Notes from year 50 of World Dairy Expo

John Oncken

There were probably more photos taken of this year's World Dairy Expo than during the first 45 years of the event: cameras, smartphones and iPads were everywhere as visitors recorded their impressions of the event.

A  thought entered my mind as I walked the Expo grounds: will any of these photos exist even five years from now? Don’t even think of 25 or 50 years in  the future, as new equipment makes 2016 electronic cameras and other picture-taking devices obsolete.

Those who viewed the photographic display of the 50 years of World Dairy Expo saw photos of the people and cattle that grew the show  — all recorded on cameras that used film developed at a studio somewhere and made into an actual shiny photo one could hold in their hand and reproduce decades later from the negative.

Will today’s electronic equipment and their memory chips remain for history to reuse in the future? Or will they die in phones and hard drives that die with their owners? Just a thought.

The crowds came 

The 2016 World Dairy Expo was blessed by good weather — cool, sunny and fall-like — for attendees.  Also the kind of weather that allowed farmers to do some delayed fieldwork — silage making and the beginning of corn and soybean combining — meaning they might not have made it to the the Expo at all.


I had the pleasure of guiding two Madison women friends on an Expo tour: Although both Lois Seymour and Jo Anderson had lived within a few miles of the Alliant Energy Center much of their lives, they had never attended dairydom's biggest event. So, I invited them to follow me around for a day and get a taste of the event.

Jo Anderson (left) and Lois Seymour have lived within a few miles of the Alliant Energy Center but attended Dairy Expo for the first time this year.

Of course, the cows came first. Although both women had lived on or visited dairy farms in the past, the sight of so many (over 2,000) animals in the New Holland Pavilions and the hosts of exhibitors and workers fitting, feeding and caring for them can be mind boggling.

The best

I explained these are the premier show animals from the U.S. and Canada. Yes, most actually live on dairy farms where milk is the main product produced. These animals, from young calves to aged cows, are competing in the show ring because they are beautiful, handsome and meet the confirmation standards established by each breed. They begin at county and state fairs and breed shows, culminating at World Dairy Expo where a Supreme Champion is selected.

At the moment, MilkSource Genetics in Kaukauna was the big winner at dairy shows across dairyland and Dairy Expo with the Supreme Champion this year (a Jersey) and a year ago (a Holstein).

MilkSource Genetics could be considered the Lombardi-era Packers or Mantle-era Yankees, but all of the hundreds of exhibitors competing against them are striving to “knock them off,” which of course will happen one day. It’s called competition, and that’s what made Dairy Expo in the first place, as it replaced the failed Food Exposition in 1970.

The Holstein show draws the biggest crowds.

The technology

The near 900 commercial exhibits in the huge Exhibition Hall, Arena, Colisium and parking lot draw the big crowds: actual dairy farmers (and their employees) seeking new technology they can use; suppliers looking at new and competitive products and services; former farmers wondering what’s what and what it does; wannabe farmers looking to the future; curious city folks; professionals in organizations and businesses dealing with dairy farmers; and, of course, the information seekers (like me) who tell others pieces and parts of the Dairy Expo story.

A small part of the New Holland Pavilion from above

Mark Bittrick, owner of Badgerland Agri-Systems Inc., Edgerton, took time to explain to my two guests what Dairy Expo was about to commercial exhibitors. “It’s where solutions to problems are offered to dairy farmers,” he said. “The newest and latest technology is presented, as are the old, tried and true systems with new uses.”

Bittrick and his company are much involved in the rather new efforts to handle manure in a public-satisfying and environmentally-safe manner through the use of Slurry Stores, water saving and manure-handling systems.

“The commercial companies at Dairy Expo are all competing for the same dairy farmer dollar,” Bittrick said. “This means they must have a good product that works, or the farmer won’t buy or buy again.

"Profit, labor-saving, production gains and success are why the farmer buys from us. Unlike government programs, we (ag companies) must succeed, or we are out of business."

North Dakota invites farmers to milk in their state.

Robots and more

My guests marveled at the BouMatic, GEA and DeLaval displays where robotic milking is the attraction for many.  The companies are installing robots about as fast as they can as dairy producers see robotics as the solution to the much discussed labor issue.  At the same time, milking parlor sales continue high as dairy farms expand across the land.

Interestingly, I visited two companies specializing in selling single-unit milkers — the kind we had on the farm when I was a kid.

“We sell to small farmers — there are still a lot of them around — and to big dairies for their hospital cows,”  Lil DeLoach of Tulsan America explained. “Then there are the exhibitors at dairy shows like this who want a portable milker.”

Tulsan America sells small milking units. The sales reps are from (left to right) Argentina, Turkey and Mexico.

What to do?

Note: in my four days at Dairy Expo, not one person (producer or supplier) brought up the subject of the low milk price. The several farmers I asked about the economics just shrugged their shoulders. One dairy farmer friend commented, “What can I do about it?”  Another responded, “It’s a bad situation, and our dairy industry must do something. But what and who will do it?”

Coming next year

My two women friends enjoyed our several-hour tour of Dairy Expo, which was not long enough to really get the full flavor of the event, but it's a start. “We didn’t watch the dairy show but are already planing to do that next year,” Seymour said. “We learned so much about things we didn’t know existed.”

True, neither one will buy much at Expo — maybe a cap or T-shirt or a cheese sandwich, but they will tell their family and friends about dairying and dairy farmers and raising food for consumers. And that’s a big plus for agriculture.

Meet me at "the Globe” is a common instruction.

Understanding and using

I asked several well-known dairy farmer friends how they understood the complicated technology they had been looking at.

“Maybe I don’t,” one said. “But this is one step in what could be a long learning process. I’ll talk with family members and key employees and do a lot of reading and research. If we decide the technology will work for us, we may buy it. It depends on the economic value — something we’ll have to noodle out.”

That's the way it works, now and 50 years ago. What happens in the next 50 years at Dairy Expo and in dairying is but a guess, but I do hope someone saves the photos so farmers of 2066 will know how dairying was back in 2016.

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