Melva and Marla – Our First Set of Beef Twins
by Heather Smith Thomas of Salmon, ID
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.
We named them Melva and Marla, and finally figured out how to tell them apart. Melva had one little eyebrow spot that Marla didn’t have, but otherwise they were exactly the same, even to the speckles of white on their legs.
We kept the twins and their mama in a pen for awhile – 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 is 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 pre-arranged 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 baby-sitter 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.
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 earned 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.
When the twins calved in 1979 with their first babies, both of them calved on the same night! We thought their babies might look alike, too, and they did, except one was red and the other one was black. Their calves were more like brother and sister rather than cousins, however, and the two young mamas and their babies were one big family that year. They went out on summer range with the other cows, and always stayed together. One twin would babysit both calves, and then the other twin took her turn. The two calves were always together, with one mama or the other.
Melva and Marla were very aggressive cows and loved to bully other cattle. They loved each other as sisters and never fought, but they were mean to the others. They liked to fight, and it was humorous because they were smaller than most of the cows. Together, however, they bossed the whole herd. Whenever one of them started a fight, the other twin immediately came to help, and between the two of them they could whip any cow on the ranch.
They enjoyed being together. Even in later years when they were much older, you’d always find them together, no matter how big the pasture or how widely scattered the rest of the herd was.
One fall after we weaned the calves and the cows were all up on a small mountain pasture at the upper end of our ranch, we were herding them up a steep draw to the top of the pasture. The best grass was high on the mountain so we were taking the cows up there. Melva was with the main bunch of cows we were herding up from the meadow down by the gate. But Marla had strayed. She had somehow found a way through the fence and was in the adjacent pasture. She was on the wrong side of the fence when we started driving the herd up out of the meadow. She ran along the fence, very upset, trying to get back with her sister.
It took her awhile to find the bad spot in the fence – the loose wires where she’d crawled through earlier that day – so by the time she got through the fence and into the proper pasture, we’d already started the herd up the big draw and were halfway up the mountain. Looking down into the canyon, we could see Marla running up the main creek bottom, the wrong way. She was trying to catch up with the herd, sniffing the ground now and then to smell their tracks. Cows have excellent sense of smell, and if one gets separated from the herd or left behind, she usually smells the ground to tell where the others have gone, tracking them with her nose.
But Marla missed the turn. She was hot on the trail of some cattle that had come down the creek to join our herd, and she was following their scent on up the creek, the wrong way. It looked like she was going to keep going up the creek and miss the herd. We were high above her, up the brushy draw in some trees, and she couldn’t see the herd. At that point, however, her sister Melva either saw or sensed that her twin was going the wrong way. She let out one loud bawl. Marla must have heard or sensed her sister calling her. She stopped dead in her tracks, threw up her head, and spun around – and then came charging across the creek at a gallop and up the draw behind us. Within 20 minutes she had caught up with the herd as we climbed the steep mountain.
Andrea and I were herding the cows, on our horses, and we laughed about the very indignant look on Marla’s face as she caught up with us, huffing and puffing from her hurry up the hill. She was probably scolding all of us for going up the hill without her.
Over the years the twins each had 10 calves for their young owners. Andrea and Michael increased their herds, keeping a heifer calf, or trading a steer for a heifer from us. By the time they started high school they each had 5 cows.
The twins had a long and happy life on our ranch, and helped our kids build up herds that would produce “calf money” that would eventually help pay for college. In the years since then, we’ve had a few more sets of twins. After Michael got married, he and his wife bought more cows and gradually built up a very large herd. They had numerous sets of twins – sometimes as many as 6 sets in one year. But Melva and Marla were special and memorable, being the first.