In the cold, pre-dawn hours, what farmer crawling out of bed doesn't wish he could just press a button and have some electronic machine milk the cows?
As incredible as it may seem, that day may not be too far off.
Down on the farm, a new era of computer technology is beginning, including the robotic milker being tested at the University of Maryland's Agricultural Experiment Station near Clarksville.
"This is a prototype," Robert E. Bassler Jr., a farm official, said of the milking unit that looks more like the kind of machine found in a modern aluminum can manufacturing plant. "It's the only one in the United States."
While he noted that a lot of work needs to be done to perfect the equipment, Mr. Bassler sees the day when it may be possible for a farmer to milk a herd of Holsteins while out on the tractor taking a second cutting of hay.
Computer technology is beginning to change farming, just as it has changed retailing, accounting, publishing, manufacturing and other industries. And as rising costs and fluctuating prices squeeze profits, farmers are counting on computers to boost productivity.
Computers are being used to operate automatic livestock feeders, to provide grain and livestock farmers with up-to-the-minute market information. Farmers also can tap into an international network of agriculture experts to solve problems.
At the Char Mar Dairy, near Burkittsville in Frederick County, cows don't have names like Bossie, Daisy or Buttercup and they don't have bells hanging around their necks. The bells have been replaced by yellow transponders -- about the size and shape of the heels on men's shoes -- that identify each animal by a number.
The transponders are components of a $30,000 computer system that can trace a cow's history, provide up-to-the-minute information on its milk output and help automate the milking process.
Dwight Brandenburg, the farm's self-proclaimed computer whiz, punches a few keys on the computer in an office adjacent to the milking parlor and the screen fills with information about a cow. It can tell how many days it has been since she calved, or how much milk she gave that morning -- to within a tenth of a pound.
"This is important," Charles Brandenburg, Dwight's father and owner of the farm, said of the milk weight reading. "If production drops off you can pick up on it immediately. You know if she has a problem. She may be sick."
And if there's a health problem, such as mastitis, an udder infection, it's easy to handle. Just punch that information into the computer, and the next time the cow makes its way to the milker, the computer will set off a flashing light that reminds the farmer to set her milk aside.
Charles Brandenburg could keep such information in his head back in the 1940s when he started milking cows -- there were only 15 cows in the herd. Today, the Brandenburgs milk 650 Holsteins, and after awhile they pretty much look alike.
But the computer "sees" each one differently. As a cow moves into the milking parlor, an antenna in the doorway identifies it by its transponder and activates the electronic sensor at the milker where the cow will stop. The sensor tells the computer the cow's identification number and the amount of milk it gives.
Unlike the experimental milker being tested by the University of Maryland, workers at Char Mar Dairy must place the suction cups on the cow. But when the cow is finished, the milker automatically releases and draws back into position to await the next cow.
Andy Stone, who milks 180 cows at a farm outside of Boonsboro in Washington County, remembers when his dad would get up at 4 a.m. to feed and milk a much smaller herd. Today, Andy lets a computer do the feeding.
Each cow has a 3-by-6-inch plastic plate containing magnetic tapes hanging from a collar around its neck. As the cow moves into any of the eight feeder stalls and leans its head into the feed bowl, the plate swings forward and touches a computer tape on the feeder.
The computer tape reads the cow's identification number, and dispenses a portion of the animal's prescribed daily allocation into a feed trough.
"And the cows can't outsmart it," Mr. Stone said. It will pick up any attempt on the cow's part to move to another feeder in hopes of getting an extra helping.
Mr. Stone also uses a computer-operated feed mixer that automatically draws the right amount of haylage, cotton seed and corn silage from storage, mixes it and moves it via a conveyor belt to the automated feeder.
The new equipment doesn't come cheap. The computerized feeder costs about as much as two new pickup trucks. The mixer carried a price tag of $19,000. And Mr. Stone has another $50,000 invested in the computerized milking parlor.
He joked that he's still trying to figure out how to pay for the new technology. Turning serious, he said, "The computer can make the whole farm more profitable because it takes a lot of the guessing out of farming."