Two lonely beams of light break the 4 a.m. mist clinging low to the fields. From the darkness come the occasional moos of unseen cows as John Mike Myers and his farmhand, Larry Horman, slap the 1,500-pound animals on their ample posteriors.
They're guiding the cows first to their feeding trough and then down a narrow path into the milking parlor. Most of the animals know the routine and follow the flashlights without prodding, but some cluelessly spin off in semicircles and require a nudge or a guiding arm around the neck.
Milkings, the focal point of any dairy operation, happen twice a day, 12 hours apart on most farms. Myers milks at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m., timing that allows him to spend evenings with his three daughters and get to bed in time for five or six hours of sleep.
Every day, he wakes up about 3:30 a.m., pulls on his rubber work boots and quietly exits through the screen door of his 185-year-old weathered brick farmhouse near Union Bridge in northern Carroll County.
He walks maybe 50 paces down a slight hill, revs up his tractor and drives the day's feed to the combine that will mix it and push it into the troughs where the cows eat. As he gets the combine going, little lights twinkle on the horizon, dotted with neighboring farmhouses. Only the cows with their moos and the birds with their constant songs make any sound.
Thousands of dairy farmers in Maryland and across the nation begin work in the predawn darkness while most of us sleep. The routine of milking cows rules their lives - if they miss even a few sessions with their cows, the bottom line for the year can dip and the cows can be harmed.
That means no days off, no free weekends and only a couple of vacation days a year - if they're lucky. Myers and his wife, Sue, took a six-day trip to Denver nine years ago, but that's the longest trip they've had since they started their farm in 1985. The Myerses typify the committed.
But demands on time and the industry's stagnant prices are driving others from farming. Some can't find heirs willing to continue the work their families have done for generations. The new generation can find more money for less toil in the cities and suburbs. Maryland has lost more than one-third of its dairy farms during the last 10 years, about average for the nation. Carroll had about 140 dairy farms 10 years ago; now it has about 100.
The economic climate is irrevocably changing counties like Carroll, where small farms define daily life, said Bruce Gardner, an agricultural economist at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"The jury is still out on where the nation's dairy economy is going," he said. "But the current trends are definitely hurting states like Maryland, where family farming is such a way of life. It's a real loss to the Maryland economy, if not the national economy."
Despite rapid increases in the cost of production, milk prices have hardly risen during the past 30 years. American farms have no trouble meeting the nation's demand for dairy products, so buyers have no reason to pay higher prices.
For all those who leave dairy farming, however, many, like the Myers family, say they lead successful and contented lives. For them, the benefits of farming - the tradition, the tight-knit, safe community, the independence and the natural beauty - outweigh the drawbacks.
The Myers family, who milk 71 cows on 142 rented acres, and their ancestors have farmed in the same 20-mile radius for more than a century, and they know all their farming neighbors. Their deep faith allows them peace, they said, even when milk prices plunge or they can't find enough hired help.
"I know this is where the Lord has me right now, and that's how I have a peace about it. You have to like it. I'm not some weirdo. There are plenty of mornings when I don't feel like getting out of bed at 3:30," Myers said.
"But then I see the girls come off the bus down the lane, and they're safe and they love it. It's a great place to raise a family and a great place to serve the Lord. I have to trust him."
On a recent morning at about 5, as the mist from the fields meets the first rays of hot summer sun, the world around the farm turns a gorgeous shade of periwinkle blue. Sue Myers usually sleeps past dawn, but occasionally, she said, she gets up for morning milking to remind herself how peaceful the farm can be before daybreak.
Cows enter one end of the milking parlor in shifts of 36. Most duck their large heads into metal milking harnesses on their own.
Myers checks each cow's milk to make sure it's not too watery or too thick, and dabs each udder with reddish iodine to kill bacteria.
He then attaches a milking device with a thwump. The device throbs with a clup, clup, clup as milk flows through a clear tube and into a 1,000-gallon milk drum in the next room. Myers owns six of these milking devices, which take about six minutes to drain each cow.