a story of Southern agriculture

FarrrThur 1 – Freemartin Heifer




FarrrThur 1 – Freemartin Heifer

A few weeks ago I showed you this image of twins in the Friday Favored

twin cattle-1

…and then I never gave you an update on them because this mama broke out of the barn lot and took both of her babies with her.  Seriously, she made a way where twasn’t one.

She’s heavily bonded to both.  A. Mazing.

Since then, finding photo ops of these twins has been quite difficult.  I think their rough start has made them extra wary – and then their mama probably taught them more wariness.  In short, I can barely get within a hundred feet of them before they ruin my photo op get up and run the opposite direction.

Anyhow, we had a second set of twins this spring and, amazingly enough, that mama cow also kept both calves.


Yea!! No bottle feeding!

Are you seeing the trend here? 
We’re amazed and thrilled when a cow keeps both twins and raises them herself.  Typically, twinning means increased risk of dystocia and bottle feeding because cattle do not normally produce twins.  It’s just not their species trend to have multiples much less raise them.

For the record, beef cattle twin maybe 1% of the time.  Dairy cattle breeds twin more than beef breeds.

FYI: Goats do regularly twin, as do sheep, armadillos, giant pandas…


Simple WHAT:
A freemartin heifer is an infertile twin to a bull calf.


Simple WHY:

Basically, after blood exchange in utero, the freemartin ends up carrying Y chromosome material that inhibits her reproductive development during gestation.  Sometimes this results in visible traits, but usually, it is something you assume based on research indicating 95% of these heifers are infertile.


So, why do you need to know what a freemartin heifer is?


  • Maybe for plain curiosity.
  • Maybe for planning your own hobby farm or career switch to agriculture.
  • Maybe for cattle industry camaraderie and a quick review.


Whichever is the case, here’s how I approach twinning on the farm, particularly the discovery of a freemartin heifer.


A.) Check for gender of the twin pair:

If visual hiney (tail end) checking is not your thing, don’t worry, your farmer is checking for you.


Modesty is but a fleeting consideration on the pasture.  The tails will inevitably swish.  Wait for it.



That’s certainly a heifer on the right, and with a little more sunshine and swish on the left….



…we see bull parts.

Feel free to check twice.  This is an important case to document.  In fact, I have scouted this twin pair a few times since birth to make sure I see both of them nursing from the same cow and to reconfirm gender.


B.) Document:

Make a note in your calf book of the mama cow having twins and, once you give the calves ear tags, link their numbers to the mama cow and note their genders.


C.) Decide:

What do you do with a freemartin heifer?

You could have her tested to see if she might be in the 5% that is fertile.  For the most part in the beef industry, we assume infertility and this assumption guides both the commercial producer (meaning you raise beef for a living) and the hobby farmer.  This freemartin heifer cannot build your herd.  She does not have the physical capability of doing so.  This means you won’t retain her as a replacement heifer (a heifer that you keep in order to add her to your cow herd once she has a calf). 

So, do you sell or keep her until she is of age for processing (to be food for your family).  If you decide to keep the heifer, then you may notice that her more feminine body will be smaller than a beef steer, so she may not yield the same amount of freezer beef as a comparable steer you’ve raised in the same amount of months in the past, but, most likely, the meat will taste the same. 🙂  Her freemartin status does not diminish her dignity as a food animal providing nourishment for your family.

If you plan to sell her, as a means of good business, notify your buyer of her status as a freemartin.  Whether you are selling her one-on-one or at auction, inform the buyer that her main profitability in the future will be as food, not as a herd cow.

At auction, a freemartin can be entered in a “feeder calf” sale and your disclosure is inherent in the specificity of the sale.  Feeder calf sales are for young cattle that will go directly into the food supply regardless of gender.

If you’re a concerned buyer, a replacement heifer auction or similar sale in which viable female bovine are marketed should have a veterinarian on site verifying the health of the female bovine present – a freemartin heifer can be identified before being available for bids.

Overall, twinning is a rare occurrence in beef cattle and that statistic is further split between bull pairs, heifer pairs and bull/heifer pairs, so this possibility of freemartins on the replacement heifer market is not a major industry issue.  My main concern is for our smaller producers and hobby farmers who have tighter margins.  You need to know how to view a set of twins in your herd and/or how to purchase a viable replacement heifer – or at least know there’s a major biological reason a heifer may not be getting pregnant.


D.) One more thought:

Nutrition Consideration for the Mama of Twin Calves:

As a farmer, no matter your herd size, you put a lot of time and care into your cattle.  Twins are a bonus if both arrive safe and healthy.  If mama keeps both calves, supplement her nutrition while she’s eating for three.

At our place we are happy to let the cow raise both calves to weaning age if she is up to the task.  Our farm size allows us to let the nice margin of our herd size absorb the additional feed costs of cushioning this cow’s nutrition.  In some cases the cow or your margins may not be up to this double duty and you may choose to take the freemartin calf off the mother after a few days (that is, if she keeps both in the first place).  In this case, you can bottle feed the heifer, give her to a 4-H student or sell her to someone wanting to raise a “bucket calf.”  The reason for doing this is simply that the growth of the masculine calf is potentially greater which yields higher monetary return on the cow/calf pair.  The freemartin can be very happy as a bottle calf at her new home – like Mr. Buttercup pictured below.  Again, with full disclosure, her new farmers knows what they are investing in – beef, not a herd cow.

Mercy, I need to break up all this text with a picture…


…our beloved Buttercup Baby (Mr. Buttercup Baby) – a bull twin.  Mr. Buttercup’s mama kept his sister and not him, so we bottle fed the little guy two summers ago…actually, my Farmer did the substitute lactation honors.  I gave him apple peels and sang “..but I love you still.  I need you, more than anyone darlin’ – you know that I have from the start.  So, build me up, Buttercup, don’t break my heart.” :)*



Besides selling a freemartin heifer for beef, I reckon she’d make a great pet heifer.  So long as you and the buyer know that she’s gonna get really big and never have babies, there’s certainly no harm in keeping her around.  In fact, I’ve heard of cows that can be saddled and ridden, and that would be a lovely uneaten purpose for her.

I’m serious y’all.  I’ve never thought of this before.  And since my Farmer chuckles at my goat desires, I may keep a freemartin heifer some day and “break her to ride.”  I’m much more comfortable around bovine than horses.  And people complain about cow gas anyhow, so I may as well put some mileage into the equation…


It’s been a pleasure starting this Thursday blog rut with you. 🙂

Emily Grace





*Need some tunes?  I sang The Foundations to our Buttercup Baby until he went off to market.  He liked it, I’m sure.  Pavlov had a bell – I have 60s music belting out of my 80s mouth.  What a way to take a bottle!

“Baby, baby, I try to find a little time, and I’ll make your bottle,
I’ll be home, I’ll be beside the barn waiting for you.

The only problem with this song is Mr. Buttercup never stood me up and he let me know when I was late.  But, no matter, it was a catchy way to interact with him. 🙂

Listen, my Baby Boomer mama raised me on her music.  I can’t help it. 🙂

This post is linked at:

The Country Fair Blog Party


For the auditory learner. 🙂  There’s a brief two minute explanation on freemartin heifers in this Cow-Calf Corner video.

More twin links:


Minnesota Farm Guide

The Cattle Site

University of Tennessee Extension

I’m glad twins and triplets are waaaayyyy unlikely in beef cattle.  They are more common in dairy cattle.  Handling that kind of calving season pressure sure does make me appreciate my dairy farmers more.  Here’s a triplet story for you !!!


15 Responses to “FarrrThur 1 – Freemartin Heifer”

  1. Katie

    Great article! I know more now – can’t wait to use my new terminology on my farmer. Thanks 🙂


  2. countrylinked

    Love all of the great information and the great pictures! This past fall at calving time we did not have any twins. Usually there is one pair born and I think the year before we had three sets of twins, but none this year. When twins do appear and the mama does not accept both, the calf is brought to our house for the kids to take care of it. A very good chore for them to all do.

    Thank you for also linking up with us for the Country Fair Blog Party!
    Laurie – Country Link


  3. lifecorked

    Even though everything you said is like a foreign language to me, I love learning about those cute little cows – fertile or not! In fact, I went to a large dairy with Cait’s class the other day and thought about you as I walked down the rows of cows – we even walked up on a mama and her very newly born calf! He/she hadn’t even stood up yet and I’m sure it was dazed by all these little first graders staring at it! Always love your writing EG!


    • Emily Grace

      Thank you, Chenoa! I’m so glad you got to visit the dairy! Great story!

      I need to click over for a visit. May has been a month of running to keep up, but I do so want to keep up with you. Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Nancy Schmidt

    Great article Emily, I love your cows.. But, I have always wanted them since I was a dairy farmers daughter.. Hope to see you soon, Nancy


    • Emily Grace

      Ha! You want my cows – too funny – and true, I’m sure! I enjoy your good childhood farm memories. Thanks for chiming in, Nancy!

      And, yes, I hope to see you soon!


  5. Caitlin | belong with wildflowers

    This was so informative and helpful, thank you! I never knew about freemartin heifers, so I loved learning more through your post.

    I noticed you said “For the record, beef cattle twin maybe 1% of the time. Dairy cattle breeds twin more than beef breeds.” So are twins, in general, common in dairy or beef farming? I would imagine, depending on how many bovines someone has, with 1%+ change of having twins that several pairs of twins could be seen on a farm at anytime. Or am I way off on this? Haha!

    Thanks for helping to spread the information 🙂


    • Emily Grace

      You are right on, Caitlin. It’s all just straightforward math. If the herd is 100 cows, then you’re likely to have 1 set of twins per year, of course, you may have none. If you have 1000 cows, you’re probably going to have a few sets every year, because the more cows you have, the more likely you’ll hit the twin jackpot.

      The actual numbers are .5% to 7%, I believe, for bovine twinning. The higher percentages come from the dairy breeds, which are more prone to twinning.

      I appreciate you reading along. I need to revise this first FarrrTHUR, I think. It’s so much information, but I’m glad to know you read it and found it informative. 🙂


  6. sheridegrom - From the literary and legislative trenches.

    Wow, Emily. I thought it was hard explaining why some males were called steers and others went on to become bulls plus the difference in a heifer and a cow. I get real picky real fast when someone calls a calf of any kind a baby cow!
    I learned a lot from your blog and there’s many similarities. I don’t remember a winter when we didn’t have calves in the house. My brother and I were super active in 4-H and had state fair winners for heifers and steers several years in a row.
    I always tell everyone that I learned more in 4-H than I did in college or my post-graduate degrees.
    I am glad that 4-H has become more in line with real-world economy instead of having the best of the best. No one would be able to sustain a heard of having all grand champions.


    • Emily Grace

      You’re right, Sheri. 4-H is valuable and it seems to be keeping up with the changing demographics of our youth. The next door neighbor girl simply wanted to raise chicks, and 4-H was fine with her doing that – no need to compete if she didn’t want to.

      Calves in the house, in the truck, on your lap – LOL Good memories!



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