Wisconsin may be America’s Dairyland, but to many residents, the cows that are so much a part of the state’s identity are almost exotic animals.
That could help explain the enduring popularity of Cows on the Concourse, which took place for the 36th year Saturday on the state Capitol grounds, offering Cheeseheads of all ages an opportunity to get an up-close experience with the creatures responsible for a good part of the state’s image.
“This is a chance for us to bring cows right to the consumers and help remind them why we are America’s Dairyland,” said Andrea Bloom, chairwoman of the event. “Most people today are three or four generations removed from the farm, so they don’t have the opportunity to learn that stuff any other place.”
The annual event, which kicks off June Dairy Month, is designed to remind people of the dairy industry’s $43.4 billion impact on Wisconsin’s economy.
There were a number of displays and events, including a Dairyland Scavenger Hunt, a Big Cheese Zone cranking out grilled cheese sandwiches and an Ed’Moo’cation Zone designed to teach kids about the state’s rich dairy tradition.
But the main attraction, of course, was the cows.
Cows on one side of the Square came from several farms in Jefferson County, while cows on the other side were provided by the UW-Madison Department of Dairy Science.
They came in all sizes and a variety of breeds, from mature Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Red and White Holsteins and Milking Shorthorns to calves of the various breeds, including Hiccup, a 4-day-old male Holstein.
“It’s a great opportunity for people that aren’t on farms to be able to see them,” said Deb Messinger of Madison. “I know last year my granddaughter came down and that was the first time she was actually able to touch a cow.
“We’ve gone from something like 140,000 farms to fewer than 10,000 farms in Wisconsin now, but this is what Wisconsin is all about. No matter where you go in the United States, whenever Wisconsin comes up it’s always about the cheese. And maybe the brats after that … and then the Packers … but it always starts with the cheese.”
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Jennifer Bellehumeur of Madison brought her daughter Bridget, 9, to the Square so she would have a chance to get close to the cows.
“She likes animals,” Bellehumeur said. “I think they’re unusual for most of us who live in cities to see now, but I want people to know they are kind, gentle animals. They’re beautiful animals. I really love them.”
So does Bridget.
“I think they’re nice, cute and gentle,” she said after petting Tina, a 2½-year-old Brown Swiss. “I think most people just think of them as milk, beef and cheese, but other people think of them as real animals.”
Jessica Cederquist, herd administrator for UW-Madison, said part of her Cows on the Concourse mission was to remind people of the connection between the animals and the food they provide.
“I’m always surprised by the number of people I meet who don’t really think about where their food comes from,” Cederquist said. “They think their food comes from the grocery store, so this is a great opportunity for people to see this is where it starts.”
Cederquist, who joined the UW operation in March after managing a large dairy in Arizona, didn’t grow up on a farm. She said a lot of people asked if it was possible to still make a living in the dairy industry.
“I like to talk to the teenage kids that maybe haven’t been involved in dairy and let them know there are opportunities for them even if they don’t have the background,” she said. “You don’t have to grow up on a dairy to be successful in the dairy industry.”
For most people, however, this would likely be as close as they’ll get to a cow. They’ll have another chance to mingle with some bovines Saturday when the annual Dane County Breakfast on the Farm is held at Kick A Boo Farm, 7456 Kickaboo Road, Waunakee.
But for Cederquist it will be hard to top the outreach opportunity of Cows on the Concourse.
“Look at this,” she said. “We’re standing here by the Capitol building with cows, surrounded by thousands of people.
“You’ve got all these kids who have probably never seen a cow up close, so I think it’s a great event and a great opportunity for us to educate people about what we do.”