I laughed to myself as I smacked a cow on the rump to get her movinginto the milking barn. Me, telling a 1,400-pound cow what to do. I used to be afraid of dogs.
No one in my family has spent as much time with cows as I did two weeks ago. They would've laughed, too, if they had seen me slogging through the barnyard wearing jeans, an old T-shirt and knee-high, green rubber boots.
The cows at the Fritz farm in New Windsor knew a stranger was in their barn. As they made their daily treks from barn to pasture and back again, many of them stopped to stare at me. Some even backed awaywhen I stared back. Cows are big, but not necessarily brave.
At the Fritzes, Dan shares the milking chores with his parents, George and Dorothy. Every day, twice a day, they go to the barn and milk. Every day, twice a day, they stick their faces down around 60 cows' bellies to get the milk out.
I watched the routine several times beforeI tried it. The Fritzes work efficiently, and I didn't want to slow them down. And I was worried about a cow stomping on my foot.
Witha little encouragement from Dorothy, I took a bucket of warm, soapy water, dunked a brown paper towel in it and slowly made my way to theside of one cow. Tentatively, I bent over and rubbed dirt off her teats. She shuffled her feet and swished her tail in my face. My technique wasn't up to her standards.
Cleaning, I found out, was the easy part. Before the automatic milkers can be hooked to the cow, each teat is "stripped," which means a little milk is pumped by hand. Dan showed me how to wrap my thumb and index finger around the teat and squeeze and pull down all at once. The cows, for the most part, were patient with me.
Milking is a relentless chore. George and Dorothy, both in their 70s, grew up on dairy farms. They've milked cows almostevery day of their adult lives; on frigid winter mornings, steamy summer afternoons and every kind of day in between. The work is routine, their stamina impressive.
After the cows are milked in the morning, they're guided across Old New Windsor Pike to spend the morning in a pasture eating and digesting. Just before lunch, they're led backacross, sometimes to the consternation of people driving by. Most drivers allow a lot of room, sometimes stopping several hundred feet upthe road at the cow crossing sign.
It was my favorite part of theday. Standing in the road, telling cows to keep walking and giving them a hard time when they didn't was fun.
But before the cows cross the road, they have to be persuaded to leave their comfortable pasture. To accomplish this, Dan rides a three-wheeler into the field andwhoops it up. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, but the cows eventually start ambling toward the gate.
The cows usually behave as theycross the road, although the Fritzes have some good stories about cows deciding to take a detour. If one animal gets off track, others usually follow. Once, the family had to call in neighbors to help blockthe road and round up the errant bovines.
Between chasing cows, harvesting crops, mixing feed and fixing tractors, farm life is tiring.
For me, the hardest part was getting up at 4:30 every morning.
I think a cow licking my face with its long, rough tongue would be the only thing that could force me out of bed that early.
The workwas hard on me physically because I wasn't used to it. Instead of doing interviews and sitting in front of a computer, I was breathing fresh air, tramping through barns and pestering cows. After the first day on the farm, I was in bed by 9 p.m., unable to move.
My arms and legs were sore, but my ears got a workout, too. All the machines make farm work noisy. The loud whirring of the vacuum pump on the milking machine echoed in my ears long after it was turned off.
Farm life also is full of strong odors. The overpowering smell of fermented rye practically knocked me over. I had to pull my shirt over my nose when I walked through the shed where Dan mixes the feed.
And, of course, there's the incredible amount of manure cows generate every day . . . But I'll spare you the details.
MING:A DAILY RITUAL
Reporter Kerry O'Rourke recently spent a week with the Fritzes of New Windsor. Today, a three-part look at the family's busy life.