Cattle, commercial exhibits and crowds at World Dairy Expo

John Oncken
The landmark globe has changed its colors after a year off. And although the Badger Dairy Club has relocated its cheese sandwich tent, long lines indicate it was still easy to find.

It’s been a long time, but not so long as to preclude many folks who attended the first one in 1967 to still be around for the 54th year of World Dairy Expo. I’m one of those because as a young TV farm director at WFRV-TV in Green Bay, my interest was ag news. 

As I remember, there were big displays of cheese and other dairy and food products along with seminars and famous chefs. Then there was the big time evening entertainment.

A family from Minnesota wearing A2 T-shirts was easy to spot.

No one came

The only problem, very few people showed up for any of the attractions. At the time I (and the show officials) were wondering why the crowds didn’t come. In retrospect I’ve concluded: City consumers seldom came to events perceived as farm shows and most city consumers worked during the day and probably didn’t take vacation to come to a food show; Farm folks didn’t come because they already knew all about food – after all, they raised the food in the first place;  And finally, the event was probably ahead of its time – until fairly recently people didn’t much care where food came from or who raised it (unlike today). Besides, they probably had a family member on a farm and visited them regularly, so already  knew a lot about food.   

Food out, cows in

Whatever the reason, the World Food Expo died after a few years but through the efforts of a devoted group of agricultural folks (farmers and business people) the new and different World Dairy Expo featuring dairy cows came to be. 

It seemed to me the crowds were bigger at the cattle judging this year. This was the Guernsey cattle judging on Thursday.

World Dairy Expo is indeed about dairy cattle. Over 2,300 individual animals spent over a week encamped in their temporary home in the New Holland Pavilion at the Alliant Energy Center in the township of Madison. They were pampered by their owners, competed in the show ring in the Dane County Coliseum and were petted and ooed and aahed over by city folks who find this once-a-year event an opportunity to get up close to a cow.

The cows

I often wonder what the animals think as they travel far from their home barns, spend many hours on a truck, drink different water and are washed, clipped, brushed and shined to a gleaming finish over about a nine-day period.  

Sale animals being fitterd for the Friday night Classic Sale.

Although they say nothing and never change expression, their owners sort of agree – as do I – that they enjoy the whole process, especially when they see (and feel) their cow or heifer perk up her ears and strut proudly into the show ring.  The answer is one of those mysteries of life perhaps best understood by the person (professional or beginner) at the halter. You must see it to understand.

Not for two years

There hasn’t been a Dairy Expo since 2019 because of the pandemic so one might look at 2021 as the ‘‘comeback year" – a year with many questions. Would the dairy cattle return to the show ring? Would the commercial vendors again fill the several exhibition spaces? The farmer visitors come to to look, see and learn? 

Cheryl Mohn, owner and creator of Udder Tech had her big exhibit in the lobby of the Exhibit Hall far from the small corner booth she began with a couple decades ago.

It seems at this early date that the answers to each is “yes” with some modifications. The cattle were most certainly there in full force – obviously they were eagerly waiting for the big show. The commercial vendor numbers were down a bit but most reclaimed their spaces with some switching because of the newly added Exhibit Space tent erected in part of the outdoor exhibit area. Although the crowd was smaller, several commercial exhibitors told me that was probably due to Covid concerns  which was not unexpected. 

Talking is a major part of the learning process that Dairy Expo offers.

A great return

All in all, it appears that Dairy Expo made a glorious comeback after a year off but as a group of exhibitors at a major booth told me: “Next year - if the pandemic is gone - will give us a better idea of the future of Dairy Expo. There a fewer farmers every day and social media is getting stronger in the marketing phase of dairy agriculture. But our company will keep coming in support of our dairy customers.”

It was a good year at World Dairy Expo and I’m guessing next year will be even better.

Thanks to Katie Schmitt, who in addition to being World Dairy Expo Communications Manager chauffeured a lame journalist (me) from the parking lot to the Exhibition Hall.

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