World Dairy Expo: Yes or no? And where?

John Oncken
In 1967 the new Veterans Coliseum held food displays, not cattle.

The 2020 version of World Dairy Expo was – as was most every public gathering everywhere – canceled due to the ramifications of the coronavirus. The expected 60,000 attendees at the show, if it had been held, stayed home as did the 2500 head of dairy cattle and the 800 commercial exhibitors with all their wares. 

There were few, if any complaints – after all, the pandemic and its accompanying quarantine pretty much brought the world to a stop and you, me, everyone wears masks and pretty much stays home, like it or not.

It’s now the second year of the pandemic but the schools are mostly still closed and the crowds at national sporting events are still limited in size and every sponsor of every event scheduled for 2021 is pondering the question: Should my event be held in 2021 or do we stay dark? 

A tough question

It’s a question also being pondered by the World Dairy Expo Board of Directors, who for many reasons, must make a decision rather soon. In early March, World Dairy Expo officials announced that they were looking at alternate sites for the event if health rules prevent it from being held in Dane County,  Shortly afterwards, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced a new ten-year contract with Dairy Expo with some financial concessions including no cost for two years aimed at lessening the expenses from the losses from last year.  Expo general manager Scott Bentley said a Board decision  would be made early this spring.   

When the National Dairy Cattle Congress at Waterloo, Iowa died Dairy Expo was born.

 It was in 1967

You probably don’t remember but It all began in 1967. The dates were September 15 - 24,  the location was the brand new and just-opened Dane County Memorial Coliseum and a new dairy event called the “World Food Exposition" was held for the first time.

High hopes

Expectations were high among the committee that had been planning this new event  that would be devoted to showcasing food and agriculture “from soil to table.”  The Board of Directors of the World Food and Agriculture Foundation had high hopes that big-name entertainment, cooking demonstrations, food displays and a two-day Central National Dairy show would draw visitors from afar and become a major attraction.  

It didn’t happen.  

The empty hallways in the Coliseum, the exhibits without visitors and the top flight entertainers playing to empty seats were the hallmarks of those early years. Meanwhile the Holstein show was drawing national interest.

RELATED: World Dairy Expo #53: a winner again

The board of directors also noticed and the rest is a happy history as the dairy industry got behind the event by coming up with money, more dairy cattle shows and sales, and in 1969 the name was changed to World Dairy Expo. 

The dairy cattle in the barns are a big attraction for Dairy Expo goers.

Everything dairy

In 1970, the demonstration kitchens, famous chefs and big name entertainers were replaced by everything dairy and for the first time, President Wilbur Renk told the board that if they looked for income sources in addition to admission fees, they could survive.

It was a move made at the right time and for the right reasons: The National Dairy show at Chicago had long since died; The Waterloo Dairy Cattle Congress was on its last legs as a national cattle show; dairy cattle breeders across the country were looking for a dairy show with national competition and impact and dairying was in an era of great expansion.

For many of the early years it seemed like Madison didn’t have much appreciation of World Dairy Expo. After all, a bunch of farmers in bib overalls with a few cows led around on a rope didn’t have much impact on a city noted for its University, Capitol  and intellectual prominence.

Will the health rules allow people to view exhibits?

Wrong.  A bit of research pointed out that the malls, department stores and supper clubs were doing a booming business during Expo week as visitors, especially people from overseas, bought and bought and bought some more. Local shoppers were complaining that the stores and eateries were full during Expo time and the locals couldn’t get in.  

And, perhaps more shocking, the motels were all filled during Expo week and visiting football fans found it hard to get rooms for UW-Madison games even though they were not drawing big crowds at the time. 

Was 2019 the last Dairy Expo until when?

Remember the dreamers

Most of those who will be attending this year’s Dairy Expo (?) will not remember those “dreamers”: Bev Craig (an Oscar Mayer livestock buyer), Wilbur Renk (Sun Prairie farmer), Duane Bowman (Madison dairy processor), Allan Hetts (Fort Atkinson dairyman), Les Helgeson, (Footville Harvestore dealer) and Norm Magnussen (Lake Mills Brown Swiss raiser) who co-signed a $30,000 personal note at The Bank of Sun Prairie to get the new event through its first year. (The note was never called.)

In short order, the UW-Madison College of Agriculture, Wisconsin Governors Warren Knowles and Pat Lucey got involved, as did the dairy cattle organizations and pretty much all of dairy agriculture. 

Dairy Expo is indeed a world wide event. If it is held in 2021, will they come from China as exhibitors,

Ever since, the event has centered on the purebred cow, dairy equipment and services and education. At the same time it has become Madison’s biggest attraction financially and people-wise. 

Now it’s 2021, over five decades later and World Dairy Expo has long since established its position as the crown jewel of the dairy world. The question remains: What is in store for Dairy Expo this year? The options are limited and the world as we knew it is no more. Only time will tell.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at