Quadruplet calves surprise Amherst Junction farmers

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Associate Editor
A Montbéliarde cross first calf heifer had four calves on Aug. 6 at the Amherst Junction farm of Randy and Robin Oliver. One, a bull calf, died shortly after birth.

AMHERST JUNCTION - When a first calf heifer on Randy and Robin Oliver's farm started calving on Sunday morning, one calf was born and the cow "didn't look quite right with her small baby."

Even though "she's a big-bodied cow," she looked like she hadn't calved, Robin explained. 

"That was our first indication that there was something else going on because she didn't look like she had a calf," said Robin. 

They were in for a surprise when they checked and found three more calves on the way.

"We didn't think she would have four, two yeah, that's nothing, but he kept pulling them out," Robin said. "That was kind of a shock."

Randy and Robin have had "quite a few sets of twins" on their dairy farm since they started renting it in 2010. Raising mostly Jerseys and crossbreeds of "every color and breed," they milk between 250 to 270 cows with around 600 cattle total on the farm. 

A Montbéliarde cross first calf heifer had four calves on Aug. 6 at the Amherst Junction farm of Randy and Robin Oliver. One, a bull calf, died shortly after birth. Two bulls and a heifer calf are doing well.

The Olivers bull breed all their heifers. Between June and August, about 30 - 40 heifers are put on pasture with a bull so they will calve in the summer. The Montbéliarde cross heifer was bred by a Jersey bull. 

When the heifer was bred checked in May, the veterinarian guessed she would be due the first part of September, but "that's just a guess on when they are due," said Robin. Nothing was noted about there being more than one calf. 

Usually, when Randy and Robin know there are twins on the way, they watch them earlier in the pregnancy.

"We had no heads up with her at all," Robin said. 

The second calf born, a bull, died shortly after birth. 

"His heart was beating, but he wouldn't start breathing," Robin explained. 

The calves weighed between 16 - 20 pounds, according to Robin. Mom and the other three calves - two bulls and a heifer - are doing well.

While the Olivers raise their young stock, there is no room to keep bulls as steers, so the two bull calves will be sold in two to three months, Robin added. 

However, heifer calves born as twins with a bull have about a 92 percent chance of being sterile, according to a 2001 review on twinning in dairy cattle written by Paul Fricke from the Department of Dairy Science, UW-Madison. 

"Endocrine factors or cells from the male fetus cause abnormal development of the reproductive organs of the female fetus resulting in infertility," Fricke wrote in the review.

Robin said a previous set of twins - a bull and a heifer - the heifer turned out to be sterile.

Multiple rarity

Fricke said while twins are not that rare in dairy cows, triplets are much less frequent. About 120 twins per day, or nearly 45,000 per year are born in Wisconsin, compared to one set of triplets per day or 373 per year, according Fricke. 

However, there is no actual data on quadruplets because they are rare. 

Estimates from "Obstetrics and Genital Diseases," a classic veterinary textbook by Dr. Steve Roberts, list the chance of quadruplets in dairy cattle to be one in 200,000, although that reference is from 1952. Fricke believes that estimate to be close for quadruplets in Wisconsin.

"Twinning risk increases with age, so a first calf heifer with quads would be even more rare," said Fricke. 

The unusual and unexpected birth at the Oliver farm made for an exciting day for Randy, Robin and their six children, especially one of their daughters who always told them, "One of these cows is going to have four babies."

Their daughter thought it was going to be a little red cow in the herd "that is as wide as tall when close to calving," explained Robin, but that cow had twins. 

"She got her wish this time," Robin said laughing.