GAITHERSBURG –How does a 13- year-old girl without a farm end up taking care of a cow at the Montgomery County Fair? An opportunity came for Addie Tallman when she paid $1 to milk a cow by hand at the fair three years ago. Then she saw a stack of flyers for a 4-H Club informational meeting on a nearby table and took one.
Later, Addie told her now 16-year-old sister named Emmie about milking the cow. They both attended the meeting and joined the 4-H Club in Sept. 2013.
Addie helped Christina Bennett, 12, care for her family’s cows on the week of the fair the following year.
“I got up every morning at like 6:30 and I helped out with feeding the cows,” said Addie. “So that’s how we became friends (with Christina).”
Eventually Addie and Emmie chose to lease cows from Christina’s family, including grandparents Debbie and Robert Malone, to learn how to show them and take care of them.
Addie and Emmie are now in their second year of showing cows before a group of judges at the County Fair. Their cows are Ruby and Caroline. Their friend Lexi Barillo, 13, will show her cow for the first time this year. She leases her cow named Crabgrass from John Fendrick of Rock Hill Orchard.
The three agreed they became friends with the cows for which they were responsible. Emmie said she developed a relationship with her cow.
“It’s really awesome to have a bond with an animal that’s so big; it’s like a friendship,” Emmie said. “You’re their best friend and they’re yours.”
Emmie said she made several human friends through the program as well.
Lexi compared taking care of a cow with having a dog.
“They lick you, they follow you,” Lexi said.
Addie took the comparison a step farther.
“They’re like giant deer — (to cross) a dog with a deer,” Addie said.
During the year leading up to the fair, Addie and Emmie visited the cows, now located on Fendrick’s property, a few days a week. The owners would feed them, and the cows would graze in a field and drink water from a nearby stream. When Emmie, Addie and Lexi visited the cows, they would practice putting them in a halter, or rope around its ears and face with a rope to lead with, and then walk with them, as they would in a showmanship competition in August.
Christina’s grandmother Debbie Malone said the cows need to be trained so a 4-H member can walk with them in the showmanship ring. The animals have to become used to being close to people.
“You just can’t see them pick a cow out, bring them to a cow ring and show them,” said Malone. “It’d be too unruly and it wouldn’t walk for you.”
Malone said her family originally bought cows so Christina’s mom and brothers and sisters could learn to show cows for their 4-H Club when they were children.
At the fair, Emmie, Addie and Lexi lay hay bedding in the cows’ stalls and give them food and water. They also practice walking the cows. They shovel the cows’ waste and put down fresh hay.
The girls said they teach the cows who’s in control.
“We have to teach them that we’re in charge and they’re not,” Emmie said. “If they don’t realize that, then someone could potentially get hurt.”
Cows might head-butt each other or bump a person.
“They’re more head-butting than bucking (as a horse would),” said Lexi.
If a cow seems upset, Lexi said 4-H members use their judgment whether to pet it to calm it down, or to back away a few steps.
“(You) step back, not so far that she’s going to run from you, but far enough that she’s going to have some space,” Lexi said.
The girls said they had to learn how to read the cows’ feelings through their body language, so they could respond accordingly. Emmie said a head-butting from a cow can be dangerous, depending on how the animal feels. Ruby nudged Caroline toward the side of the stall once or twice when a reporter was interviewing Emmie.
“Ruby, she’s getting all these ‘mommy hormones,’” the 16-year-old said.
Emmie said she knows her cow Ruby is “agitated” when Ruby jerks her head up or to the side. Emmie is able to tell when Ruby’s behavior is unusual because she knows the cow so well.
“She’s also pregnant, which factors into their mood,” Emmie said.
Emmie said another example of unusual behavior for her cow was showing interest in the baby cows. Emmie was walking Ruby when the cow saw two baby cows together. Ruby ran toward the babies, yanking the rope halter out of Emmie’s hand.
Addie said Ruby also head-butted the cow that Lexi cares for that day.
Lexi said her five-month-old cow Crabgrass is sometimes scared by people, other cows or by Crabgrass herself.
“My little cow will step on her own foot and freak out,” Lexi said.
Emmie said sometimes her cow does not cooperate, such as in the middle of a show, but she learned to work with the cow and not against it.
“We got into the ring for the first show,” said Emmie. “She stopped and wouldn’t move… (You) need to look your best and (be composed).”
Addie said putting a halter on her cow Caroline can be difficult if the cow does not want to wear it. She said if she can’t put a halter on Caroline, she might follow the cow into a corner or a ‘chute’ so the cow doesn’t walk away. She sometimes holds the halter out of the cow’s view until she puts it on the cow so the cow stays put.
Addie said as a result of helping with 4-H, a cow is now her favorite animal. Her friend Lexi feels the same.