A lonesome week at Dairy Expo

John Oncken
Instead of farm equipment and people in line for cheese sandwiches, the area  in front of the colisium and arena was empty.

Last week I went to the World Dairy Expo but of course it wasn’t there; it had been canceled way back in June for the first time since it all started some 54 years ago. But, I went to the Alliant Energy Center anyway just to take some photos of what I knew was there – nothing but vast empty parking lots, locked dark buildings and the lonesome cow statue staring onto emptiness.

Of course, Dairy Expo was canceled because of coronavirus concerns, resulting in major financial loses for many businesses in the Madison area. $25 million is the figure put out by Deb Archer, Destination Madison president and CEO. “It’s a dramatic economic loss,” she says. 

The pinnacle

World Dairy Expo was scheduled for the Alliant Energy Center from Sept. 28 until Oct. 3. This event, often referred to as the Super bowl of the dairy industry, brought together people from all corners of the world and the best dairy cattle from the US and Canada. “It’s the pinnacle of the dairy industry in terms of events and competitions,” Katie Schmitt, Dairy Expo Communications Manager said.

Miss Madison, the granite cow, sees nothing during World Dairy Expo week.

Not this year

The five-day event was expected to attract over 65,000 people from around the world,  but coronavirus concerns caused organizers to cancel. We realized there just wouldn’t be an opportunity to gather nearly 60,000 at the Alliant Energy Center this year,” Schmitt said. Organizers said due to the nature of the event, a virtual expo isn’t possible either.

“For an organization that solely does this event, it’s definitely a financial burden to deal with,” she said.

Will feel it

Destination Madison officials said the city will feel the pinch. She said the economic impact has a domino effect. “It’s not just the front line businesses that are impacted, it’s their suppliers and the money in the hands of people who work here and would spend money,” she said. 

What are the front-line businesses she refers to? Surely motels and restaurants are at the top of the list and they are not only in Madison but even those a good distance away. Gas stations didn’t see the cattle trucks and trailers refueling for travel while at Expo and for the trip home. Travelers always buy things (souvenirs) to take home with them – not this year.

Young exhibitors did not get a chance to show their cattle at Expo this year.

No job, no pay

No Expo means no pay for many people. Like those manning the entrance gates, parking cars and providing services around the grounds. Same for the many college students hired by cattle exhibitors to help with cattle preparation at home, feeding and milking during the trip for those with a long haul and working in the barns caring for the animals during the 6-7 days they would have been at Dairy Expo. Again, no pay.

Then there are the commercial exhibitors, many who depend on Dairy Expo as their premier show, tell and sell event. Dairy Expo, World Ag Expo at Tulare California and all the other ag-based events are also canceled this year meaning the marketing programs for many companies will have been changed.  

The commercial exhibits, normally a major attraction were not at Expo this year.  A major change for many.

Will they come back?

Although Dairy Expo will return in 2021 (if the world is in order), an interesting question is: “Will the commercial companies come back next year?"  The presumption is yes, the answer is no one really knows. Perhaps they will have found other ways to display and market. Over the years many such exhibitors have admitted to me that traveling long distances to Dairy Expo (and others), paying high booth fees and having sales people tied up for  long periods was not very profitable, but they did it mainly to support the dairy industry. I’m sure Dairy Expo management has thought about the question and is preparing good answers. 

Meeting friends, talking and eating were always highlights. None this year.

The dairy shows

What about the dairy shows? Again the thought is that they will return as normal. Probably so but years ago I suggested that the shows should be made more spectator friendly. Currently the Holstein show on Friday and Saturday draw the big crowds but even so most folks watch out of curiosity and wonderment not knowing the animals or the exhibitors.   

Why not introduce the animals – relating their heritage, show careers and ownership. Same for the lead people: who they are and what have they done in other shows and professionally? Why not tell about the accomplishments of the judges? Copy what pro sports have done so well – make heroes and promote them with drum rolls, flashbacks and loud promotion. And bigger checks for winning their classes.

Friday and Saturday are always the biggest dairy shows. the seats were empty this year.

Why touch the cattle show traditions of silence and secrecy? Because the cattle show scene has changed. No longer are show-winning cattle the mark for selecting animals for genetic progress; readily available genomic testing does that. Cattle showing is now done for glory, prestige and fun.

I nor anyone else knows what the future holds for life or for World Dairy Expo, but the empty grounds when Expo should have been running at full blast was a sorry sight indeed. Call it work, business, entertainment, information, a reunion, learning, listening  or just fun. Expo has been and will again become a part of all of Dairydoms good life.  Just wait. 

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at