The Thankless Lives of Presidents and Bulls

January 29, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — [What follows deals with certain biological realities, and is intended for mature audiences only. You might not want to let your children or teen-agers read it.]

Havre de Grace. -- Last April 4, when we let the big bull out of the yard where he'd spent the winter and turned him in with the cows, he didn't waste much time. Within minutes, he'd bred one cow and was wandering off to see who else was feeling friendly.

I found myself thinking about the bull while listening to President Clinton's State of the Union address the other night, but that's getting ahead of myself. First, more bovine news.

We like our cows to calve in the winter. The cold weather is generally healthier, and when the grass starts to grow in mid-spring the winter calves are old enough to take advantage of it right away. We also like the calves to come as close together as possible, so that they'll be a uniform size when we sell them. This places a lot of responsibility on the bull.

Even though he was coming off a very hard winter last year, this particular bull did especially well. When he bred that first cow I checked to see which one it was, and wrote down her ear-tag number -- it was 70 -- in my notebook. So I wasn't surprised when, early on the morning of this past Friday the 13th, I found that 70 had produced the first calf of 1995.

It was a bouncy little heifer, already so spry that I couldn't catch it right away to put in its ear tag. And it was followed in the next two weeks by eight more calves. As last year we didn't have the first calf until January 27, I felt we were off to an especially good start. The bull had plainly done what he'd been hired to do.

Over the years, we've had a lot of bulls, and naturally some were better than others. One seemed to like to work at night. I never saw him near a cow, which made me very nervous, but by fall every cow in the field with him was pregnant.

Some bulls are bad-tempered, and while this isn't a desirable quality, it's one I can put up with as long as the cows conceive and the calves are good-looking. Other bulls are inefficient; they get the job done, but take forever to do it, and then we end up with the last cows giving birth perhaps three months after the first ones. And occasionally, worst of all, a bull just doesn't perform.

If that happens there's usually a reason, such as an injury, but it's still a disaster if we don't notice it in time to change bulls. There's no money to be made from an empty cow; you can sell her for slaughter, but then you have to buy or raise a replacement.

In theory, we could operate our herd without a bull. Dairy farms artificially inseminate their cows, and some beef operations do too. But that gets to be pretty labor-intensive. Cows have to be in season to conceive, and I've yet to meet the farmer or traveling semen salesman who can tell a cow's receptivity as accurately as a bull.

A president, like a bull, has a job that has certain satisfactions, but a lot of responsibility. If the president doesn't do what he's supposed to do, then things don't go along as they should, and people get unhappy.

In a lot of ways, we ask too much of both presidents and bulls. We want presidents to reduce taxes and spending while increasing government benefits. We want bulls to impregnate all the cows in the herd on the same day. These are unreasonable expectations.

We also blame presidents and bulls for setbacks that aren't necessarily their fault. If a president gets bad advice from his staff, or is outmaneuvered by Congress, he's the one we hold accountable. And if a cow never comes into season, or is for some reason infertile, the bull is still likely to be blamed if she doesn't have a calf.

We don't like it when either presidents or bulls get in our faces. We want them to go about the job for which we hired them efficiently and discreetly, out of sight as much as possible. For except to those with unconventional tastes, watching them at work isn't especially appealing. It can even be a little grotesque.

The best presidents and bulls complete their terms and go away. We don't want them around forever. A president's terms are wisely limited by the Constitution, and you don't want to keep even a good bull around so long that he might start breeding replacement heifers who happen to be his daughters.

Those presidents and bulls which lived up to our expectations, however, we often remember warmly after they've gone. Presidents can even be welcomed back from their libraries or world peacemaking tours for occasional visits. Not bulls, though. The father of our '95 calves left the farm for good last summer. He's history -- and hamburger.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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