Maryland's dairy industry might be struggling to survive, but cow photography is booming in the farmlands of Carroll and Frederick counties.
Think of it as video dating for cows.
Images of bovine beauty are published in catalogs that farmers study to choose mating partners for their cows in hopes of breeding champion milk producers. A teaspoon of semen from a prize bull can go for several hundred dollars.
But transforming a heifer into a pinup model for milk isn't easy. Photographers often go to great lengths to capture a cow's best features on film.
Some use "platform shoes" to accentuate a cow's calves. Others spray white paint on Holsteins' markings to hide blemishes. And many glue a cow's teats shut with photo adhesive so they won't leak and ruin the photo.
"You've got to take the picture when the cow's got a full-to-bursting udder," said photographer Susan Kelly of Westminster. "You want to show how productive she is."
Reportedly, fewer than 50 photographers of cattle are at work worldwide, and three of them are based in Maryland.
That's a large number for a state that has lost nearly half its dairy farms in the past decade. Since 1988, more than 700 dairy farms have gone out of business, leaving 864 in the state today. Eighty-two have disappeared in the past year.
So, to earn a decent paycheck, Maryland's photographers of cows must travel around the world to dairy farms as far-flung as Port Austin, Mich., and Bogota, Colombia.
"When I was going at it full bore, I took about 1,000 photos a year," said Jack Remsberg, 71. The Middletown native grew up on a dairy farm in Frederick County and "fell into" cow photography more than four decades ago.
"I started out taking pictures for neighbors between milkings," Remsberg said. "It sort of grew from there by word of mouth."
In his heyday, Remsberg grossed about $70,000 a year. These days, he turns away more clients than he accepts, referring them to Kelly or Billy Heath of Westminster, another well-known photographer of cows.
"It's a very specialized profession," said Andrea York, spokeswoman for Holstein Association USA. "To do well at it, you have to be able to read a cow's mind, know what the animal is going to do and present that animal in the best possible light."
The association is the national breed registry for Holsteins, which account for 90 percent of the country's dairy cattle.
York said a prize bull can sire hundreds, even thousands, of cows -- if his offspring possess the right genetic traits.
What do farmers look for in a cow? Well, they seem to have a foot fetish.
"Cows these days spend so much time on concrete, their feet give out from the stress. So dairymen look for cows that have strong feet," said Gary Dell, 28, former president of Carroll
County's Holstein Association.
Every aspect of a cow's physique affects the animal's productivity and longevity, Dell said. An average cow is milked for about four years. A good one can be milked for 12.
"You look at the way the animal's udder is attached," Dell said. "You want to make sure it's smooth in front. You want to see strong ligaments and strong veins."
During a recent assignment, Kelly, 29, spent the better part of an hour preparing Deb the cow for her first professional modeling job. Deb and four other Holsteins at Cranberry Meadows -- a 500-acre Dell family farm in Westminster -- had been selected to promote their sire, a Wisconsin bull named Darkstar.
Deb's coat was washed and clipped, her udder shaved, and tail bleached with chlorine. Finally, a fine mist of white spray paint was applied to Deb's tail and markings -- transforming the 1,400-pound animal into a show cow.
"You ever see a supermodel put on makeup?" Kelly asked, as she teased Deb's tail with a brush. "It's the same thing."
But the long-standing practice has created controversy, especially overseas. "A lot of foreign farmers complain that they don't know what the animal really looks like because it's been made up," Kelly said.
Where do photographers of cows draw the line? Unlike their colleagues who photograph human models, Kelly won't airbrush her pictures.
Instead, she relies on time-tested tricks of the trade get the cows to strut their stuff.
A piece of fishing twine was attached to a metal pole and tied to Deb's tail to keep it straight, as four people stood beside her. On cue, the farmers persuaded Deb to put her best hoof forward.
"Move the right leg forward about an inch," Kelly told Dell. "Now Crystal, take two steps toward me," she shouted to Dell's wife. "OK, now, Dan, make a lot of noise and run up the hill."
Kelly's husband, Daniel Menendez, 33, was draped in black fishnet, waving his arms and barking like a dog to win the attention of the indifferent Deb.
"Woof, woof, woof," Menendez barked, stamping his feet.
His wife watched on a grassy knoll, hoping Deb would look alert long enough for her picture to be taken. But the coiffed cow paid Menendez no mind.
"We're going to have to use a calf," Kelly said, shaking her head.
Fantasia, a rare red Holstein calf, was led to the dandelion-covered field where Deb was modeling her swollen udder near a small pond.
The calf romped past Deb as Menendez banged on a bright blue barrel and wailed.
Deb's ears pointed forward, her expression alert.
Victory at last.
The shutter clicked.
On to the next challenge -- getting five cows together for a family photograph.
Deb stood by the pond as four of her sisters were prepared for their moment of fame. Three Holsteins made it to the field without incident, but the fourth was too rowdy to be trusted.
So Millie was sent back to the barn as the three "good" cows were strategically placed next to Deb. Everything seemed set to go.
But at the last minute, a slight hitch developed in the plan. Kelly rejected another model -- Leslie.
"She just doesn't look right," Kelly said. "She isn't as good-looking as the rest of them."
Being dairy just ain't easy in a business that treats cows as mere milk objects. Leslie was led slowly from the field.
As though her pride were wounded, she galloped away from Dell as he tried to hold her halter.
"Cows are not exactly gifted animals," Dell said. "Sometimes they're as stubborn as they are stupid."
Pub Date: 5/06/98