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ND farmer reports nearly 20 percent of cows birthing twins

SHARON, N.D. -- Chris Johnson is accustomed to seeing double at this time of year.

His family's beef cattle operation near Sharon is dealing with another spate of twin calves this spring. Of the first roughly 100 cows that gave birth this spring, 19 had twins, giving the Johnsons a 20 percent rate of twins.

Normally, about 3 percent of beef cows give birth to twins, but the Johnsons have had a far-above-normal rate of twin births for years.

"It's probably hereditary," he says.

The torrent of twin calves on the Johnson farm is a sure sign that spring calving is under way in earnest across the Upper Midwest.

Once, many cattle producers in the region began calving in late February, in part it so would allow them to finish in time to start planting their fields.

Today, some cattle producers who also farm continue to start calving in February so they're done in time to begin working their fields, says Adele Harty, cow-calf field specialist in the Rapid City field office of the South Dakota State University Extension Service.

But many ranchers have pushed back the start of calving until mid-February. Doing so allows them to better match cows' nutritional needs and to take advantage of what's usually better weather, she says.

Calving generally is going well so far, Harty says.

One concern is hay's overall quality and quantity, both of which were affected by the drought, she and others say.

Though it doesn't relate to calving, producers in western South Dakota remain concerned about moisture, she says.

Most of the area around Rapid City is in D-4 drought, she says.

D-4, or exceptionally dry, is the most severe of the four drought categories measured by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

Calves and twins

Johnson says there's a great deal of snow on his family's ranch in northeast North Dakota but that calving is going well. The Johnsons have about 500 cows.

His family began calving in February and hopes to be finished by May.

"It's always busy, always exciting," he says. Recently, 14 calves were born on a single night.

Twin calves are more curse than blessing because they typically require more care and attention than single calves, he says.

For instance, a cow with twin calves often is unable to provide enough milk for both, so one or both must receive additional milk from a bottle.

The extra time, effort and expense associated with a twin, on average, more than offsets the value of the second calf, Johnson says.

"I'd rather have one healthy calf than twins," he says.

Last year, 34.3 million calves were born in the U.S., according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of those calves, South Dakota accounted for 1.7 million, Montana 1.5 million, North Dakota 870,000 and Minnesota 790,000.

Texas led the nation with 3.9 million calves born in 2012.