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Local cattle farmers get triplet calves

LETCHER — The triplet calves born on the Christopher farm in southern Sanborn County are truly a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

So excuse John Christopher if he couldn't believe his fortune when he found three healthy calves in a pen last weekend.

"I was just in shock. I just couldn't believe it," Christopher said. "It's something that we're still wrapping our heads around. I mean what are the odds?"

Russ Daly, an extension veterinarian who specializes in cattle at South Dakota State University in Brookings, says the number most often associated with a cow having triplet calves comes from a 1920 study that says it is a 1 in 105,000 chance.

Christopher and his two sons-in-law are co-owners of the cattle operation. Josh Odens and Travis Beaver, first thought the mother had twins, and another calf -- the third one -- wandered in from another pen. But when all three were drinking milk from their mother, Christopher knew they had something special.

The instances of triplet births are voluntarily recorded by producers, so some happen that aren't reported. But Daly said if the figure is extrapolated over 1.7 million beef cattle in the state, he there should be about 16 sets of triplet calves in South Dakota each year.

Daly says that seems high, considering he only witnessed one set of triplets in his 15 years of practice as a veterinarian before working at SDSU.

Christopher said he always thought that triplets were more rare in beef cattle than in dairy cattle and Daly said he's observed that to be true.

"I think that's the case," Daly said. "We seem to see more twins and triplets in dairy cattle than in beef cattle. I couldn't pinpoint exactly why that is though."

With calves, worry can often surround their health following the birth, but Christensen said that doesn't appear to be an issue. The triplets, born on March 22, each weigh about 45 pounds.

"Everyone has their own perspective but it's a rare situation, especially if they all get out alive and healthy," Daly said.

The two females born in the set are freemartins, which is a condition that often occurs in cattle that have a set of twins with one male and one female. Daly said that's caused by the female calf getting close to the male blood vessels in the uterus and the hormones mixing between the male and female. That causes the females to be infertile and doesn't allow them to reproduce.

"She didn't really give any hints that there would be three," Odens said. "I mean we have twins a handful of times during the calving season, but three was really a surprise."

The farm calves about 500 to 600 animals every year, so Christopher figures if it's a 1 in 105,000 chance, the probability of the event won't happen again on the Christensen farm for 175 years.

Even so, Christopher, 52, says he's fortunate that Odens, 29 and Beaver, 28, will be taking care of the farm into the next generation.

"I'm really blessed to have two great son-in-laws who are committed to this as well," he said.

South Dakota State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said it's something he's heard a few times in his conversations with producers around the state, but agrees it's quite rare.

"It's certainly interesting," Oedekoven said. "It's something that pops up every once in a while, but it's one of those things that is just really memorable."

In case those triplets aren't unique enough, the cow in the next pen had a set of twins four days later. Odens figures that two percent of the calves each year born on the farm annually are twins.

"Five calves between the two pens," Christopher said. "That is quite something, huh?"

And while everyone likes the triplets, they aren't even getting the most attention in the family. Odens and his wife recently welcomed their first child, Tyrell, this month. It's Christopher's first grandchild.

"What more can I say? I'm just really fortunate," he said.