Behind the scenes of setting up for the big show

John Oncken
The cattle are transported to the show via semi and trailers.

During the 2019 edition of World Dairy Expo there were 1642 owners of dairy cattle exhibiting 2,331 head of cattle from 34 states and 7 Canadian provinces. They came for  the show to appear before the eyes of a judge for but a brief few minutes.

They traveled to Madison from close by and from far away and counting travel time, were away from their home barns for a minimum of seven days to as long as 13 days. For much of that time – for some – the cattle spent lots of time in a livestock truck or trailer under the watchful eyes of an accompanying crew.

And yes, there are planned stops to milk the cows, re-shuffle the bedding and feed and water. Be assured, the animals are well taken care of – watered, fed, bedded and very comfortable.  

Most cattle exhibitors lay ergonomic aisle matting. “It’s for our comfort,” a cattle caretaker says.  "We’re walking back and forth all the time.”

Building the display

Chances are the stall space at Dairy Expo is being prepared while animals are in transit so there is little waiting once the cattle arrive. The barn space has been measured out, baled straw and shavings a foot deep have been built making for a comfortable and dry space for the cattle.

The String

Seldom will a single animal or a small group of animals be housed alone in the Dairy Expo barns. Most often they will be part of a “string” of cattle overseen by the major exhibitor along with everyone helping along with perhaps a few hired employees who may be college students who came with the large group and a local employee or two.  

The cattle are in place with time to relax and acclimate to their temporary 'home'.

The common arrangement was probably formed before the cattle left home where the exhibitor with one or two animals will join with a bigger group of animals – a friend or neighbor – as a “tie in” and be hauled and cared for by the crew working with the big group. Arrangements as to feed, feeding and general care will will be worked out with the owner of the single animal providing help sometime during the show.

In the case of absentee owners, and there are a good many animals owned by several of even many owners, the regular crew along with any extra help continues through Dairy Expo.

After the cattle are comfortable the tent for 'people comfort' is put up.

Tents galore

The dairy barns, in addition to cattle, are home to tents of many sizes that serve as a place for equipment, food, chairs and maybe a bed for the cattle crew. Exhibitors must apply for these by early September and the cost runs from $300 to $5,000 depending on the number of cattle in the display and size of the tent. As one exhibitor told me “that’s my home for eight days, it’s where I eat, sit, sleep and live for nine days.

The cattle require constant attention to be kept clean and comfortable.

City folks do attend

Although technically a “public” event, World Dairy Expo actively avoids marketing to the general consumer market – this event is all about dairy farming. But, of course, many non-farmers make their way to the event mostly “to see the cows.” 

And, cattle exhibitors love to explain dairying from calves to traveling to Madison for the Dairy Expo. So if and when you go, look and ask questions but keep out of the way of those working with the cattle – it’s their job to keep the animals clean, comfortable and happy.

Clayton Arntz is one of six employees of Misty Meadow Dairy in Oregon that boasts 6,000 dairy cows. The dairy boards 100 show animals at Tulare, California. They brought 23 Jerseys to Dairy Expo.

More than 5 days

Dairy Expo runs five days but chances are most of the people exhibiting cattle and the commercial vendors have been there for several days earlier. It’s all about the show. Enjoy.

John Oncken can be reached at or 608-837-7406.