Business owners, exhibitors look forward to next year's World Dairy Expo

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Apple with Norm Nabholz, left, and John Erbsen at World Dairy Expo.

Despite the World Dairy Expo being cancelled for the first time in 53 years, those who love the annual event are still optimistically looking ahead to next year.

Jim Ostrom, co-founder and CEO of Milk Source, comprised of dairy farms in Wisconsin, Michigan and Missouri, expressed regret that the event was cancelled, even though he understands the reasons why. He and his team were named the expo's 2020 Dairy Producers of the Year, and although he can't celebrate it at the usual spot in Madison, he's grateful for the honor and distinction.

"(The Expo) is the pinnacle of my entire year. I spend nine days at the World Dairy Expo setting up and getting ready to take our show cattle in," Ostrom said. "It's on a world stage. To be recognized at that level is really a once-in-a-lifetime event and we're very grateful for it."

Ostrom explained that his dairy precisely times their calf births so that their cows are in prime condition for showing, and the cancellation means a lot of that work was done for nothing. But he said the farm still plans to show their cows at the North American Dairy Cattle Show in Ohio this October, where they hope to win many titles, especially since it's not quite the same caliber as the World Dairy Expo. He also said he plans on having his cows in good shape to compete again for 2021's titles.

The friendships you make with dairymen from all over the world, Ostrom said, are what will really be missing this year. He said it's a fun way to meet people with a similar passion as you, and many even treat those 9 days as a vacation. For some, it's more sacred than a wedding or funeral.

"I know people (whose) entire lives are set around World Dairy Expo," Ostrom said. "They wouldn't attend a wedding or funeral during that time. ... It's just really important to a lot of people."

Leaders from Milk Source LLC of Kaukauna, Wis., from left, John Vosters, Todd Willer and Jim Ostrom have been named Dairy Producers of the year and will be honored at the 2020 Expo Recognition Awards this fall during World Dairy Expo. The group was nominated and selected by their peers for making instrumental contributions to the dairy industry and their communities.

Avi Stern, director of public affairs for Milk Source, also said they look forward to hosting international guests again in 2021 because they usually have hundreds of people come by for farm tours. Stern said that just last year alone brought in 1,000 people from 100 US states and countries. He said he fondly looks back on memories from those tours, where he met so many people who were inspired by his company and how they do business.

"I do remember one year where I was with a group of Italians at one part of the farm, a colleague of mine was with a group of Russians at another part of the farm, a third colleague was with a group of Japanese guests at a third part of the farm and, much to our surprise, we started laughing when we got a cell phone call that a group of Brazilians had just shown up unannounced," Stern said. "It was Epcot run amok."

Stern did say he's glad to have the year off, jokingly, but the absence of Expo does give them time to rest and re-energize for next year's happenings. He said it's "amazing" to have such exposure to the world of dairying in different countries thanks to the WDE.

Roger Riebe, a Jersey cow breeder who has won several show titles from the Expo in years past, said missing one year isn't so bad – even though it's a disappointing loss, he expected it to be cancelled. He said it's one of the events he looks forward to every year, since he's now shown Jerseys at the WDE for nearly 20 years and even his granddaughter is now showing the breed. He said she won reserve grand champion in the junior Jersey show last year.

"You miss the advertisement, mainly, and then the fun of doing it of course," Riebe said. "It's quite an honor to compete in a show like that. You're competing with the best cattle in the world."

Cutting Edge T Delilah is led across the colored shavings by Kyle Barton during the World Dairy Expo Parade of Champions on Oct. 5 in Madison.

WDE general manager Scott Bentley said Expo staff are planning for a full return to the Alliant Energy Center in September 2021, albeit with a few changes to how they will handle attendance because of COVID-19 concerns. Bentley said staff took to heart the cancellation because of how hard they worked on planning the show, and even though some similar events became closed to the public or went virtual, he said the staff team felt that it wouldn't be right to make the Expo virtual and opted to cancel it entirely.

Scott Bentley

WDE is still active on social media and their website during this time, Bentley said, where they will debut new initiatives, including one where dairy cattle exhibitors can post directly to their website to attract farm visitors and customers. He said archives of past virtual farm tours are also still available on their website.

"We certainly put a lot of effort and energy into evaluating options for a virtual World Dairy Expo or alternatives in any way, shape or form," Bentley said. "It was the decision of leadership and staff that our brand was so tied to an in-person event that we did not want to hold a virtual-only World Dairy Expo."

Bentley said the expo's economic impact on Madison and Dane County in 2019 alone was worth $25 million in area lodging, restaurants and bars, tourism and transportation. He said Madison is hurting without the Expo because of the huge amount of revenue in tourism it brings in, although he was unsure of calculable losses. He also said the Alliant Energy Center has also "dimmed their lights" because of the lack of large-scale in-person events due to the spread of COVID-19. Many vendors and business owners tied to the Expo have had to reevaluate their business models, Bentley said.

Despite the emotional toll of cancelling one of Wisconsin dairy's biggest events of the year, Bentley said WDE staff are gearing up to move forward with the 2021 Expo set to take place Sept. 28-Oct. 2 next year, which will celebrate its 55th year. 

"It is our intention to make some changes to World Dairy Expo to make sure it remains relevant and appealing to exhibitors and attendees. We're working through potential initiatives and changes at this time," Bentley said. "It's our intention to carry over the theme ('Instrumental to the Industry') to next year."