FOND DU LAC (AP) - The probability of a dairy cow giving birth to triplets is about 1 out of 105,000 births.
If the triplets are of the same sex, those odds rise exponentially.
In the 22 years that Tom Hintz has been practicing veterinarian medicine, the Country Hills Animal Health vet has come across about six sets of triplets. Hintz recently stumbled across three such births within a three-week span in his practice alone.
"It's unusual to see that many triplets, for sure," said Hintz. "It's even more rare to get three calves of the same sex."
Two of Hintz' clients, Sean Schmitz of Fond du Lac and Jeff Pickart of Johnsburg were surprised to find sets of triplet Holstein calves in the birthing pens of their respective farms a month ago. Two of three calves from a third set of triplets at an Eden farm did not survive; not an uncommon outcome in births of multiples.
Pickart, who farms with his father, John, at J&J Dairy in Johnsburg, says he had begun watching the expecting bovine cow more closely as her due date approached.
"I thought she was carrying twins and would deliver early so I put her in the calving pen on the morning of May 7," Pickart said. "After she delivered her two heifer calves, we moved her over to the fresh pen. The next thing you know she started pushing again and we had a third heifer. This is the third time she's delivered calves on the same date."
The odds of having three female triplets are estimated at 1 in 700,000, said Tina Kohlman, dairy and livestock agent for Fond du Lac County.
Pickart says two of the heifers were smaller in stature at birth but they are all thriving a month later. While living triplets are deemed rare, this is the second time the farm has experienced this phenomenon.
"We had them 11 years ago but this time they were all heifers, which makes them a bit more special," Pickart said. "It just doesn't happen often."
Schmitz and his father, Leroy Schmitz, also thought their 3-year-old red and white Holstein cow was through when she delivered a set of twins.
"I had just brought back some milk to feed the twins and we found a third one," Schmitz said of the set of two bull calves and a heifer.
The strapping trio of red and white Holstein calves weighed in between 65 to 80 pounds per calf. Schmitz says they've decided to raise the triplets despite the odds that the heifer may not be able to reproduce.
"There's a chance that she might be good. You never know," Schmitz said.
This is the second time that milk cows at Bonnie-Lee Farms have had triplets, Schmitz said.
Multiple births aren't always good news for farmers, said Dr. Paul Fricke, reproductive specialist for the University of Wisconsin Extension. According to a study, Fricke found that cows delivering more than one calf at birth were more likely to experience problems while delivering the calves and during post-partum, including incidences of retained placenta, twisted stomach and ketosis. Because the dam (mother) may have trouble being bred back after delivering multiples, the pregnancy is likely to have an economic impact on the farm as well.
Pregnancies involving triplets also have a higher rate of abortion and stillbirth. Those triplets that are born live also tend to be of lower birth weight than their single-birth herd mates and are at risk for a higher neonatal mortality rate, according to the study.
Veterinarian Al Martins of Waupun Veterinary Service says a heifer calf conceived along with a male twin faces a high risk of being a freemartin (sterile).
"I think the rate is about 94 percent, but I have a gut feeling it's higher," Martens said. "We often find when a farmer complains about not being able to get a heifer bred, she may have been a twin to a bull calf, but in that instance the bull calf died while in utero while the heifer stayed."
Hintz debunks the theory of some critics that claim the incidence of more multiple births in the dairy industry is a result of dairy producers using synthetic hormones to synchronize the ovulation cycles in their dairy cows.
"There's no foundation to those claims," Hintz said. "We believe it's related to animals being on a higher nutrition plane at the time, which is connected to the high milk production that we're seeing."
Pickart said he has been convinced by his family to keep the three little heifers on the home farm instead of sending them to the off-site heifer raising facility.
"This way they can get a little special attention from the kids for a while," Pickart said.
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