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As I have done for many years, I visited the World Dairy Expo facilities at the Alliant Center on Saturday, four days before the big event actually starts (on Tuesday, Oct. 1).  That early visit gives me some time to talk with exhibitors who are either erecting their cattle displays, wandering around talking to old friends they probably haven’t seen since last year or just resting after their trip to Madison.

Cattle arrivals began slowly on Thursday, heated up on Friday, faster and faster on Saturday and by the Sunday noon deadline most exhibitors had settled into a routine and the cattle were resting or getting their daily washing. 

The displays, many of which are big, elaborate and expensive, were about completed and there was a lot of walking the barns to see where other herds were located and of course a lot of renewing of friendships. 

Many (maybe most) of the cattle exhibits have carpeting or rubber mats covering the concrete floor. “It looks good,” an exhibitor says. “But, I can’t be walking on hard concrete all week, it’s really for the comfort of me and my crew.” 

Getting ready

The many hundreds of dairy folks who bring their valuable dairy cattle from seven breeds to World Dairy Expo, know what to do to make their animals look good in the barn and in the show ring later in the week. Today most exhibitors hire one of the multitude of professional fitters/clippers to get their cattle show ready and there is a loud buzz of clippers throughout the barns. 

In the tent

This year I began my wandering in the one remaining cattle tent — most cattle are housed in the New Holland barn complex.  It seems like most of the cattle in this tent (it’s not a flimsy tent at all) are from Pennsylvania and New York. Many of the cattle from the east were shown at the mid-September All American Dairy show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania so were familiar with travel and the big show routine. 

It happened that I talked with Sutton Rucks, of Okeechobee, Florida, owner of the Grand champion Brown Swiss and Keith Fisher, of Hardcore farm, New Enterprise, Pennsylvania, premier breeder and exhibitor at Harrisburg. Both herds will no doubt be major forces in Dairy Expo competition. Rucks milks 1,800 cows in Florida but his champion cow lives in Pennsylvania. Fisher houses cattle for others.

Manure? Yes

Often my friends ask about the manure — what’s done with it? 

Yes, there is a lot of manure but it’s unlike what you find in a regular dairy barn which is mostly liquid. The animals at dairy shows are bedded with straw and wood shavings, probably a foot deep, meaning the manure is rather dry and fluffy. It is moved from the cattle area by wheelbarrow to concrete enclosures, picked up via end loader by an Expo crew and moved to central pits. It ultimately moves to a nearby farm where it is composted. 

Feed, bedding for sale

Most exhibitors bring feed for their cattle but sometimes space and distance mean they must buy more and chances are they can get what they need from Joel Schultz sort of hidden in the back corner of the parking lot. There you can find Schultz selling hay, straw, grain, bedding and various supplements to cattle exhibitors who couldn’t bring enough with them for the week on the road. 

Schultz, who lives in Verona has spent many years in the livestock supply business and at Dairy Expo for well over 20 years.  Note - Schultz was the subject of this column in 1991 (?) when he was renting and running the old Mazomanie Feed Mill. Soon after, the mill was remodeled and we have long known and enjoyed it as the classy eating spot:  “The Old Feed Mill.”

“Pros” competing

Who are the cattle exhibitors? “This cattle show is really not for the beginner and most of Wisconsin's 8,000 licensed  dairy farmers do not exhibit cattle at Dairy Expo, they raise cows for the milk and other than having sons or daughters show at the county fair are not often involved in the big time dairy shows. This is where the “pros” come to compete.

A beauty contest

By and large most of the competitors are the dairy folks (or in many cases, investors)  who raise purebred/registered dairy cows and enjoy raising animals that follow breed type standards and can compete at dairy shows. They strive to raise animals with high genetic merit as demonstrated by show ring competition, DNA (genomic testing) and producing outstanding sons and daughters that may be sold at a high price.  

The big time competitors enjoy show ring competition and the joy of “being the best.” World Dairy Expo is the big mountain to climb in the world of dairy cattle competition and winning is not unlike getting the Heisman, winning World Series, Super Bowl or Final Four.  And, as many will tell you, “it’s the fun.”

One judge, no replays      

Unlike in sports, the competition, judging and winning of championships at Dairy Expo is a quiet affair: No replays, no leaping into the stands, no bucket of Gatorade over the head. It might be difficult for an outsider to understand the slow pace of judging a class of similar aged animals — some have said it’s like watching grass grow or paint dry. But if you know the cattle, exhibitors and owners, it’s a breathtaking event. 

Two events in one

Certainly the 53rd World Dairy Expo is all about the cows, but there are two almost separate events going on at once. 

The dairy breed show competitions where dairy cattle — 2300 of them — from the seven recognized breeds parade before judges. This is where the cows are and the romance of dairying is but that’s not where the big crowds gather.

The Expo crowds are at the commercial exhibits in the coliseum concourses and Exhibition Hall nearby. They come to see the commercial display involving about 900  companies and 1,500 exhibits. 

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 programs and management programs that offer theories to be put in use in the farm office.

Dairying has changed in the past few years as low milk prices have impacted the industry negatively. A professional cattle fitter/clipper told me he has taken a job as a herdsman: “So many of my registered dairy herds have closed, meaning I've lost their business.”

The five day Dairy Expo will no doubt have suffered other changes from the bad economy,  I will take a close look. But, it will remain what dairying is today and will be tomorrow. Some folks will say that robotic milkers and automatic feeding are taking away from the personal involvement in milking cows. Maybe true, but Dairy Expo (as is life) is not about the “old,” it’s about the new. See you there.

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

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