Lots of looking, little buying at World Dairy Expo

John Oncken

World Dairy Expo officially opened its doors on Tuesday, Oct. 2, but  for many folks this was already the fifth day they had been on the event site at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. (Far-distant herds can come in on Thursday with permission). I made my first visit on the Saturday before Expo just to meet and talk with the cattle people.

By opening day, Tuesday the 2300 dairy animals were bedded, brushed and ready for visitors.

World Dairy Expo is all about dairy cattle: those that made the trip to Madison for the various breed shows and those on dairy farms all across dairyland.  While most of the Expo publicity centers on the cattle competing in the show ring, the huge event is more than the cows on display, it's also about all the things that go into raising, milking and managing dairy animals.

Two shows

As I've written many times, Dairy Expo is really two almost separate events going on at the same time.

The normal parking lot outside The Exhibition Hall was crowded with exhibits, many too big for inside display.

There is the huge commercial display involving some 900 companies (from about 25 countries) and their 1,500 exhibit spaces. These commercial displays are centered in the Exhibition Hall, Arena, Coliseum and the front parking lot. Here are the things needed by the dairy animals and the people who raise them. Everything from equipment you can kick and touch to computer systems and management programs that offer theories to be put in use in the farm office.   

The first thing a first time visitor to World Dairy Expo soon realizes is that you can't see it all, or even much of it all in one day or even in a couple of days. Walking down the row after row of booths is not only about looking, it's about asking questions, listening to answers and probably picking up some literature to take home for later reference.  

Steve Dvorak, of DVO, Inc, Chilton, tells John C. Oncken (left), Grand Forks North Dakota and Bill Rowell,  Vermont dairyman about his 10,000 cow manure digester near completion in Australia.

This year's Dairy Expo was not the year for buying — just looking — according to both farmers and commercial exhibitors. All of the dairy farmers I talked with chuckled in response to my question; "What are you looking to buy?"  Answers ranged from:  "Nothing, we're just hanging on for dear life as it is,"  to "Were trying to keep up with what's new" to "Looking at some things we'll get serious about when the dairy economics get better (if ever)."

Shows and sales

Meanwhile, the 2,300 dairy animals were housed in the huge New Holland Pavilion and one big tent and most compete in breed shows for ribbons, trophies and money in the Coliseum show ring. There are also dairy animals brought in for the various breed sales held during the event. 

All the cattle results can be found at world dairy expo.com but worthy of a special note is that the Supreme Champion animal was a five-year old Brown Swiss cow, Cutting Edge T Delilah, owned by Kyle Barton of Copake, N.Y.  Of interest is that this is only the second time in World Dairy Expo's 52-year history,  that the Supreme Champion of the Junior Show and the Supreme Champion of World Dairy Expo are the same cow. 

The biggest crowds at the cattle judging come during the Holstein classes Friday afternoon and Saturday.

Although many serious dairy folks do come to see the cattle shows the commercial exhibits are what really draw the crowds especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and about 3 p.m. I did ask many exhibitors about the crowd size The common answer was "About like last year but a little smaller perhaps." They were right on with the actual attendance reported at about 65,000, some 5,000 less than a year ago.

Expo officials reported 99 new companies were exhibiting this year - that's about 10 percent of the total. I often wonder what companies didn't return and why not: Did they go out of business? Go to other shows?  Find it not cost efficient?  Just not get around to signing up?  Whatever — several dairy producers commented to me that they didn't know many of the commercial exhibitors, what with the new companies, name changes and mergers and buyouts that occurred within the dairy industry recently.


Certainly robotic milking is on the minds of many dairy producers these days. Larger dairies fear labor shortages now and and getting worse in the near future. Small dairies, 100 cows and smaller, see robots as a possible way to continue dairying without getting involved in hiring full time employees.  

Tammy Vaassen, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Beef Council was at her first Dairy Expo after replacing longtime - serving John Freitag in the position.

Matt Green, a young farmer on a 60 cow dairy at Greenbush, Minnesota (near the Canadian border) made his first-ever trip to Dairy Expo and was truly thrilled at what he saw. He farms with his father and younger brother and he sees robots as a way to remain in dairying as a smaller family dairy longterm. The family has not yet made a decision but he and his brother do want to grow the dairy in coming years.

It's the money

The other part of the economic dilemma on today's dairy operations are the ag lenders who have their money at risk.  A loan officer from one of the state's leading farm lenders said; "I do get a lot of phone calls these days but they are the kind I really don't want to get."  Another ag lender said his loan officers do everything to help their borrowers but sometimes the situation is such that the loan can't be repaid and a move must be made.

Many dairy dispersals

Reports (maybe rumors) are that some dairy farms may not find funds to purchase seed and fertilizer this winter for next years crop. I suspect that's at least partially true what with the number of dairy dispersals listed in the three state farm newspapers each week. I also noted a half dozen major Registered Holstein herds already or going to dispersal in recent weeks and in the next months. John Meyer, CEO of Holstein USA, who was attending Expo, commented to me: "Registered herds are also feeling the stress of the low dairy economy and making decisions that are best for their families."

The sale cattle prior to the famed Holstein Classic held on Friday night where the top selling animal brought $205,000.

Whatever the economy holds for dairying in coming days, it has certainly changed things across dairyland with the many farm dropouts that have already taken place. 

We need a program

The subject of dairy supply management has been kicked around for many decades, always with the "don't want it" conclusion on all levels. I noticed more producers seeing quotas as an alternative in my conversations last week. 

Bill Rowell, who milks 750 cows at his Green Mountain Dairy at Highgate, Vermont admits he was long opposed to supply management but says: "Over 100 million pounds of milk in Federal Order #1 were dumped into manure lagoons last year, we can't keep doing this — we need a workable program."

Good in all ways

In spite of the economic concerns in the dairy business, World Dairy Expo 2018 was a good one for all: A vacation, an education, a chance to talk with friends new and old and opportunity to see the now and future in all things dairy. Even the mostly dark, gloomy, sometimes rainy and coolish weather was perfect as farmers felt no guilt in having to leave their sodden fields for a day off. 

If you missed it, mark the dates Oct. 1 - 5, 2019 and be there!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.