About 1 to 7 percent of all cattle births result in a twin birth in Grundy County, which depend on factors such as breed and genetics, Grundy County Farm Bureau manager Victoria Wax said.
This spring, Jeff Bleuer, fifth-generation farmer, had two twin births in his herd. The Bleuers, who farm in multiple counties such as Will, Grundy and Kendall, also produce corn, soybeans and have just opened a farmstand to sell fresh vegetables.
In early April, Bleuer had a mom give birth to two heifer (female) calves, which weighed 35 to 40 pounds each, with average single birth weights of 50 to 100 pounds.
A few weeks later, Norma, who was also a twin, gave birth to two bull (male) calves, each weighing the same amount as the first set.
He said the family has 30 cows and the likelihood of twin births has not been consistent over the years. Some years, they will have one and, some years, only single births.
Bleuer said that although the twin births are welcome, it can produce complications with the mother and the calves, so close attention to detail was a must to keep all involved healthy, growing and safe in the open-pasture environment.
After the birth, Bleuer keeps his calves with their mothers in an enclosed lot next to the barn in order for the mom and baby to be near each other and create a bond. He said he could let them out into the pasture right away, but with a large area, the chance of bonding slims and a calf or calves could wander and succumb to a coyote.
During the close time, the calves learn to nurse from their mother and, after two weeks, are placed into the pasture.
The threat of the mom being stressed out at this time heightens as she has to produce milk for two babies instead of one. Her body works overtime to contend with the constant milking from the calves. Bleuer keeps a close eye on the process and, if the cow shows signs of stress including weight loss, she will be taken out of the field and put into the barn and monitored.
He said Norma has been a champ through the process of feeding her twins. However, the first cow to give birth did show some signs of weight loss, but has recovered and has been healthy.
If the mother cannot produce enough milk for the growing calves, they can be “robbers” and try to nurse off of another cow with more milk. Bleuer said cows know their babies by smell or the cow will call its baby and, if their baby comes up and another calf is nursing, it could try to kick it off.
Bleuer said low weights can set the twins apart from the single birth calves, but most catch up after weaning.
“We begin weaning in August and September and they typically have a lighter weaning weight,” Bleuer said. “Then we put them on grass and we have a feeder only the calves can get into, a creep feeder, and we feed them oats and molasses. When they are in the pasture we can tell, but once they hit the feed lots we cannot tell.”
While Bleuer said they don’t aim for twin births, it’s a relatively easy process. There is more monitoring, especially since both cows had babies that are the same sex. Where the situation can take a negative turn is when a heifer (female) is born twin to a bull (male), because this situation creates a high percentage of infertility to the heifer.
When this happens, the heifer (female) was called a free martin, which means her reproductive organs did not form in a manner in which she could reproduce. This happens in 90 percent of the heifer twin to a bull births, Bleuer said.
Wax said dairy breeds of cattle experience twins at a rate of five percent, and beef breeds experience around one percent of twin births. Less than 10 percent of those twin births are monozygous or identical twins. The vast majority of twin births result from two eggs being released by the cow which were then fertilized and implanted leading to dizygous or fraternal twins, as it is called with humans.
Bleuer said he lets his bull out on Father’s Day each year in order to keep track of when the cows were bred and the process takes nine months.