from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she started her career with Pig Improvement Company (PIC) as part of a team working to improve swine genetics to improve animal health and productivity, while also meeting export quality demands. She moved on to the Premium Standard Farms company to help establish a state-of-the-art, fully integrated pork company that would become a standard of quality and animal welfare in the industry. Following its acquisition by Smithfield, Collette served as the Vice President of Quality Technical Services from 2007-11 and later as Senior Vice President of Quality Technical Services and Livestock Procurement from 2011-16. She was responsible for all hog procurement at eight large-scale pork processing facilities with a total annual purchase value of $2.5 billion as well as the entire Quality Assurance and Technical Service teams. 

She went on to be named the Executive Director of the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), an internationally recognized nonprofit organization that certifies animal welfare audits and auditors for all species, in 2016. Under her leadership, PAACO has implemented additional training modules, has served as a primary trainer in meat, poultry, swine, and beef cattle feedlot training, and coordinates outreach to all sectors of the livestock and meat industries. In 2019, Collette was named CEO of the American Meat Science Association (AMSA). Under her leadership, AMSA has expanded its membership to both international markets and suppliers to the meat industry. She oversees the annual Reciprocal Meat Conference and creates programs that develop students and youth for careers in the meat and agricultural industries. She continues to lead both organizations to this day. 

Collette serves as a mentor to students and young professionals, serving on the board of directors for Women’s Meat Industry Network (WMIN), and is active in Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS). She also continues to advocate for the role and purpose of meat, with her involvement in the inaugural Societal Role of Meat and Livestock Summit held in Dublin, Ireland in 2022, and in its next event in October 2024 in Denver, Colorado.

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