Triplet calves don’t happen every day

Suppose you have 100 beef or dairy cows during your entire 50-year farming career. Assuming a 90% calving rate, you’ll observe some 4,500 pregnancies. How many times will you see triplets?

Based on odds developed by dairy researchers, you could easily never have triplets on your farm. That’s why Ralph Biehle, 79, and his son, Marvin, were excited last summer. Along with Chris Bailey, they farm in Jennings County. One of their crossbred beef cows delivered live triplets.

“We’ve had several sets of twins, especially recently, but never triplets,” Marvin explains. “She had two when we found her, and it was obvious she wasn’t done.”

Ralph adds, “They were small, but they took to nursing and are growing well. The twins are also doing well.”

The Biehles maintain about 100 commercial cows. They pasture them on rougher, rolling land.

There’s another unusual aspect with the triplets, Ralph says. One is blind, born without properly developed eyes. “He’s active and eats well,” Ralph observes. “We fed him extra with a bottle, but he knows how to find a spot and nurse.”

Key Points

• Triplets are rare, but they’re more common than some think.

• Twins may be desirable in beef cattle, but not in dairy cattle.

• One calf’s defect may be linked to development of embryos, not genetics.

Play the odds

Just how common are triplets? Rare enough that many producers can go a lifetime without having any, yet not as rare as most people imagine. “In dairy, we figure twins are about one in 100 and triplets one in 10,000 births,” says Mike Schutz, Purdue University dairy Extension specialist. “Numbers could be somewhat different for beef cattle. Most people assume triplets are more rare.”

Twins have become more common, Schutz adds. “In cattle, twins nearly always result from multiple ovulations,” he says. “Identical twins are very rare.”

Any factors that favor better nutrition can increase odds of twins. In dairy cattle, that includes feeding a total mixed ration or using rBST. “However, twins aren’t something dairymen want,” he notes. “Most cows delivering twins are at very high risk for ketosis and a host of metabolic diseases.”

If the breed has enough maternal ability, twins can be desirable in beef cattle, he notes. Since there’s also a genetic component toward more twinning, it’s possible to breed for it. Researchers at USDA’s beef facility at Clay Center, Neb., have developed high-twinning beef cattle that produce twins almost one-fourth of the time.

Decipher defect

What caused one of the Biehles’ triplets to be born blind? While it’s impossible to know without more information, Schutz pinpoints possible factors.

“Defects like that are usually more related to what happened during development than to genetics,” he says. “It’s possible that fetus was shorted on nutrients simply because the mother couldn’t support all three adequately.”

However, just the fact that there were multiple embryos increases the possibility of a defect due to an injury, he observes. Perhaps an injury occurred to the fetus at a particular stage in development, causing blindness.


HERE’S THE BEEF! How many calves can two cows handle? This pair on ralph and marvin biehle’s farm are raising five. Marvin watches as the triplets (dark-colored cow) and twins nurse.

This article published in the January, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.