50 years of cattle, commercial exhibits and crowds

John Oncken

Fifty years is a long time, but not so long as to presume many folks who attended the first one in 1967 would still be around for the half-century  anniversary of World Dairy Expo.

I’m one of those because as a young TV farm director at WFRV-TV in Green Bay, my interest was ag news. So, I made the trip to Madison out of curiosity to see the new and much heralded “World Food Exposition.”  It was being held at what we knew then as the Dane County Fairgrounds, and it seemed a good idea at the time because even then, us ag types wanted city folks to better understand agriculture and farming. And that was what the World Food Exposition was all about.

As I remember, there were big displays of cheese and other dairy and food products, along with demonstrations, seminars and famous chefs. Then there was the big-time evening entertainment.

Welcome to the 50th World Dairy Expo.



Doug and Matilda Maddox, Riverdale, California, at the 2008 Dairy Expo. They owned the first “mega dairy”  (1,000 cows at one site).  Doug died in 2011.

No one came

The only problem: very few people showed up for any of the attractions.

At the time, I (and the show officials) were wondering why the crowds didn’t come. In retrospect, I’ve concluded the following: city consumers seldom came to events perceived as farm shows; farm folks didn’t come because they already knew all about food (after all, they raised the food in the first place); and most city consumers worked during the day and probably didn’t take vacation to come to a food show.

And finally, the event was probably ahead of its time. People didn’t much care where food came from or who raised it (not like today); besides, they probably had a family member on a farm and visited them regularly, so already they knew a lot about food.

Food out, cows in

Whatever the reason, the World Food Expo died after a few years, but through the efforts of a devoted group of agricultural folks (farmers and business people), the new and different World Dairy Expo featuring dairy cows came to be.

World Dairy Expo is indeed about dairy cattle. Over 2,500 individual animals are encamped in their week-long home in the New Holland Pavilion at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. They are pampered by their owners, compete in the show ring in the Dane County Coliseum and are petted and ooed and aahed over by city folks who find this once-a-year event an opportunity to get up close to a cow.

The judge, animal and showman are what show ring competition is about.

The cows

I often wonder what the animals think as they travel far from their home barns, spend many hours on a truck, drink different water and are washed, clipped, brushed and shined to a gleaming finish over about a nine-day period.

What do dairy animals really  think after the sometimes long trip to Dairy Expo/?

Although they say nothing and never change expression, their owners sort of agree — as do I — that they enjoy the whole process, especially when they see (and feel) their cow or heifer perk up her ears and strut proudly into the show ring. The answer is one of those mysteries of life perhaps best understood by the person (professional or beginner) at the halter. You must see it to understand.

Taking care

A first-time visitor to Dairy Expo might be surprised to see how many people there are taking care of the animals: family members, professional fitters of course and a host of workers feeding, sweeping and watching over the cattle.

Some years ago, while talking with a group of dairy folks in one of the dairy barns, an interesting question came up. “Have you ever noticed that so many of the people working in the dairy barns are  women and young girls?,” a long time cattle showman asked.  “I’ll bet that two out of three people working with the cattle are women.”

Note: Up to that point I hadn’t seriously thought about that, but it seems that over the years, I’ve talked with and written about many women working in the dairy barns.

“It’s because women are better with cows,” one of the group said. “Women have more patience.”

Caring for valuable cattle takes lots of help.

“I know a good many show herds hire women to bed, feed and keep the cows clean,” another offered. “Women seem to enjoy the job and experience, and they are good with animals.”

“Hey, we need women to put up the displays and signs,” a third suggested. “Us guys would never create a display that anyone would look at, and every exhibit would be the same.”

“Do you think us old guys would wash a calf in 40-degree weather at 5 a.m. on show day?" an honest dairyman asked. “You got to be young and eager to do that.”

That conversation took place about 15 years ago, but things haven’t changed. Walk the barns at Expo or any dairy show and take a look — you’ll see.

This year marked the 50th edition of the event, and World Dairy Expo’s future is secure. The commercial exhibits, approximately 850 this year, have moved from tents that always seemed cold, clammy and dark to the huge Exhibition Hall with its constant temperature and bright lighting, and the New Holland Pavilions are cattle barns like none anywhere else with electrical outlets; lots of space for cattle and people; wash racks; fresh air all the time from the fans; and proximity to the show ring.

Mark Rueth, Oxford (left), and Joel Kietzman, Waunakee,  have been at Dairy Expo for many years, first as clippers/fitters and then among the top breeders and showman anywhere.

Two events in one

I characterize World Dairy Expo as two events:

1. The dairy breed show competitions where dairy cattle, 2,500 of them from the seven recognized breeds and raised for their beauty in addition to their milk, parade before judges. It’s the pinnacle of the “show circuit” that begins at the local breed shows and county fairs and runs through the state fairs and maybe other regional events.

The purebred dairy cattle shows are where the cows are and the romance of dairying is, but that’s not where the big crowds gather. They are at the commercial exhibits in the Coliseum concourses and Exhibition Hall nearby.

2. The commercial exhibits feature most everything needed or wanted to raise dairy cattle. It’s the world of high-tech equipment and programs and the lower-tech world of plastic gloves, fencing, jackets and ear tags.

This is the place were dairy farmers and dairy businesses from around the world come to see the new, talk to the experts and make decisions.  Dairy agriculture exists on labor-saving, easy-to-use, moneymaking equipment and technology. That’s where the actual dairy farmers, those who keep cows for the milk they give not for their beauty, come. It’s also where many nonfarmers come to marvel at today’s technology and see the resulting and continuing changes in dairying.

Add in the many cattle auctions, company and organization meetings, seminars, product information meetings and banquets, and one realizes the official hours of 9 to 5 mean little. There is something going on almost around the clock.

Indeed, World Dairy Expo offers programs and activities for everyone, but, as I’ve written before, it is really the the meeting place for the dairy industry where old friends gather, new friends are made and the dairy industry is shaped as technology is introduced, seen and later used.

Will World Dairy Expo reach age 100 in 2066?  Who knows, but without any doubt, it will be different.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at