Christmas began at Round Oak Farm exactly like the day before. At 5 a.m. the dogs barked at the darkness and the Holsteins hollered to be milked.

"You can't tell them it's a holiday and you can't tell the banker," said Ron Hope Jr., delivering a standard line worn smooth with use. "We've got to keep up with the Arabs."

The Hope family farm, a 1,500-acre beef and dairy cattle operation in the green and fertile hills of western Loudoun County, is not losing ground to either mortgage payments or foreign land speculators.

Besides productive fields of soybeans, corn and wheat, Ron Hope Sr. and his two sons have 300 head of prime Angus beef cattle and 120 Holstein milkers good for 700 gallons a day. They also own bragging rights on a legendary bull.

"By all standards of measure he was the best of the breed," said Ron Hope Sr. of Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, named by one national breeding magazine "the world's most sought after bull."

"He has daughters in all 50 states and probably 80 foreign countries," Hope said.

Yesterday, after the morning milking, the Hope family gathered for heaping portions of homemade apple sauce, blueberry pancakes, sausage and scrapple and celebrated the blessings wrought by good breeding.

"We always have our family Christmas meal at breakfast," said 37-year-old Donnie Hope, while his wife, Lindsay, brought second helpings to the Hope clan and his two children, Beecher, 12, and Laurie, 10, opened presents around the tree.

Since 1915, when C.R. Hope bought the farm and named it for the huge tree that still stands beside the spring house, the land has been a family affair.

What has changed over the years is the amount of machinery needed to keep abreast of agribusiness. When his father started farming, said Hope, it was without electricity. Now there is enough sophisticated equipment to stock a John Deere showroom.

"It all adds up to about the same," said Hope, pushing away from the breakfast table and toward the afternoon chores, which would include tending to a pregnant cow stuck in mud. "The work is easier but you have a lot more of it to do."

"There's a saying in farming," added Ron Jr. "You never really finish anything. You just quit."