At the Wye plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the department of agriculture of the University of Maryland raises beautiful Black Angus cattle with all the latest equipment and best techniques. It produces bullocks and breeding heifers, but serves as a model for Maryland's 'cow-calf operations' that produce beef for the table rather than milk. Corrals, chutes, catch-pens all seem brand new because they are so perfectly maintained, with everything neat, clean and freshly painted. The results are impressive: 90 per cent of the Wye cows produce a calf each year, and steers are ready for sale by their 18th month, at impressive weights. I went there to find out how my family's primitive Bolivian ranch might be improved - only 60 per cent of our cows give birth in any one year, and our steers grow so slowly that we must keep them for 30 months to achieve worthwhile weights for the market. Cattle are capital, and were indeed its very first embodiment, yielding their offspring as interest. The higher the birth rate, the higher the rate of return, if costs are equal. And time is money with cattle as with any other form of capital: a steer sold at 30 months earns less net revenue than one sold after 18 months at equal weights, prices and costs - just how much less depends on the interest cost of waiting, which exceeds 12 per cent per annum in Bolivia. All in all, the Maryland numbers showed that there was much to be improved on our ranch.
LRB 8 February 2001 | PDF Download