Inside World Dairy Expo: An experience for those who walk on two or four legs

by Hannah Majewski

The atmosphere in the barns is like no other. Everyone is there for the same reason: to see the best of the best compete on the colored shavings. World Dairy Expo is an experience that no exhibitor or spectator can forget. The barn aisles are filled to the brim with high-quality dairy cattle from all across the U.S. and Canada and a community of people who are infinitely passionate about this sector of the dairy industry.

WDE is the elite dairy cattle show; the animals that enter the show are top-notch. The animals’ genetics prioritize their looks first and not necessarily milk production. This may sound backward – they are dairy cows, after all. What this means specifically is that the cows are bred for traits like strong udder attachments, long, deep bodies and correct feet and legs. All of these will make them more productive cows throughout their lifetimes because they will be able to maintain their body systems for a longer time with these advantages. For example, strong udder attachments show that the cow’s udder is carried high above the ground, significantly decreasing the chances of mastitis. Milk production is of course considered, but production numbers often come second to how visually sound the cow looks. Many of these dairy farmers make their money from selling their genetics or their cattle to other breeders who want to improve their herds.

Wisconsin is considered the dairy capital of the U.S. The state has the second most number of dairy farms (only behind California), and many of the other Midwest states come shortly after in that list. The location makes sense for a show like this, but it’s certainly not an easy trip for many to make. Because live animals are being hauled, there is no time to stop and sleep. The exhibitors’ trips are continuous, sometimes switching off drivers and only stopping when it’s necessary. Rest stops are times to check on the cattle, give them feed and water and milk the cows. The trip takes a lot of energy for the breeders and the cattle, but they get plenty of time to settle in once they arrive in Madison.

There are many traditional aspects to the show, stemming from its start in 1967. One of the largest traditions is the colored shavings. The show committee picks a color and orders a truckload of colored shavings to spread around the show ring in the coliseum. For the 2021 WDE, the shavings were purple – they change every year. No other show does this, making it a trademark for WDE. When walking up and down the barns, banners hang from the ceiling of all the previous years’ Supreme Champions to showcase the progress in dairy cattle genetics. In the show ring, there are several traditional aspects as well. Before the Ayrshire Grand Champion is selected, bagpipes are played as a note to their origin in Scotland. The Brown Swiss cattle wear bells in the Grand Champion class and the exhibitors wear traditional Swiss blouses to celebrate their heritage from Switzerland.

There is more to WDE than just the cattle show. One of the neighboring buildings to the show ring is a trade show packed full of agricultural vendors. Their displays are over the top with robotic milking machine demonstrations, forage judging contests and more. New technology and innovative ways of dairy farming are always a theme during the trade show. Dairy farmers come from all around to see the hot new equipment to take their farm to another level. It’s also a time for networking and to build relationships with suppliers and meet other farmers who may be going through similar experiences on their operations. WDE also offers workshops for attendees. Many presenters are industry experts or researchers who discuss new ways of dairy cattle management. For a farmer, the trip is well worth it for the potential benefits that can be brought back to the farm.

Networking is also a theme in the barns. For many exhibitors, this is the one time a year when they get to see their fellow exhibitors and other breeders. Everyone is discussing their management and raising techniques, what genetics they’re excited to implement and who their predictions are to win the shows. It’s also a time for buying and trading animals.

WDE is a complete experience for everyone who attends. While some aspects may sound extreme, this is an event that creates progress and change in all sectors of the dairy cattle industry. Dairy farmers of all kinds take pride in their animals and this is one way the group can demonstrate it on a large-scale level. If you receive the opportunity to attend WDE, go! It’s impossible to come away from the event without feeling a new sense of hope for the next generation of dairy farmers.

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