Happy Cows

Happy Cows

For many a genuine article, that which makes it genuine is not always readily visible. It’s what goes on behind the scenes, at the early stages and often never really known by the end consumer, that determines the quality of the product. Every once in a while we get a peek behind the curtain, and it typically deepens our appreciation for something we might otherwise take for granted.

Now, a tour of the exhibition halls, livestock stalls and show ring at the World Dairy Expo doesn’t exactly qualify as a privileged glimpse at a well-kept secret—at best it’s a secret shared by roughly seventy thousand people each year—but for anyone who has wondered where that slice of cheese  they’re about to eat really comes from, the World Dairy Expo is a pretty good place to start. We paid our first visit (believe it or not) this past October, and we were blown away. 

We’ve always been a bit fascinated by trade shows. There’s something about the dynamic involved, the sharing of information and the depth of interest in a particular topic that really illustrates collaboration and a common goal. That collaborative spirit is palpable at the World Dairy Expo, although our guide, Expo General Manager Mark Clarke, suggested it is actually hardwired into the dairy industry in general, or more precisely the people who make up the dairy industry. Clarke said the eight hundred fifty or so companies from forty-five states exhibiting their wares at the Expo are competing hard for customers, but at the end of the day they are as likely as not to have a beer together and share information about the industry. The Expo isn’t so much about processing a credit card right then and there as it is about building relationships that will lead to a sale down the road.

The Expo itself is perhaps best understood in three components: equipment, cows and people. We mentioned the eight hundred fifty companies at this year’s Expo. Clarke says there’s a waiting list of two hundred more. They’re selling everything from feed to footwear. There was a mobile tablet app for keeping track of when your cows are in heat and a rotating milking station that looked like a merry-go-round for cows. When we asked Clarke if the cows liked it, he said the equipment had to be rigged for easy exit or they’d be inclined to just keep riding the thing around and around all day.

In fact let’s talk about happy cows. We’ve never seen such happy cows. The barn we walked through had some of the most beautiful animals we’ve ever seen, lying in spotless stalls, on immaculately clean hay, chewing their cud in what appeared to us very much like euphoria. One was getting her ears cleaned. Another was getting a trim by a bovine beautician. It looked like a cow spa.

Each breed has its charms. We were especially attracted to the Brown Swiss, the Weimaraner of the bovine world with their velvet coats. We were fascinated to learn the cows are shown with full udders to emphasize, well, whatever that’s supposed to emphasize. Then as soon as the show ends they’re whisked to the permanent on-site milking parlor. The cows come from nearly every state in the union and each province in Canada.

And then there are the people, roughly seventy thousand from about seventy-two countries. Young and old, some with kids, some hand in hand, families, business partners, you name it. They visit the exhibitors, walk the barns and watch the competitions. They stand in line for half an hour or more for grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes made by UW’s Badger Dairy Club, which sells many hundreds of both items each day. Many people at the Expo are annual attendees who wouldn’t miss this opportunity to share, learn and focus on how to do what they do better.

We’re all conversant in license plate lingo—Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland. One visit to the World Dairy Expo and you really understand just what that means.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.
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