Double the trouble? Twins increase labor, beef production
In a year teeming with twins, perhaps more than other years, the question must be asked: are twins welcome or additional work to producers?
“There are animals in this world that God made to have twins or triplets; cows are made to have one,” said Dave Winninger, who owned Cow Country Genetics for 25 years, closing the doors to the clinic last year.
Approximately half a percent or one in every 200 beef cattle have twins, and even less have three or more, according to Glenn Selk of Oklahoma State University. Some breeds, like Simmental, are slightly more likely to have twins, Winninger said, and some individual cows, regardless of breed, are genetically predisposed to have twins.
When polled, many producers this year already have higher percentages than past years; one source reported of five sets of twins to the fourteen cows to calve.
Cows and heifers rarely take care of both twins, Winninger said, so one calf is generally pulled and bottle fed or grafted onto a cow who lost her calf.
Jeff and Danese Reed, of J & D Cattle Company in Lusk, Wyoming, had two sets of twins as their first calves of the year.
“The heifers would only let one suck so we pulled the twin and bottle fed them,” Jeff said. “I bottle fed the twins morning and night. One of the twins has now been grafted onto a cow that lost her calf in the river.”
Twin calves generally amount to more work for producers, though it can be welcome work.
“I continue to feed the remaining twin hoping that a graft cow will become available. They are always a good thing to have but do also require more work until they can be grafted,” Danese said.
The Reeds monitor their calving heifers and cows during the day and through the night, making it possible for them to spot and assist a mother with twins.
For ranchers who don’t closely monitor cows or calve in sheds, “to take one of those twins and put them on another cow, if you range calve, is an extraordinary amount of labor,” Winninger said. “How are you going to get that cow in?”
Winninger said twins offer higher abnormal presentations and lower survival rate for two reasons.
“They can be breach or two in the birth canal at same time. Twins have a lot more calving problems,” he said.
“The first set of twins was born in the shed,” Danese Reed said, “They pulled the first twin and went back later to find the second one had been born unassisted.”
The other reason Winninger said is that even if both calves are naturally born, complications may occur after.
“There are a lot more deaths percentage-wise than single calves, especially if the cow took up the first one born and took off with it, or took the second one born and took off. Then there’s a single calf hanging around that may not have gotten colostrum and could get sick,” Winninger said.
“Kirkpatrick pointed out that some [negative factors] could be overcome with changes in management, that other problems lack an obvious management fix, and that still other problems are of little practical importance,” states K.A. Nephawe in “Twinning In Beef Cattle: An Opportunity To Improve Reproductive And Economic Efficiency Of Beef Production.”
Cows who successfully mother twins are often harder to breed back, Winninger said, referencing Texas A&M Research, resulting in an extra calf one year but potentially no calf the next.
“This is due to the amount of suckling and trying to make more milk. Mammary glands are emptied more often, and the stimulation of suckling slows a cow down for breeding back,” he said. “The suckling stimulation releases the hormone prolactin, which releases more milk, and also series of hormonal events that slows down when they come into heat, so they breed back later, if at all.”
Weaning twins earlier than single calves can allow cows to breed back at the same time as the rest of the herd.
“Echternkamp and Gregory reported a 12-day longer interval from parturition to the next conception for cows after giving birth to twins as compared to cows that carried only one calf,” Nephawe’s report said. “Early weaning of calves, at 6 to 8 weeks of age or younger, has been well documented to improve postpartum reproductive performance, which could also be done with cows having twins.”
The time of year can aid a cow in producing enough for two calves.
“If a cow has twins after green grass has started she would probably be ok,” Winninger said. “If she had it while feeding hay, she probably can’t sustain two calves plus herself. That’s usually the cow that breeds back late or not at all.”
Winninger, who was the first to perform exclusively frozen embryo transfers without the need for recipient cows, put embryos in approximately 250 cows in addition to their natural pregnancy at the request of his client.
“Why get one if you can get two? We got 80 percent of the cows pregnant with bulls, then put in an embryo. If they already have a fetus growing, it improves the chances of taking, called fetal recognition,” Winninger said.
This particular case wasn’t the success his client was hoping for.
“We had twins in about half of cows bred, but he only did it that one year,” Winninger said. “There were extra calves and the cows didn’t know how to take care of them. The labor and human resources to deal with this was a really big problem.”
When applying an embryo transfer on top of a natural pregnancy, a freemartin, or a sterile heifer born with a bull calf, is not a concern. A heifer- and bull-calf combination in a natural pregnancy yields a freemartin heifer in approximately 90 percent of cases.
“Freemartins occur due to testosterone crossing through placental membrane and getting in the female’s blood system. The testosterone influence on females genitalia fouls them so they don’t get ovaries,” Winninger said.
The term “freemartin” is explained in the USDA’s 1940 article Early Recognition of Freemartin Condition in Heifers.
“It has been proposed that the word “free” was used to signify exemption from reproduction (sterile). It is not difficult to imagine an association between the two words “free” and “farrow,” as stated in the article. “[Martin] may have been derived from the Irish and Gaelic “mart” meaning heifer or cow. . . St. Martin is said to have been the patron saint of twins and unusual fecundity…the word mart, maert, mert, and mairt appear to have been used in Scotland and parts of England in referring to the cow or ox fattened for slaughter…it is not difficult in view of these facts, to imagine such an individual being referred to as the ‘farrow-mart-one,’ or in Scotland as the ‘farrow-mart-yin,’ either of which might have been corrupted or shortened into ‘freemartin.’”
The USDA performed a study regarding Fetal Development in Cattle with Multiple Ovulations in 1992.
“Although the bovine female limits the number of conceptuses to one by releasing one ovum per estrous cycle, some cows are capable of gestating as many as five fetuses to term when multiple-ovulated with follicle-stimulating hormone,” the study stated. “The multiple births suggest that ovulation rate is the first limiting factor to increasing beef production. However, increasing the number of fetuses in utero decreased calf birth weight and increased the incidence of fetal mortality, abortion, and dystocia; an ovulation rate greater than two produced no further increase in reproductive rate.”
Results from the Twinning Project at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center suggest that it could be feasible to increase twinning in cattle to an economically viable level.
“In that experimental herd, the frequency of fraternal twin births has increased from 3.1 percent per year to an annual rate of 50 to 55 percent in about 20 years,” USMARC Research states. “If twinning technology is to be implemented it will require the use of cattle from this population (USMARC Twinning herd) because it is the only known source of germplasm available with high breeding value for twinning.”
The USMARC experiment revealed that “twinning technology could be implemented without compromise of growth rate or carcass merit. The MARC twinning population was equal to or superior to a high performance reference population for growth and carcass traits.”
Twinning may be an avenue for producers to explore.
USMARC states, “Despite lower conception rates for dams of twins, the increased prolificacy provides an opportunity to increase total beef production with a twinning technology.”