Small-town Hartington, Neb., gets the spotlight with local veterinarians
Schroeders are shooting the 4th season of Heartland Docs, DVM a Nat Geo Wild reality TV docuseries
-Nebraska Alumni Association
On any given day, doctors Ben and Erin Schroeder run from kitten surgery to cow calving — and stop for a confessional along the way.
Now in the midst of shooting their fourth season of the Nat Geo Wild reality TV docuseries Heartland Docs, DVM, they find viewers road-tripping across the country make a special stop to Cedar County Veterinary Services in Hartington, Neb., just to meet their heroes.
“I feel a lot of responsibility,” Ben said. “It’s very special. When people come by and they say, ‘You saved my cat because I watched this episode, because I knew what to look out for,’ it just makes you feel great.”
Ben’s a 1998 animal science graduate, where he said he learned the ins and outs of being both a rancher and a farmer as opposed to just being a veterinarian. He remembers moving into his freshman dorm, Harper Hall, feeling the adrenaline rush of hitting it big time in Lincoln, Neb.
I felt like I was on cloud nine when I first moved down there,” Ben said. “The first thing I did: I put on my running shoes and I ran all the way to the Capitol, up the steps of the Capitol.”
BEN AND ERIN MEET
In veterinary school at Kansas State University, Ben met Erin. For a while after graduation, Ben worked as an exotics veterinarian at the Little Apple Veterinary Hospital in Manhattan, Kan. After the couple both graduated, they came back to Ben’s home in Cedar County to practice with Ben’s father John (who attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 1960s) at his vet clinic. Both Erin and Ben had the skills to care for companion and exotic animals, as well as horse medicinal skills to fill in the blanks of John’s bovine expertise.
They now own the place. Ben takes the lead on cattle cases, while Erin’s specialty is dogs and cats. A good plan when you’re working together 24/7. “I learned a long time ago about being a married couple working together that there can’t be two cooks in the kitchen,” Ben said.
Their first brush with fame in Hartington arrived four years ago, when the Schroeders embarked on a downtown revitalization project — buying the 1917 Hartington Hotel and former Globe Clothing building. To them, renovation is similar to taking care of animals in their clinic.
“There’s a whole bunch of things that are a lot like saving an old building to saving a pet. Maybe lose a little weight, change the food,” Ben said.
Erin said the project is for the community and for their teenage sons, Charlie and Chase.
“We did this for our boys so that they are able to come home if they ever want to,” Erin said.
The renovation caught the Omaha World Herald’s eye — they were compared to the likes of Chip and Joanna Gaines from HGTV’s Fixer Upper. The famous duo name-drop was the buzzword — TV producers were suddenly ringing, wanting to know more about these vets with a lot of extra energy. Finally, they secured a show on Nat Geo Wild, streaming on Disney+, where they get to show off small-town Nebraska to international audiences. As they’ve progressed in seasons, they’re filming faster and have a better grip on the show’s identity.
“It’s about people that really love their animals,” Ben said.
Ben prefers when the whole family is involved in an episode. Often, the two Schroeder sons help out with patients; in Season 1, Episode 4 it takes everyone to roll a cow with a displaced abomasum. One of Ben’s favorite moments, however, is when the family took a new pontoon boat out on the Missouri River.
“We’re standing up there, and I said, ‘Let’s go look at the motor.’ The boat almost tips over while we’re all in it. It’s the craziest, funniest thing,” Ben said.
WATCHING THE EPISODES
It’s just the sort of scene for which Ben’s siblings like to give him a hard time. Lucky, or unlucky for him, he’s the oldest of five. Four of the five are Nebraska graduates. Youngest brother Seth Schroeder (’13) catches the show with their parents.
“We have found that the more of us siblings watching the show in the same living room makes for the most aggressive teasing of our older brother,” Seth said. “We have loved watching them get more and more comfortable over the seasons, and I have joked ‘Uh oh, if he keeps being himself, they’re gonna lose the show.’ ”
Ben and Erin like to watch episodes live when they premiere on TV — sometimes with family, sometimes alone so they don’t have to field questions. While the show is lighthearted, there are moments where Ben has to turn it off. Naturally, there are hard days in veterinary work, and it’s tough to watch when you’ve lived it. They’ve been around long enough to see the birth and death of many patients. Ben says the show doesn’t shy away from that. The harder it gets, the more they want to show it as an educational resource.
“We always want everybody to know to hug their vet because it’s a hard job, and we need that. We need that hug every once in a while,” Ben said.
A worry in filming the show was that people might not understand the Midwest livelihood of raising livestock for food. But Ben said audiences are impressed with how well livestock are treated in Cedar County.
“The farmers go 10 times the extra mile than what (viewers) thought they did,” Ben said. “They’re not just in it for the paycheck, they’re really about it for the welfare and the good care of their animals. And that is what has been amazing to me — these urban viewers that follow us and watch the show are pleased that the real story is what they were actually watching.”
THE NEW GENERATION
Twenty-three years after graduating from Nebraska, Ben is doing exactly what he set out to do — only unexpectedly in front of a camera. It’s a long way from sitting in the East Campus Union reading James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, dreaming about doing the work; he now has the power to influence others.
“Ben is 15 years older than me, and has always been my role model,” Seth said. “I always thought that I had the coolest big brother and am glad I now get to share him with everyone.”
The allure of a family veterinary practice is strong — there might even be a new Husker animal science major when Ben and Erin’s oldest son Charlie heads to college next fall. A new generation of Heartland Docs, DVM to come.
To view an episode, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl5npZ_-J24.
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