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Triplet calves bring farmer 1-in-8 million surprise

The new triplets, left to right, are named Hope, Faith and Grace. <i>Tom Lindfors photos</i>1 / 2
Farmer Rodney Cassellius with his healthy heifer triplets -- Hope, Faith and Grace.2 / 2

At 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 2, Glenwood City dairy farmer Rodney Cassellius and his 4-year-old Holstein, No. 17, made a little history: The cow gave birth to triplets.

"I reached in to get the first calf, and she came out fine -- got her breathing, brought her up to the front to be licked, and that's when I realized the legs were fine boned, thin, she had smaller bone structure," Cassellius said.

Since the first calf's legs were narrow and she was 10 days early, Cassellius thought he had better check for a twin.

"So I went in and checked for a second one, and there it was ready to come out," he said.

The second calf came out nose and front legs first, normal, just like the first. Cassellius brought the second calf up to the front and noticed that the mother cow still looked big.

"I looked at the two calves and looked at her stomach and thought I better check her one more time," he said. "I went in, reached in as far as my arm could reach, all the way up to my shoulder and I could feel another set of feet in there. The third calf came out backwards but healthy."

Just to make sure, Cassellius wondered if a fourth calf could be inside.

"I was feeling pretty lucky at this point, so I went back in one more time just to be sure. No more feet," he said. "We'd had twins before, three times, but never triplets."

The whole delivery took 20 minutes. The newborns -- Hope, Faith and Grace -- are all doing fine. The fact that they are the only heifers in Cassellius' herd that have actual names speaks to how rare an occasion this was.

"I was excited, I didn't think it was that rare," Cassellius said. "Turns out it's more rare than I thought."

How rare? According to Holstein World's website, the odds of having triplets are one in 105,000; the odds that the triplets are all heifers, one in 2 million; the percent of triplet births where all three are born alive, 25 percent. That translates into a one in 8 million chance that this could happen.

No forewarning

Up until the calves' birthday, there was no indication on the ultra sound or visually that No. 17 was carrying any more than a single calf. But, fortunately for Cassellius, he "dried off" his pregnant Holstein earlier than normal.

Drying off is the process by which a cow switches her nutrient use from milk production to growth of the calf within her uterus. All the extra nutrients she consumes during the dry period above her maintenance requirements go toward growth of the fetus. The dry period is time off for the cow to replenish tissues she'll need to maximize milk production after calving.

"When you have a cow that's pregnant with twins, you want to dry them off early to give them more of a break, because they will automatically calve earlier about 10-12 days earlier, than their scheduled date," Cassellius explained. "I dried her off early not knowing she was carrying more than one calf. Luckily it worked out for her and me."

None of this would have happened, however, if Cassellius hadn't had a change of heart 22 years ago. He grew up on his father's dairy farm in Downey until the age of 23 when he decided dairy farming was not for him. None of his brothers were interested in continuing the farm either, so when Rodney moved away to pursue another career, his father sold the farm.

Two years later, after trying his hand at several other jobs, Cassellius realized his real love was dairy farming. By then it was too late to buy the family farm so he gave up his $18-an-hour job to work for $6 an hour on a crop farm owned by the same men who had purchased his father's farm.

Eventually, as part of his compensation, Cassellius moved into the house on one of the properties owned by his employer. That property was sold to a new owner whom Cassellius continued to rent from for another two years until he could afford to buy.

He negotiated with his employer to purchase the farm and began building his herd by buying two smaller herds. His herd of 53 cows remains about the same size as when he started his family dairy operation 22 years ago.

Having triplets isn't always a blessing and can create a financial strain on a farm if the cow doesn't recover to be a productive milk producer. So how's No. 17 doing in the aftermath of her monumental feat?

"It's stressful on the cow," Cassellius said. "She's taking a little time. Usually when you have twins, and certainly when you have triplets, the placenta doesn't want to come out very easily so we're treating her for that, helping to break it down inside her so it will come out.

"She ran a 104 degree temperature one day, so we're keeping a close eye on her."

What about the calves? "The calves are doing great. They all fight for the bottle."

Cassellius' three sons (Brandon, Nathan and Rodney Jr.) have been doing their part spreading the word far and wide among their schoolmates and fellow FFA members about the triplets. Cassellius doesn't know if the miracle triplets will be enough to turn them into dairy farmers, but he hopes.

According to Cassellius, folks have been calling and stopping by curious to see the triplets.

Is this experience likely to change Cassellius?

"I'll just keep plugging along," he said. "No. 17 would be due to calve again a year from now, but it's possible she'll miss a time or two before she can get pregnant again. I'm just happy everyone's doing OK."