Rental cows give kids new lease on farm life

Training: With no cattle of their own, suburban 4-H'ers turn to farmers who lend them animals for fair contests and firsthand rural experiences.

July 30, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Patrick Thompson lives on a half-acre of land in Clarksville, which means he can't own a cow.

So he rents one.

Thompson, 17, regularly drives a half-hour to a dairy farm in Woodbine, where each summer a handful of 4-H members lease calves and heifers to show in contests - such as the Howard County Fair, which starts Saturday.

The arrangement is a boon to youths with rural hankerings who had the bad luck to be born in suburbia.

"I love dairy cows," said Thompson, who hopes to one day teach agriculture to high school students. "It's neat to see: You start with this baby calf, and in two years, you've got a cow producing milk."

Even the 4-H'ers living on 5 or 10 acres - enough for raising sheep, pigs or chickens - have found that leasing is the practical option if they want dairy cattle. The big animals do best on a sizable piece of land, and they require expensive milking equipment and feed.

"Unless you have a family already in it, it's hard to get into this business. It's too costly," said Kathy Patrick, whose family leases a few of their 400 dairy animals to children and teen-agers every summer.

Said Martin Hamilton, a Howard County 4-H extension educator: "Those days of having a family cow in the back yard are gone."

About 10 children are renting dairy cattle this year, most from the Patricks, who have farmed in Woodbine for four generations. The family has leased cattle for at least several decades, unofficially at first and later through 4-H.

Nowadays, a formal contract is signed by all parties entering into the short-term arrangement - youth, farmer and the county 4-H office.

In theory, the child pays a dollar for the privilege. But Kathy Patrick doesn't think the family has ever collected.

The 4-H'ers are responsible for training their animals to compete at fairs, and any prize money is theirs to keep. The Patricks, meanwhile, provide the space, food, care and cleaning.

It might seem a one-sided arrangement, but Kathy Patrick has no complaints.

"It's rewarding for us," she said. "I enjoy seeing the kids get enjoyment out of it."

Animal leasing as a 4-H program caught on about 10 years ago in Maryland counties with dairy operations, Hamilton said. Agriculture specialists wanted to give children a window into the day-in, day-out life of dairy farmers, a calling that fewer people are willing to heed.

"I came here 25 years ago and there were 50 dairy herds," Hamilton said. "And now there's about five. It becomes increasingly harder, especially with our land values, to stay in the dairy business."

But children take to the gentle, quiet animals. That's what Kathy Patrick has noticed, at least. Every year at the fair, kids oooh and ahhh over the cows.

Every year, without advertisement, 4-H'ers come to her to ask about leasing.

Brooke Hartner started in 1997. She's almost 12 now and is taking one of the Patricks' calves - a "cute one" with brown and white markings - to the fair.

She lives on 10 acres in Woodbine, enough room for sheep, pigs, a horse and a beef heifer. But not for dairy cattle. And she wanted dairy cattle.

"I just like cows," she said.

Thompson also started leasing about three summers ago. This year, he's taking a heifer named Star to the fair.

His aunt and uncle have a dairy farm near Hagerstown, but that's too far to go, so he travels to the Patricks' farm. He thinks leasing is a great idea.

"So many kids don't understand agriculture and the dairy business," he said. "I guess they're not introduced to it, especially in Howard County."

Last week, he took Star out for her show training, which means walking around in circles, him leading her by a leather halter. It's not arduous work if the cattle cooperate, but Star was in no mood for the drill that rainy morning.

She squinted her eyes, dug in her hooves, pulled her head back and made Thompson walk for the both of them.

"They're really stronger than most people think," he said, frowning with concentration and holding the halter tight. "C'mon, girl!"

A break for brushing greatly improved Star's performance. After a few more times around, he settled her into one of the barns, promising to come again before the fair. He supposes it's unusual to be a sort of foster parent to a heifer. But he's happy to have the responsibility for a few months.

"I try not to get attached to any of the animals, because I know I'm only going to have the animal so long," Thompson said. "It's something you get used to."

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