Before being shown, cows get a grooming -- a shave and a tail fluffing.
There's nothing like the World Dairy Expo to remind you that Madison is less 78.13 square miles surrounded by reality than it is 78.13 square miles surrounded by dairy farms.
The massive Dairy Expo, held Oct. 1-5 at the Alliant Energy Center, is a big deal, attracting visitors from all over the world. There are other dairy trade shows, one exhibitor tells me, but none like this one for the sheer number of cows shown.
"If your cow wins the number-one cow here," shouts a tour guide leading a group of elementary students Tuesday morning, "that means you have the number-one cow in North America." And yet the Expo is under the radar for many Madison residents.
Dairy farmers come from all over Wisconsin as well. On Tuesday, every FFA (Future Farmers of America) teen in the state seems to be in attendance -- yellow school buses lined up in front of the Coliseum and packs of identically T-shirted boys and girls roaming the exhibits, stalls and food stands. And FFA students are in the tents learning to evaluate dairy cattle, rating examples of various breeds on a red scoring sheet. It looks like any standardized test, only this one has rankings for elements like "rump angle" and "udder cleft."
Fourth graders, from local schools like Elvehjem and West Middleton, are here too, on field trips; over 1300 fourth-graders are slated to take official tours on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Trade show exhibitors fill the outer ring of the Coliseum, the Exhibition Hall, the parking lot (new tractors these days are intimidating and look like something from The Empire Strikes Back), the Arena and more. Booths tout products that make it clear how complex the life of a modern dairy farmer can be: herd management software, profitability software, animal bedding (including cow waterbeds), feed, genetics, hoof health, breed-specific associations, temperature monitoring, rumen enhancers, udder comfort. A hot topic this year is robotic milking. Oh, and if you're looking to start or buy a dairy farm, states like Illinois, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri and Kansas would love to let you know they have dairy industries, too.
Charlene Martin came to the Expo from Florence, Oregon, selling sterling silver jewelry she and her husband make themselves -- pins, earrings and necklaces shaped like sheep, pigs, goats, horses and, of course, cows. Martin says that she will sell most of the product she brought, and almost certainly sell all the dairy jewelry. Other stands are selling cow-themed art -- in fact, you can find cow-themed everything. At the official gift shop, "Keep Calm and Dairy On" T-shirts are popular. Also available: "Poopoopaper," 100% recycled and odorless notepaper made from "cow poo."
The Badger Dairy Club cheese stand has the longest line -- its $2 grilled cheese sandwiches and $1 milkshakes are a key fundraiser for the UW-Madison ag group. Other food vendors include Dane County Pork Producers, the Wisconsin Cattlemen's Association, and Double S Barbecue of Cambridge.
In the center of the Coliseum, a steady line of cows are led in for judging in categories like "summer yearling heifer" and "winter yearling heifer not in milk." On Tuesday morning the ring is split between Holsteins and Ayrshires, in a competition somewhat like the Westminster dog show, only nobody makes the cows run. After the winners are announced, judges explain their picks, with reasons that might include a cow having a cleaner, crisper rump, "holding herself together nicely," being well balanced or having a good head carriage. Older, milk-producing cows are evaluated on more milk-producing-relevant traits. One is cited for "walking around the udder much nicer" than the second-place cow. Other rating criteria go right over my head, like "udder veinage."
Dairy cattle showing has its own traditions, such as the handler wearing all white, with accessories to match the cow (black belt and shoes for someone showing a Holstein; brown belt and shoes for someone showing an Ayrshire, for instance).
The Expo continues through Saturday; admission is $10, which includes parking. Trade show booths close by 5 p.m., but breed auctions start at 7 p.m. each evening, save for Saturday, when the Parade of Champions and the selection of the 2013 Supreme Champion begins at 5 p.m. You'll never see cleaner, better-looking cows.