Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Melva and Marla, Part One: Twin Beef Calves

When my husband Lynn and I were first married in 1966, we had a dairy. Several of our Holsteins had twins that year, and we had fun naming them. I particularly remember Vim and Vigor — fraternal twins, a bull calf and a heifer calf. The next year we moved to our present ranch to raise beef cattle, and even though we had a lot more cows, none of the beef cows ever had twins — until 1977, the spring that our kids (Michael and Andrea) turned 9 and 7.

It was a cold night when Jokasta (an 8-year-old cow) calved, and Lynn carried the little brockle-faced heifer into the barn, with the cow following. The calf was small but lively and was soon up and nursing her mama. Everything seemed fine, so we went back to bed.

When I got up again a few hours later and went to the barn to check on the new baby, I thought I was seeing double. The cow shook her head at me and blew snot out of her nose, warning me to keep away from her baby. But lying behind her in the hay was not one baby but two identical little black brockle-faced heifers. I couldn’t tell them apart and wasn’t sure which one had been born first. They were both lively and strong, and Jokasta loved them equally.

Melva and Marla as calves. The easiest way to tell these twins apart was that
Melva had an additional “eyebrow” spot over one eye. Here they are posing
as mirror images of one another, with their mama keeping close watch on them.

We named them Melva and Marla and finally figured out how to tell them apart. The easiest way, looking at their faces, was that Melva had one little eyebrow spot that Marla didn’t have. Looking at their legs, Marla had a little more white on her left front leg. Otherwise they were almost exactly the same, even in terms of the other speckles of white on their legs.

We kept the twins and their mama in a pen for a while, instead of turning them out in a big pasture with the other cattle. We wanted to make it easier for the cow to keep track of them both. That summer we kept them at home in a pasture with our milk cows instead of putting them out on summer range in the mountains. Our range covers a huge area, and we didn’t want Jokasta to have any problems finding her twins.

Cows take good care of their babies, but as the calves grow older and become more independent, they sometimes get widely separated from Mom, wandering off with their friends to graze. But they know the sound of each other’s voice and usually get back together just fine. Mama calls her baby, the baby answers, and they find each other again. If they can’t find each other, they both go back to the place they were together last, usually where the calf had its most recent nursing. This seems to be a prearranged understanding between cows and calves: “If you can’t find me, kid, just come back to where we had dinner, and I’ll be there.”

When cows go off grazing, or travel to water, they often leave their calves with a babysitter cow that stays behind. This seems to be an instinct to make sure their calves are protected from predators.

Our cows are very good at taking care of their babies when they are out on the big mountain pastures, but we weren’t sure if Jokasta could keep track of twins. We were afraid she might be content with just one of them and not bother to go find the other one if it got lost. So we kept her and her twins at home that summer.

As babies these twins did everything together.
They seemed to share the same thoughts and personality.

It was fun watching them grow up. They seemed to think alike, with a special form of mental communication. They always seemed to know what the other one was doing or thinking, even when napping in different parts of the pasture. If one of them woke up and went to Mama to start nursing, the other twin instantly woke up, too — even if she was at the far end of the pasture and couldn’t see Mama. She would jerk awake, jump up, and come running, to make sure she didn’t miss out on dinner. They always nursed at the same time, one on each side of the cow, with their little tails wagging happily.

We’d become very fond of them by fall and decided to keep them as future cows, rather than sell them with the other calves. We gave Marla to our son Michael and Melva to Andrea — the first cows of their own. The kids worked for them, by helping with ranch work (irrigating, riding range to check cows, feeding the cattle in winter). By the next summer, when Marla and Melva were big yearlings, our kids had earned their twins. Melva and Marla were the start of a small cow herd for each of them.

[to be continued]

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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