A long-time connection to World Dairy Expo (WDE) is a common thread linking many successful people in today’s dairy industry.
WDE has been part of Lisa Behnke’s life since she was nine years old. Behnke is the associate vice-president of marketing and communications at AgSource Cooperative Services. Her family’s dairy farm is in Green County, located about an hour south of Madison.
“When we were kids, my dad and mom (E.J. and Joyce) would bring my brother, Todd, and me here as a treat. We were always reading the dairy magazines and breed association publications at home," she says. “So when we got to Expo, it was like hanging out with movie stars because we had seen all these people and their cows in the magazines.”
One of the highlights of those early trips was getting to see Gene Acres Felicia May Fury, a high-profile Holstein cow owned by Allen Hetts at Crescent Beauty Farms in Fort Atkinson, Wis. “When the show was over, Dad took us to the barn to see Felicia May. She was lying down and my dad asked Mr. Hetts if he could get her up. He got her up for us and talked to us like we were the most important people at Expo," Behnke says. “I remember thinking that was really amazing.”
Her association with Expo continued through her high school years. Her FFA chapter participated in judging contests at the show and made annual field trips to Expo. In college, as a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s (UW) Badger Dairy Club, Behnke was involved in a variety of activities including flipping grilled cheese sandwiches at the club’s popular grilled cheese stand on the Expo grounds, serving as the club’s business manager and working the nightline in the barns.
Close ties to Expo have continued throughout Behnke’s professional career. Before signing on with AgSource, she completed stints as the Wisconsin’s Alice in Dairyland spokesperson, communications director of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, editor of the Cattle Connection, marketing associate for Gempler’s and marketing manager for WDE.
Each job has been involved with Expo. “It’s been fun with different employers to see how everybody in the ag business values this show as much as I do,” she says.
Behnke has remained connected to Expo on a personal level as well. The Behnkes’ daughters, Morgan and Taylor, have also participated in breed shows and youth showmanship events at Expo over the years. “It’s a real source of pride for my dad to have the kids and grandkids so involved because showing at Expo was a dream of his. History repeats itself.”
University of Illinois professor of dairy science emeritus Mike Hutjens says WDE played a big part in shaping his career. Hutjens first connected with Expo in the late 1960s while he was a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We were hired to come in and walk the barns at night,” he relates.
“We’d typically come in at about 10 p.m. and stay until about 6 a.m. the following morning," he says. "Primarily the job was to make sure the animals were fine and that nobody was messing with them. We’d watch for fires and pick up manure if we had time. We called it ‘walking the lines.’”
That first experience made a strong impression on Hutjens. “I was on the UW’s dairy judging team, and being here gave me the chance to see some very high-quality cattle,” he says. “They were amazing, and they’ve just continued getting better and better ever since.”
How the Expo grounds have changed over the years also stands out in Hutjens' memory. “The Coliseum was here, but a lot of the cattle were in tents, and the exhibitors were in tents," he says. "If it was the wrong day, it was pretty rough with the wind and the rain. If it rained, of course, water would run through the tents. So we had a flush system back in those days.”
After wrapping up his graduate studies in Madison, Hutjens spent eight years working as a dairy Extension specialist with the University of Minnesota, then moved back to the University of Illinois, where he spent the next 32 years. His association with WDE continued.
“In all that time, I missed maybe one or two years because there was a scheduling conflict with something that was going on campus,” he says.
From a professional standpoint, the real value of Expo, Hutjens says, is the connections that can be made at the show.
“I’ve had the chance to speak here five or six times as part of the seminars that they offer every year and that’s led to other opportunities to present information all over the country and internationally as well. Because of the connections I’ve made here, I’ve also been asked to write articles and do consulting work,” he says. “It’s all about networking. You don’t get to go any place or do anything unless you have an in and WDE has definitely given me that.”
While he’s officially retired now, Hutjens says he can’t imagine not making the trip to Madison for Expo each fall. “It’s just such a great show, mostly because you can see and do so many things all in one place," he says.
“You have the Virtual Farm Tours, the Trade Show, the Expo Seminars, the cattle shows and sales and more. If you have any kind of connection to the dairy business, this is where you want to be. It’s a must,” he adds.
Dairy producer Jeff King made his first trip to WDE as a member of the New York 4-H dairy cattle judging team in 1987. “We traveled with the team from Cornell University and drove from New York to Wisconsin. Along the way, we stopped and practiced judging. It was a whirlwind 10-day trip," King says.
Once he got to Expo, King was wide-eyed. “For me, it was like Disney World,” he says. “I’ve always been a cow fanatic. To see the caliber of cattle and so many of them all in one place, well, it just blew me away."
In 1992, King made a follow-up trip to Expo as a member of the Cornell University judging team. The following year, he made a quick trip back to support his girlfriend, Rebecca, who is now his wife, participate—and ultimately win—in the collegiate judging contest.
Expo dropped off King’s radar for the next several years. In the late 1990s, though, his interest was rekindled. “Our dairy farm had grown a little bit, and we’d become more involved in genetic marketing business," he says.
“So we came back out here. We realized that Expo provided a great opportunity to network and to meet people from around the world that were in the business," King explains. "Being here also allowed us to see the really elite animals in the business. It helped us set standards for ourselves and gave us something to strive for."
For the past 15 years, a trip to Expo has been an annual event for King, his family and his Kings' Ransom Farm. Along with selling embryos at various Expo cattle sales, the farm has also participated in cattle shows. Two years ago, King’s 14-year-old son, Jonathan, captured fourth place honors in the International Junior Holstein Show.
“The connections that we’ve made here over the years have been invaluable to our business on a variety of levels,” he says. “This is where the elite in the dairy business come. If you want to be part of those elite, you have to be here.”