NEW WINDSOR — The sky is black, the air is cool, and Daniel Fritz's house is dark. He hits the snooze button on his alarm clock, postponing for a few minutes the long day ahead.
He dresses without a light, pulls on heavy, black rubber boots and heads to the barn at 4:30 a.m.
The cows are waiting. They've been up for hours.
The day's first milking is about to begin. Dan and his parents, who have come from their house up the road, will work for the next hour and a half to milk 60 cows. In late afternoon, they'll do it again.
George and Dorothy Fritz, both in their 70s, own the 150-acre farm at Old New Windsor Pike and Wakefield Valley Road. Dan, the third of four children, gradually is taking over the operation.
By 4:30 a.m., Dorothy is feeding four young calves. She'll have to coax the youngest, born a week earlier, to drink raw milk from an oversized baby bottle.
Slight with deep blue eyes, Dorothy, 76, has lived most of her life on a dairy farm. She grew up on one outside Union Bridge, met and married George while in her 20s and gave birth to her first three children in the farmhouse where Dan and his family live now.
For the barn work, Dorothy wears a red bandanna wrapped tightly around her brown hair, a thin housedress covered with an apron and calf-high rubber boots. When morning chores are done, she and George go home for breakfast and a short respite. She rests her head on her hands at the kitchen table.
In the barn before dawn, the warm air is thick with the smell of manure and the sweetness of hay. Later in the day, the sun will have warmed the air outside, and the barn will be a cool haven for the cows for the 10 minutes or so each is being milked.
The Fritzes raise black-and-white Holsteins, the most productive of the dairy breeds. The cows are milked by machine, but must be prepped by hand.
On the early watch, Dan, George and Dorothy don't talk much. The work is routine. Every so often, Dan smacks a slow-moving cow on the rump and tells her to "get going." George teases the barn cats that chase flies while waiting for a bowl of raw milk.
George, 72, is a sturdy, grandfatherly type with glasses, wavy hair and eyes a bit lighter than his wife's. His father milked a herd of 20 cows by hand until about 1920 when he bought automatic milkers. He's done at least 38,000 milkings. Even on frigid mornings, he and his wife are in the barn: Cows don't take a day -- or a morning -- off.
"We just do it," George said. "It's all we know."
Ten cows at a time are ushered into restraining bars in the milking barn, which has a low ceiling and is lighted by seven bare bulbs.
Dan and George dip paper towels in buckets of warm, soapy water to wash each cow's teats. Before the automatic milkers can be attached, a few squirts must be pumped by hand. Danwraps his thumb and index finger around each teat, pulls down and squeezes in one motion, releasing a thin stream of warm milk.
Four rubber suction cups simulate the sucking of her calf. Milk is pumped into a 700-gallon tank in a small, adjacent room. The dairy cooperative that buys the Fritzes' milk empties the tank daily. Each of the 60 cows produces about 7 gallons of milk a day.
The cows weigh about 1,400 pounds each; Dan knows them all by name and personality. Sesameis slow and usually the last one out of the pasture. Chris is curious and will stop to look at visitors.
Dan can tell when a cow isn'twell and may go to a medicine cabinet in the barn for a giant-size aspirin. When a cow is sick or about to give birth, Dan worries, said his wife, Sharon.
He grew up on the farm. He earned a bachelor's degree in dairy science at the University of Maryland at College Park in 1970. He worked as a management trainee for Agway Inc., an agricultural feed, supply and service company, but only stayed six months. Cows didn't try his patience as much as the public did, he said.
Hereturned to work with his father.
"You're your own boss. You can set your own schedule and do things the way you want to within the limits of the weather and other things. Except the milking. That has tobe done twice a day no matter what," Dan said.
"He wouldn't be happy anyplace else," Sharon said. "Something as demanding as a dairy operation has to be in your blood."
At 43, Dan has decided to stickwith dairy farming, at least until his children, Jeffrey, 13, and Jessica, 12, are on their own. After that, the decision may not be up to him. Part of their land is zoned for industrial use, and the farm across the street is up for sale. Taxes and tighter regulations -- theeffects of development -- could force him out, he said.
Last spring, the family placed their land in the county's five-year preservation program, which protects farms from development.
Dan works efficiently. By 6:30 a.m., the cows have been milked and have walked across Old New Windsor Pike to spend the morning eating and re-eating, or chewing their cud.