May: There Aren't Enough Cows to Eat All the Grass


May 16, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace.-- When I was at college in New England, I used to get especially homesick in October and in May. These are the two best months in Maryland, it seemed to me, and I didn't like not being around for them.

Now, with the wisdom of age, I realize that while I was right about October I was dead wrong about May. If I had known what May was really like in these parts, I would have stopped mooning about it and enjoyed being where I was. In New England, May is manageable. Here it is maddening.

Among other things, May here reminds me of a golden retriever puppy, or perhaps a Yorkshire piglet. It starts out beguiling, rapidly becomes too much to handle, and pretty soon you're wondering why you ever wanted to get involved with it in the first place. In a few short weeks it goes from adorable to extremely tedious.

At the outset, a Maryland May is full of promises. These are quickly fulfilled -- buds turn to blossoms, birds pop out of eggs, and all that annual fecundity -- and as quickly forgotten. And then they are replaced by an endless and mostly unreasonable list of demands.

Cut the grass. Fix the machine that cuts the grass. Find the part to fix the machine that cuts the grass. Drive to Churchville to buy a replacement for the part to fix the machine that cuts the grass. On the way home with the replacement part, observe that the grass which was cut before the part broke is already just as high as the grass that hasn't been cut at all.

On a farm, not only is there grass around the house, but there's grass under the electric fences, grass in the pastures, and grass in the hayfields. All of it must be cut. In May, it is all demanding to be cut at exactly the same time.

But there are cows, I hear you reminding me. You keep writing about the cows. Why don't the cows eat the grass?

A good question indeed. Who said newspaper readers are dim? The answer is that the cows do eat the grass, by the ton. Their calves are learning to eat it too. But they can't eat it fast enough. It keeps exploding out of the ground all around them, reaching first to their knees, then their bellies. So do the buttercups, which make the fields look lovely and yellow but which the cows don't eat at all.

If we don't keep mowing those fields even as the cows eat, the buttercups and other tall weeds they don't like will soon smother out the bluegrass and wild white clover, which they do. So, strange but true, we're out there mowing grass now so that later this summer there will be grass for the cows to eat.

Well, um, if you had more cows, you wouldn't have to mow as much, right?

Right, but if we had enough cows to eat all the grass in May, we'd have far too many to feed through the summer. You'd think there would be a market solution to this -- that ranchers in Patagonia and New Zealand, say, would send us extra cattle in May, when their winter is beginning. But the margin of profit in keeping a cow for a year still isn't large enough to pay for an Auckland-to-Baltimore plane ticket for her.

In addition to mowing the pastures, those fields where the cows are, we also have to mow the high grass in those fields where they aren't. After we mow it and the sun dries it, it's called hay. It's what we feed the cows in the winter, at least until we can figure out how to get them to New Zealand.

We use a lot of different machines to cut and rake and bale the hay. Some of these machines have been sitting around since last fall. All of them require grease and attention if they are to function properly. In theory, this is all taken care of over the winter, but in practice there's always a lot of greasing and grunting and foul language in the first couple of weeks of May when the hay is ready and all the machines aren't.

The real trouble with May is that there is just too much to do and not enough time or help to do it with.

A lot of farmers wouldn't be able to make it through the year without part-time help. For example, a fellow who likes to hunt deer on the farm in the fall might come around and help unload some hay, or a neighbor who's been given enough hay and straw over the winter to keep a horse or a pony might put in a few hours on the mower.

Of course, all that's underground-economy stuff and highly illegal. It evades federal taxes which President Clinton needs to buy $500 trees for Seattle streets and otherwise stimulate the economy. And it evades state taxes, which Governor Schaefer needs to support our new light-rail line for its handful of riders.

If you hire someone, you're supposed to pay them by check, so that both you and they can be readily taxed. And if you sell stuff you produce, you're supposed to be paid for it the same way, for the same reason. In the unlikely event that any of you are doing the sort of bartering described hypothetically above, you should cease and desist immediately. And don't say I encouraged you in your criminal activity. In tax law, the madness of May is no excuse.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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