Memories, insights and more from World Dairy Expo 51

John Oncken
Jeff Manning of GEA in California talks about the new rotary-robot milking system.

The commercial exhibits are gone from their visit to one of the five main exhibitor sites at the Alliant Energy Center where they were on display for World Dairy Expo visitors. Of course, many exhibits have fewer products — hopefully a lot fewer if visitors made intended purchases when they stopped by a week or so ago.

The company sales representatives who stood for long hours at their exhibit are probably taking a few days off — or wishing they could — after manning an exhibit for hours or maybe days. (Unless you’ve done it it’s hard to imagine how tiring it is to stand on concrete all day and maintain a happy attitude).

The judge forms his lineup in this class of 52  Holstein heifers.

Back home

The 2400 dairy cattle are back in their home barns, drinking their own water, enjoying their sand bedding and just being back on a regular schedule. Perhaps they're even enjoying getting their feet back on solid ground after many hours in a rocking trailer over sometimes rough roads —  especially if their home barn is in Quebec, California or Oklahoma. And, the hundreds of cattle sold at the various breed auctions are adjusting to new homes. 

I’ll bet even the barn crews, although mostly young and strong, are enjoying a slow day or days, maybe even skipping a day or two from high school or college. As always however, the fatigue will be gone in a few days but the memories will be forever and they are probably looking forward to WDE next year.

Fewer people

The five-day attendance was 68,710 according to World Dairy Expo officials, this is about 5,000 fewer people than last year's total of 74,572 and the lowest since the 68,006 of 2011.

As the number of dairy farmers decline yearly, so do the number of potential visitors and number of buyers. On the other hand, cow numbers remain the same (or higher) and needed supplies, products and services remain the same or even greater and for sure, ever more technical.

I spent parts of two days before and three days during World Dairy Expo wandering the dairy barns and exhibit areas, watching a bit of the cattle judging and, of course, talking with people.

Commercial exhibitors seemed to agree that dairy producers were not doing a lot of serious buying but rather doing a lot of looking. At what? At things that would make them money or save them money without needing to spend a lot of money.

Jill and Maggie Flack, 27 month old twins from Shannon, IL, take a nap after looking at cattle with their mother Kelly (right) and grandmother Sue Krause.


I noted a lot of concern among commercial exhibitors and farmers (big and small) over the number of Wisconsin dairies falling below 9,000. Most everyone sees this as a continuing trend and are sorry to see it happening but have no ideas as to how to stop (or slow) the loss of smaller farms.

“There is just not enough income in a 60 cow herd to pay the bills,” a dairyman who expanded said. “But, I think we’ll see a good many herds in the 500 cow range stay in and thrive.”

500 cows, not a lot

While 500 cows was unheard of a couple of decades ago, it’s not anymore. Readers of this column are familiar with my recent update of the Leedle family of Lake Geneva who installed 8 Lely robot milking units five years ago and are most pleased with the move as they now milk 480 cows with family labor.

While at Expo I stopped at the GEA exhibit and heard Jeff Manning, a district sales manager in California, discuss his company’s rotary-robot milking system — something we’ve heard about for several years. Remember - one was going to be installed in western Wisconsin a couple of years ago but the owners changed their minds.

The first in the U.S.

Manning mentioned that a 40 unit rotary-robot system was currently being installed in Wisconsin near Green Bay at the Hoffman dairy but didn’t have any details. After a few phone calls, I found Kent Hoffman, who with his brother, Irwin, operate their 580 cow, 1600 acre Hoffman Happy Holstein Dairy near Peshtigo in Marinette county.

Mike Connell (left) marketing manager at BouMatic talks with Dr. Schwayer a veterinarian and owner of a 270 cow herd in Germany.

“Yes, we are installing a 40-cow rotary-robotic system that is nearing completion,” Kent said. “This is the first one in the U.S. but there are two in Canada.“

He explained that the system will be located in a new building using the space that once held the old double 10 milking parlor space as the new holding area.

Kent also says that he and his brother are fourth generation farmers on this land and that the herd of 580 cows averages 34,800 pounds of milk.

“Why the robots,” I asked?  “It’s mainly an employee issue,” Kent said. “With robots we can milk the herd without hired help and that’s important.”

During my conversation with Manning, I asked about the price of such a system. “The price on GEA’s DairyProQ rotary parlor is about $70,000 per stall, he said. “Thus, a 40-unit system would come to about $2.8 million — labor costs over a five-year period would be low.

If you are not a farmer, price quotes in the millions of dollars might be shocking. But, think of labor costs, plus housing, insurance and management of an employee force — they are also big dollars over the long term. Times have changed.

It’s there

How do the owners feed their cattle, do they bring hay with them? Not an uncommon question from non-cattle show people attending World Dairy Expo. Most dairy exhibitors try to bring feed with them. Same for the shavings used for bedding. However feed and bedding is available on the grounds.

Joel Scholtz of Sauk City has been supplying hay, straw and shavings for over 20 years. “We usually sell about 150 large bales of grass hay per year; 1100 bales of shavings, 700 large and 1000 small bales of straw plus other feeds,” he says.

I first met and wrote about Joel back in the late 80’s when he was running a feed mill in Mazomanie that was later closed and remodeled into what has long been known as  “The Old Feed Mill” — a great supper club. He now works for Hayes Transport in Verona but comes back to World Dairy Expo every year to serve dairy exhibitors.

A big price

Annually for many years, The World Classic Holstein sale has been managed by Tom Morris, auctioneer and sale manager at Amery. Every year, the prices paid are among the highest in the dairy world. But this year all the previous high prices were demolished with the bid of $620,000 for a 3 month old bull calf with high genomic data.

Mr Frazzled Aristocrat-ET became the highest selling animal at any World Dairy Expo sale. This high genomic, young bull with a GTPI of +2921 and is the No.13 GTPI bull of the Holstein breed was purchased by Diamond Genetics of the Netherlands.

There was a time, not long ago, when milk and show records determined the value of breeding animals — it’s now all in the genomics (gene testing) that can be done at a very early age.

The 51st World Dairy Expo has come and gone but the memories and new friends made are in the minds of attendees everywhere. I wonder if  the cows remember, I think so.

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