Are twins a double blessing or a double curse?

Feb 7, 2014
by WLJ

Twins. Reactions to this situation are often mixed in the beef industry. Two for the price of one, or is that truly the case? One thing producers should understand about twin calves is that preparation is key, beginning long before the calving season starts.

Three decades of valuable information regarding multiple births in beef cattle was gathered from the Twinner herd at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (US- MARC), Clay Center, NE. Gordon Hays, Cattle Breeding Specialist at USMARC, managed the center’s twinning herd until they dispersed it in 2011.

Hays said that ultrasound performed between 35-65 days after breeding can determine if multiple fetuses are present. From there, producers can make management decisions to better care for the cows that are carrying twins.

Dr. Jill Colloton, owner of Bovine Services, LLC, Edgar, WI, said that after 90 days the fetuses are often too far over the pelvic brim to

reach with ultrasound so producers should schedule the ultrasound accordingly.

Care required

“Twin pregnancies have a higher risk of loss throughout gestation,” Colloton said, “especially if both fetuses are in the same uterine horn.”

Cows carrying twins should be monitored closely for abortion and rechecked mid-gestation if possible, she said.

During the last trimester, the cows at USMARC that were expecting multiple births were separated from the rest of the herd. They received a higher density, higher energy ration during the last trimester and postcalving.

Feeding supplemental concentrates to cows carrying twins can be helpful during the last trimester. This is because the cows will need more energy intake but have less room in their rumens for large volumes of feed, according to Colloton.

Hays also encouraged producers to increase observation time during calving.

The research herd was treated just like many cattlemen treat first-calf heifers.

“We were much more likely to assist with multiple births,” Hays said. “Around 40 percent of the births of multiples were assisted. The reason for assistance was almost always abnormal positions.”

Hays pointed out that raising twins is fairly labor intensive in most situations. Cows have unique feed requirements and are more likely to calve earlier than the rest of the herd and that can catch producers off guard.

“Cows carrying twins often calve 10-14 days earlier,” Colloton said. “Producers should monitor cows with twins closely beginning at least two weeks before the due date.”

Other post-calving difficulties include retained placenta. As gestation shortens, the occurrence of retained placenta goes up, Hays said.

The USMARC research herd had good success with cows claiming their calves. Cows were penned in a small area to make sure they claimed both calves and that each calf was nursing. They kept the cow and calves in the pen for 28-72 hours after birth.

“Bonding took very well,” Hays said. “It was necessary to make sure that the calf was hooked to the cow.”

Carrying twins puts more stress on the cow compared to a single birth. Postpartum interval is often longer and conception rates were lower due to that added stress, said Hays.

Mark Thallman, Research Geneticist with USMARC, estimates twins to occur 1-2 percent of the time in British-influenced cows. Continental breeds developed as dual purpose (dairy and beef) have a slightly higher (3-4 percent) incidence of twins.

At those rates, seeing multiple sets of twins from the same cow would be uncommon, Thallman said.

Of the cattle that carry twins, the majority of those are fraternal twins originating from two separate eggs.

Only 0.25 percent are identical twins, Thallman said.

A double blessing

When you’re not expecting them, twins could be considered a double curse, but when everything works out right, it’s a double blessing, Thallman said.

Twin calves can be seen as an opportunity when another cow has recently lost her calf and the cow can foster one of the twins. This allows the cow to stay in production and gives the calf the opportunity to grow without the competition from its twin.

A dead calf is never seen as a good thing but in reality, it can aid in the adoption of another calf to the dead calf’s mother. Grafting, or skinning a dead calf and placing the hide on the newborn twin calf, helps the foster dam recognize the scent from its biological calf and thus tricks her into claiming the foster calf.

Ranchers have also had success with a product called ‘O-No-More,’ previously named ‘Orphan-No-More,’ that aids in the calf adoption by natural or foster cows.

When the powder is applied to the calf, the cow recognizes the smell and claims it.

Hays is quick to say that no method is foolproof. Producers may have their own techniques and should use what method works best for each situation.

Whether a rancher considers twins a blessing or a curse, knowledge, preparation and management can reduce stress for both the cow and the producer. Prior knowledge that a cow is carrying multiples allows the rancher to alter his management of her and increase the chances of saving both calves. And while it may not always be in the best interest for either the cow or both twins to stay together, an extra calf can come in handy if another cow loses her calf.

Opinions aside, proactive management and preparation can turn a twin curse into a double blessing. — Rebecca Mettler [This article was originally written for American Red Angus Magazine, republished here with permission.]