It was early afternoon and the big barns at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds were pretty much empty.
Many of the exhibitors were at the show ring watching the cow classes that had just begun at the Midwest National Spring Holstein Show and I was wandering though barns sort of looking for ideas that might make a good subject to write about.
The man wearing a red jacket, standing in a couple of cattle stalls with show equipment (brushes, clippers, a couple of coolers, chairs and what-all with a couple of farm posters hanging on the wall) and eating a big sandwich stopped me with the magic words: "Hi John, how about a grilled pork sandwich, they're pretty good, I grilled them myself?"
As often happens, I knew the face but couldn't remember his name so embarrassedly asked where we had met?
"I don't know that we have talked before," he said. "But I'm Rodney Bohnhoff and am part of an informal group of Holstein folks who stall together at this show and we are all infected with serious cases of 'Blue Ribbon Fever."
It took quite a while for me to get an understanding of the details of what Bohnhoff called "the crew" and I probably missed a lot but it's a sort of inside view of what goes on at a big dairy show.
Rodney Bohnhoff doesn't actually farm for a living, he hauls cattle for Troy's Transport, a well-known trucking firm owned by Troy and Sarah Wendorf at Ixonia that moves dairy cattle across the country.
He lives with his sister Yvonne Preder and her husband David on a small farm near Plymouth. Since 1998 they have exhibited Holsteins (both Black and Red and White) under the Scenic-Edge farm name.
Bohnhoff had worked on several major Holstein dairies in the past and refers to a great cow, Howard Home Redmarker Gina that they bought at the Great Northern in Fond du Lac as a heifer as their real start in the upper echelon of cattle breeding and showing.
"That was the best $1,300 we ever spent," Rodney says. "She's fourteen and a half years old now and has been a great brood cow."
Yvonne Preder, the premier showman in the crew is well known in the Holstein industry for her years working with Holstein USA and Semex. She is a full-time employee of Lyn-Vale Holsteins at Waldo where their Scenic-Edge animals are housed by the William Schultz family.
Bohnhoff calls Sara Feltman, his "right hand" at Scenic-Edge Holsteins and on the show circuit where she is part of the "set up" crew (along with Kevin Adamavich) arranging stall space and getting the animals settled.
Her real job is a technician assistant at a Plymouth small animal veterinary clinic.
Adam and Gina Adamavich are not dairy farmers; he is a machinist, she works for UPS but they are much involved in showing Holsteins for Spruce Lawn Farm that is owned by Glenn Ubbelohde, Gina's father.
"Showing is in my blood," Gina says. "And now our children are involved."
Also involved in what Bohnhoff refers to as "the crew" are Chris and Courtney Booth and their four children. Chris is a large animal veterinarian at Plymouth and Courtney is well known from her days as Alice in Dairyland and involvement in state agriculture.
Then there are Troy and Sarah Wendorf, Ixonia and their two young sons who are just getting started.
It is a rather flexible group who altogether brought 18 animals to the show and after talking to many of them, Bohnhoff's explanation that they all had "blue ribbon fever" was right on.
They also were having a lot of fun, which in addition to working with the cattle included what might be called an all day tailgate or outdoor picnic.
And, don't forget one of the big attractions to a dairy show - the people. "It's a gathering of friends you might not have seen for awhile and may not see again until World Dairy Expo," Bohnhoff says.
One of the things one will notice at a high level dairy show like the Midwest National Spring Show or at the smallest of county fairs is: You don't have to be a full-time dairy farmer to be involved in the dairy cattle raising, caring and showing business.
There were 185 animals entered in the Midwest National Spring Show and at day's end Judge Mark Rueth, Oxford, selected Milksource Goldwyn Africa as grand champion. The four-year-old cow is owned by Budjon Farm, Lomira and Peter Vail, Copake, NY.
Maybe it was the warmish sun weather or perhaps that most farmers have not yet ventured into the farm fields at full speed yet, in any case the bleachers were full in the show barn.
Judge Mark Rueth, a local Jefferson County boy who has risen to the top of the Holstein dairy circles as a showman, breeder and judge did a professional job placing the world class cattle that paraded before him.
Sometimes judging cattle owned and exhibited by friends and compatriots can be challenging. But, Rueth didn't flinch or bat an eye and could have been judging in Beijing. And, as an onlooker said; "He places them as he sees them on that day, at that time."
This event annually kicks off the show season in Wisconsin and soon there will be county fairs, breed shows, state fair and finally World Dairy Expo.
Over the years I've often been asked by city people the question: How can I or my family get involved in owning or working with a dairy calf or calves?
The answer is easy. Talk to a dairy farmer who is involved. Ask if they need help at the show or have a calf you might work with on a management basis. That's how many of the nation's top cattle show people got started. Your University Extension youth or dairy agent might point the way.
Or, if you want to own a dairy animal, attend one of the many dairy sales that are held across the state. You'll find any number of dairy experts that would be interested in having someone (like you) invest money with them to buy a promising animal that may grow up to be a great cow in the show ring or barn. That would get you involved very fast.
A suggestion. If you want to rub shoulders with top dairy breeders, drive to Orangeville, IL (south of Monroe just over the state line) on Saturday April 28th, for the Mil-R-Mor 50th Anniversary Sale of some 85 top-level dairy animals. Owners Bob and Kaye Miller are selling some of their extra animals and celebrating 50 years in dairying.
The sale starts at 11 a.m. Don't be bashful. Ask questions. Meet people. See the cows up close. And, above all, get a months worth of dairy education in a couple of hours. Try it, after all this is America's Dairyland.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.