The England family who farm near Diagonal in southwest Iowa had a bit of good news on April 14, the night the tornado hit the town of Creston, which is just 20 miles away.
"We had been watching one of our older cows for a couple of hours and she seemed to be struggling with the birthing process," says Melinda England. "Since the storm was rapidly approaching, we decided to bring the cow to the barn and find out exactly what was taking place. We were expecting the problem to be a breach calf or a set of twins."
It was just starting to rain as the England family—Mitch, Melinda, Ryan and Brett—helped the cow deliver a set of triplets. "That's right," says Melinda, "three calves from the same cow. All were alive and doing well as we left them in the barn during the storm. The cow claimed all three calves and continues to nurse all of them. They are cute little guys."
All three of the babies are bull calves. Melinda says, based on information she has gathered from sources she looked up on the Internet, the odds of a cow having a set of triplets is 1 in 105,000. The odds of having a set of triplets that are all bulls is 1 in 700,000.
The Englands didn't feed this cow any different than their others. "And we do not artificially inseminate our cattle," says Melinda. "This was all Mother Nature's work. Our operation is a fourth-generation farm and none of our family members can ever remember our cattle having a set of triplets."
The cow is an Angus cross, says Mitch, mostly Angus with a little Simmental in her pedigree. She was bred to an Angus bull which sired this set of triplet calves.
Extremely rare occurrence
Wallaces Farmer asked Sherry Hoyer, communications specialist with the Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University in Ames, about twins and triplets and other information on multiple births in cattle. "What a whirlwind of activity at that farm!" she says. "Mother Nature provided the triplets and a storm to mark the unusual event."
ISU Extension beef veterinarian Grant Dewell says triplets are a rarity in cattle and it's even more noteworthy in this case because they are all bulls. "A 1920 research paper by Jones and Rouse says the odds of triplets in beef cattle are 1 in 105,000 versus 1 in 3,500 in Brown Swiss, a dairy breed. And multiple births in cattle are almost always fraternal twins, meaning the cow ovulated multiple eggs that became fertilized," he says.
What determines multiple births in cattle—the sire or the dam? Although the heritability of the trait can come from the bull, the dam of the multiple births—not the direct sire of the calves—is responsible for the calves. That's why most twins are a heifer and bull combination. Having three bull calves at one time is extremely rare, according to Dewell.
"The most extensive study on twinning in beef cattle was at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb.," says IBC director Dan Loy. "The study determined that twinning was a quantitative trait, meaning it is inherited by both the sire and the dam. The heritability is very low (less than 6%) so it is very difficult to select for."
Breed makes a difference
Dewell adds, "It would be interesting in this case with the triplet calves on the England farm to know whether they were identical triplets from one embryo splitting in utero rather than from three separate fertilized eggs."
Does any particular breed of cattle have multiple births more so than any other breed? Loy says the average rate of twinning for Angus and Hereford breeds is about 1%, and Holsteins twin at a much higher rate—about 4%.
Does age of the cow have anything to do with multiple births?
The England's cow that had the triplets is an older cow. While the age of this cow fit well in the results from the Clay Center study (the rate of twinning increased as the age of cows increased with age 5 and over as the oldest category) the timing added another unusual factor. That is, this same study showed that fall calving cows twinned at a slightly higher rate than spring calving cows, notes Loy.
Source: Iowa Beef Center