Touring the silos and fields of a Howard County dairy farm at 20 mph in a wagon hauled by a farm tractor was fun.
But the Baltimore middle-school students were more interested in the cows they saw -- and the flies the stench attracted.
"They don't like to be washed," the tour guide explained at last week's Dairy Discovery Day at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center north of Clarksville. "Plus, they're hard to keep clean so we let the rain wash them off."
The outreach program, which drew 90 Baltimore students, marked the first time schoolchildren were brought to the 950-acre farm for an "organized hands-on learning experience," said Bob Bassler, the farm manager.
The University of Maryland-operated facility is one of 10 research farms in the state.
Thursday's program was modeled after "Kids Growing With Grain" at the university's grain research farm in Frederick County.
Students visit that farm to see what grain crops look like, how grain is used by humans and animals, and how it is made into bread, pasta and other food, Mr. Bassler said.
The idea is to introduce students to agricultural careers, as well as to science and technology, said Barbara Briscoe, a 4-H agent in Baltimore and one of the event's organizers.
The project is being spearheaded by the University of Maryland's Cooperative Extension Service and the service's 4-H agents in Baltimore City; the Maryland Education Center for Agriculture, Science and Technology in Baltimore; and the 38-year-old dairy research farm.
"If we introduce them while they are in middle school, they might want to take math and science classes while in high school," Ms. Briscoe said.
For four hours, students from Canton Middle School in Southeast Baltimore, Fallstaff Middle School in Northwest Baltimore and the Woodbourne Center, a Baltimore organization that serves children with behavioral and emotional problems, toured the dairy facility.
They saw how to milk a cow, how to operate milking machines and how a cow's digestive system turns grain into milk. They toured the milking parlor with its 2,000-gallon milk tanks. They learned why and how milk is pasteurized and homogenized.
"I bet those cows are hard to handle," said Norris Marks, 13, of Fallstaff Middle as a tour guide explained how cows are milked. "I think they are pretty big."
Besides seeing farm equipment and new farming technology, students also took a wagon tour of the buildings and the corn, soybean and alfalfa crops.
During a nutrition lecture, the students yelled out "osteoporosis" when Connie Pergerson, a home economics specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service, asked them what bone disease they could develop if they didn't consume plenty of dairy products.
"Remember, you need milk throughout your life," Ms. Pergerson said.
Petting and feeding the many cows on the farm seemed to excite the students more than other aspects of the visit.
Organizers seized the opportunity to demystify the animals.
"I thought the cows would bite us or try to attack us," said Krystal Black, 12, of Canton Middle, as she petted a brown and white cow in one of the stables. "Do they mind us touching them?"
"Not at all," Mr. Bassler said, but added that the students ought not startle any of the half-ton animals.
After evaluating the success of Dairy Discovery Day, organizers may schedule more in the spring and next fall, Mr. Bassler said.