Stated simply, cow 2178 was ugly. She was one of those three-way Holstein, Monteliarde and a red breed cross. I get that those cows are, according to research, pretty much equivalent in profitability to Holsteins. But, they sometimes look like they were assembled from a box of spare cow parts. Cow 2178 had a big white head, too big for her body, with a couple of curly horn remnants from a less than perfect dehorning. Her udder had four teats, more or less in the right places, but otherwise hung crooked and slack. The rest of her was red and white. I was performing a laparotomy to correct a left displaced abomasum. Nothing too special here, except that her story did not match that of a typical LDA cow. The herdsman, whose name was Dan, told me she would not eat after calving. After a few days post calving she went down. She was treated with the usual things down fresh cows get, but did not get up for three more full days. She still was reluctant to eat, so a few days later they put her into a bigger group because that group did not have headlocks, and they thought perhaps the horns on her head made her reluctant to eat in the headlocks. Soon after this, she started eating but then developed a LDA.
    During the surgery, the farmer came over to chat. He told me this cow was a twin, and that she and her twin had always been together. They always got pregnant and calved together. This year was different. They did not conceive at the same time, so one of them got moved to the dry pen and then prefresh pen while the other was still lactating. As he is telling me this, he looks across the feed alley and said, “As a matter of fact, that’s her twin right there.” He pointed to big black cow, with a giant white head, whose number was 2179. She was not a perfect picture of bovine beauty either. She was at the very end of the alley, directly across from where we were doing the surgery and seemed to be looking right into the eyes of her sister as I cut, pulled and stitched. She was not chewing her cud. Did I see signs of concern in those big bovine eyes? Hard to say, but it sure was curious that 2178 would not eat in the fresh pen when her sister was in the pen across the alley. Did they stare at each other every day? Was she lonesome for her kin? Who knows; cows are, as they say, stoic. Which is to say, they do not show distress often or easily. Is it possible that loneliness caused her to be anorexic, go down and decide life was not worth living?
    Other farmers have told me similar stories of obvious attachments between cows. Some might have been twins; others might have been born together. Another herdsman told me about twins that stayed together in the herd, like 2178 and 2179. When he eventually separated them due to different due dates they both stood at the end of their respective pens and bellowed all day. After a couple of days, he could not stand it anymore, so he put them together. I am sure this is a real thing. For example, a paper by Whalin, ET. Al., in the June Journal of Dairy Science looked at raising calves in hutches where two calves shared the same pen versus individual housing and found there were positive effects associated with pairing calves. Specifically, paired calves ate almost twice as much starter at weaning as single-raised calves. They also were more likely to try new feeds, and ate 2.6 times more of a novel feed when offered a different feedstuff. The authors concluded that social housing in modified hutches promotes solid feed intake and decreases fearfulness in dairy calves. I think the increase in intake in the study has some ramifications as to how we drive starter intake during and after weaning, but what really struck me is the word fearfulness. Being housed with another calf resulted in less fear.
    I thought about the conclusions from that study while I finished closing the incision. I left 2178 in the chute so Dan could give her an antibiotic. I gathered my supplies, walked back to the truck, put everything away and cleaned myself up. Before driving off, I observed two cows, one red and one black, standing directly across from and staring at each other. Neither was going anywhere. Next time I saw Dan he said they put 2178 in the pen with her twin following surgery. She has been doing great, eating well and not looking back. We will never know why she would not eat, but I bet when she calves next year she will go right back into her sister’s pen. Cows are remarkable beasts.
    Jim Bennett is a dairy veterinarian at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minn. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at with comments or questions.