Calving season is nothing new to Don Eakman.
For more than 40 years he's lived in a farmhouse overlooking the Sun River, splitting his time between teaching elementary school and caring for a small herd of registered Red Angus cattle. So when it comes to helping baby calves enter the world, not a lot surprises him.
This year it did.
During the last three weeks of February, five of the first eight cows to give birth on the Eakman ranch delivered twins — all of which survived and are now happily romping across Eakman's pastures on the western edge of Great Falls.
While twin births in cattle is not unheard of, it is unusual.
According to a report in the Journal of Animal Science, dairy cattle are far more likely to deliver twin calves than are beef cattle.
Holsteins, for example, typically deliver twins about once in every 29 live births. Brown Swiss are even more prolific, birthing twin calves once in about every 11 deliveries. However Angus cows, like Eakman raises, only deliver twins once in every 91 live births. The arrival of five sets of twins at the Eakman ranch is even more improbable considering that Don's entire herd consists of 34 cows.
"I ended up with three sets of twins before I had one cow with a single calf," Eakman said, a hint of disbelief in his voice. "I've never had twins like this before."
To put it all in some perspective, with a herd of 34 Red Angus cows Don Eakman could reasonably expect to receive a single set of twins about once every three years. The likelihood that same herd would deliver five sets in a single spring is less than one in 137 — meaning that if Eakman's great-great-grandfather had founded that herd around the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, this probably would have only happened once since then.
"It's quite the feat indeed," commented Rachel Endecott, extension beef cattle specialist with Montana State University. "Five sets already in under 40 cows is amazing."
Those unfamiliar with livestock production might naturally assume that twin calves would be a great blessing. If one live calf is good, two is even better. But twin calves often come with their own set of complications.
It's common for the mother of twin calves to reject one of her babies and refuse to nurse him. That leaves the rancher with the option of finding another cow willing to accept the calf — not always an easy thing to do — or bottle feeding the "bum calf" three or four times a day.
"That's one reason why I don't like twins," Eakman told the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/1aTwoy5), "because you have to do all that extra malarkey with them. It's a lot of extra work."
Multiple births are also physically demanding on both the mother and her calves. The additional strain of multiple deliveries can tear up the cow's uterus, and crowding during fetal development sometimes results in deformed or weakened newborns. Even if the births come off without complications, it's not uncommon for a single cow to be unable to produce enough milk to adequately feed both her calves.
"For one cow to raise two calves is really hard on the cow," Eakman said. "It really drains her down."
Yet in the current case, all of Eakman's twins were born healthy, and all their mothers immediately accepted the extra babies. Eakman didn't even have to assist with the births by "pulling" any of the twins.
"We've really been blessed that all of these have been up and eating within 20 minutes, and that the mother has taken them," he said.
In the case of one cow, Eakman didn't even know she'd delivered two calves until he came back to check on the mother several hours later. Suspecting the cow was about to deliver, he'd kept a close watch on her and stood by that morning as one calf was born without any difficulty. After the newborn was up and nursing, Eakman went out into the pasture and carried the calf back to the safety of the barn, with the mother cow following placidly behind him.
About five hours later, he went back out into the pasture to check on the rest of his herd, only to find an unattended newborn that none of the other cows seem to care about.
"I had a calf standing there all by itself bawling, and nobody was paying attention to her," Eakman said. "Normally you get next to a newborn calf and mom comes on the run. They can be real aggressive, so I was totally frustrated. Finally I picked it up and brought it in to the little corral next to the barn. I went in the barn and got the new mother from that morning and she came running out. She immediately went to that calf and it started nursing."
Of the five sets of twins born on Eakman's ranch, four are bull/heifer pairs and one is a set of two heifers. According to Endecott, the combination of a bull and a heifer in twin calves almost always results in the heifer being sterile.
"A heifer born with a twin bull is called a 'freemartin' and about 95 percent of the time she is infertile," she said. "While in the uterus the twins are sharing a blood supply as their reproductive organs are developing. The testosterone from the bull tends to develop first, and that's going to cause sterility in the heifer."
For all of the unusual and unlikely coincidences that came together in the birth of so many twins on Don Eakman's ranch, it is the miracle of life itself that most amazes him.
"I love seeing life like this," he said.