Dairy Expo: a last look and more

Wisconsin State Farmer
Volunteers work at many places during Dairy Expo, including the popular Purple Cow.

The 2,300 dairy cattle have long ago settled back into their home barns, the show boxes have been unpacked and stored for the next show season (a spring show or maybe the county fair) and commercial exhibitors have caught up on their sleep and are back to their normal routine. Yes, 2018 World Dairy Expo is in the distant past (two weeks ago).and all but forgotten by most. 

Except perhaps for me — I have a few notes and thoughts that did not find their way into print, until now.

Volunteers make it go

Pretty much unseen and unheralded are the hundreds of volunteers who 
contribute their time and efforts to see that the five-day, event-packed schedule progresses as planned. Checking cattle and commercial entries, leading tours, working in the show-ring helping the judges, hauling things, helping with meetings, seminars and sales are where you’ll see volunteers and, oh yes, selling things at the Purple Cow.

Volunteers don’t need to be farmers or former farmers, in fact, most probably have little farming connection. The common element in their makeup is that they like people and love to help at this event. 

Without them, Dairy Expo would not be the event that it is. A friend asked me how he could become a volunteer next year. I suggested calling 608-224-6455, introduce himself and sign up.  

Show tents are mingled with the dairy animals in the barn.

Tents and more tents

Another question? Why are there so many tents among the rows of cattle tied in the barn?  These “show tents” (as I call them) seem to grow in number every year. These 10 by 10 foot pop up tents are used to store animal and human supplies from show boxes to beds to refrigerators to food. Exhibitors pay a $300 fee for the right to erect these tents and another $250 to put up a farm or family promotional display. 

For sure these tents are very handy for exhibitors but they do take up a lot of space (each equivalent to about three stalls) and make it a bit difficult to see the rows of cattle.

A tent close up - for storage, eating or sleeping.

Will help later on

I’m always surprised at the many college students (men and women) who work in the barns during Dairy Expo. Some are exhibitors, some are helping their family, but many are working for the big show strings for money, experience and pure enjoyment. 

Over the years, many of these young people have told me how they feel sorry for the city kids who get in trouble because they have “nothing to do” without knowing the joys of clipping, washing, brushing cattle, forking manure and sometimes staying up all night with the show herd. “Not very romantic or exciting,” a young woman student says, “But it will help me later when I have my own herd.”

Well organized

I was surprised in reviewing the commercial exhibitor list (after Expo) to count 61 Ag associations, governmental agencies and educational groups listed ranging from the Alberta Forage Industry Network to the Dairyland Hoof Institute to the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Indeed, dairy agriculture is well organized.

The fields a ready and waiting.

A final note: The common bonds of “doing what I love and “loving what I do” that prevails among the fraternity of dairy exhibitors and families and the friendships that are made and last for life make Dairy Expo what it is.    

Dairy dispersals continue

The public media is now keeping track of farm losses and publishing that figure monthly or even more often. The latest figure I’ve seen is near 500 farms have quit milking cows in 2018. A quick look at dairy auction listings in the three weekly farm newspapers would indicate that the losses are continuing.  

From October 15 - 25 I noted these dispersal sales listed: 
October 15...52 cows
October 17...35 cows
October 17,18...375 cows
October 18...45 cows, 42 cows, 40 cows 
October 19 ...85  cows
October 23...50 cows
October 24...150 cows
October 25...40 cows

That’s eight listed dispersals over a 10-day period. Several were listed as retirements after many decades of farming and most were in the 50 cow or less size. 

As usual, the end of Expo means corn is ready for combining.

The  combination of bad economics, labor issues, planned or unplanned retirements 
and no succession plan will continue to take a toll on dairy farm numbers both in Wisconsin and across all of dairyland. 

The loss of dairy farms doesn’t always mean the farm ends. In many cases cropping continues and sometimes beef or other livestock become the main livestock enterprise.

It does not mean that non farm family corporate farms are taking over. Farm family corporations are still the popular mode for expansion dairies in dairyland and I expect this will continue. 

Why not milk?

Prior to the 1980s, more than 50 percent of the milk regulated by USDA’s Federal Milk Marketing Order program was in beverage milk production. By 2015, only 33 percent of milk in the Federal Order program was in fluid milk.

Los Angeles based Califia Farms imitation plant milk has found it’s way to Madison.

During this time, per-capita consumption of beverage milk declined by 25 percent to approximately 18 gallons per person. Milk price volatility, the proliferation of imitation “milk” and bottled water products, reduced consumption of ready-to-eat cereals, and legislation limiting school milk options all contributed to the decline in milk sales.

The dairy industry has watched the decline in milk drinking while doing little to stem the tide. Meanwhile, imitation or fake milks seem to have taken over.  I wondered about the area where I live, near Madison, so made a visit to Woodman’s Food Market.  

I had seen and written about soy and almond milk before but was much surprised to see cashew, coconut, flax, almond/cashew, almond/coconut and almond vanilla and, the store manager told me, I’d missed the new “pea” milk.

I asked four women customers who were picking up the imitation milk, why they did so? They’re answers:  #1 -  “I don’t want to drink anything that comes from a cow,” she said with a laugh. #2 - “I love the taste of the vanilla flavored almond, I use it on my breakfast cereal.”  #3 - “Cows milk spoils in just a few weeks, the soy and almond milk last a long time and I don’t have to come to the store so often.”  #4 - I like the flavored milks but still do buy some regular cows milk, I like to change around.”  

That’s not a real survey, just a question to a few shoppers, but interesting.

You name the plant and it’s probably (or will be) made into a “milk.”


“How are the imitation milk sales going,” I asked the store dairy manager?  “Just booming,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the initial demand and sales keep going up.”  

Perhaps the dairy industry should take heed to the reasons why people like the fake milks and try more flavored milks (like vanilla) and do more than just complain. Why not?

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