Good things come in threes

Rare triplet calves are born on rural Wood Lake farm last Saturday

Photo by Jenny Kirk The rare birth of triplet heifer calves took place on Saturday at a rural Wood Lake farm.


Brad VanLerberghe, who typically sees things in black and white — as in black and white Holstein cows — recently experienced what many would call a miracle on the farm.

On Saturday, the longtime dairy farmer had triplet calves born.

As if the birth of triplet calves wasn’t rare enough — people put the occurrence at 1 in 100,000 to 1 in 400,000 — they were all heifers and all three survived.

“I don’t know why I have triplets and nobody else I know does,” VanLerberghe said. “I think it’s just a miracle every time. And they’re all girls, which is really kind of rare.”

The smallest female calf was born first, weighing in at about 55 pounds.

“I had cleaned up late and came in here after I was done and she’s just had the smallest one,” VanLerberghe said. “She was pretty little, so I knew there was probably a twin. But I had no idea she was going to have triplets.”

The next two heifers needed assistance during the delivery process.

“I pulled the second one without the puller,” VanLerberghe said. “Then I hooked on the chain for the next one and was pulling and pulling. The last one ended up being the biggest one at 70 pounds. So they were small, medium and normal size.”

The middle-size heifer turned out to weigh about 65 pounds, so in all, its mother ended up carrying around nearly 200 pounds of weight near the end of her gestation — Holstein gestation is roughly 280 days.

Oftentimes, multiple births can take a heavy toll on a cow. Fortunately, VanLerberghe said the 1,500-pounder is doing alright.

“She’s a little weak yet, but she’s doing OK,” he said.

VanLerberghe estimates the probability of having triplets at roughly 105,000. But ironically, this marks the fourth time it’s happened on the family farm in rural Wood Lake. He said his parents, Ray and Joan VanLerberghe, were the proud owners of triplet calves in the early ’70s and then again in 1992.

“There was a veterinary from Echo that came out to help in the early ’70s,” Brad VanLerberghe said. “His daughter said he had a picture of (the triplets) by his kitchen table until he died because he was so proud.”

VanLerberghe had his first set of triplet calves — three brown Swiss heifers — in 2006.

“We were getting ready to load cattle and she was having a calf,” he said. “My dad said hurry up and pull it out. When I did, it was a little small, so I checked and found there were four more feet. We pulled that one and got it breathing. Then I pulled the third one and said (jokingly), ‘Should I check for another one?’ My dad said, ‘No, we have to get these cattle going.'”

This week marks the start of one of the busiest times of the year for VanLerberghe as spring calving season gets going. With 80 cows — a couple of Brown Swiss, but mostly Holsteins — there is a lot of milking to do in addition to tending to the newborns and constantly checking for imminent births.

“I don’t like having calves in December, January or February, so I start calving around this time,” he said. “If it’s 20 below and they have a calf, it might not make it even though they’re in the barn. A lot of the times, I have to carry them into the milking parlor to warm them up. There’s a heater in there. It always helps, too, if the cow licks them, but some don’t.”

Monitoring happens at all hours, day and night.

“Sometimes you’ll go out at 2 or 3 in the night and you’ll have just missed the birth,” VanLerberghe said. “Other times, you’ll come out at 3 in the morning and the cows are just looking at you and nothing is happening.”

VanLerberghe said he’s grateful that the timing for the triplets was good.

“If it had been late at night, there’s a good chance I would’ve come out here and there would’ve been dead ones,” he said. “They wouldn’t have been born in time. Cows, if they have one breach and it’s halfway out, you better get it out. Otherwise they drown.”

After the calves are born, VanLerberghe said he pulls them off the cow. There’s a good chance the newborns would be laid on or trampled to death in the main pen otherwise.

“They can’t be with the cows in the cow shed, so we always take them off the mom,” VanLerberghe said. “We feed the calves twice a day. A normal size one gets two quarts twice a day. I don’t give the triplets that much, though, because they’re too small yet and they’d get sick.”

For some reason, the two smallest heifers are eating really well, but the largest triplet is not.

“I catch milk from the mom and those two drink out of the pail,” VanLerberghe said. “(The largest one) drinks about half of it, but then I have to feed her in a different way. I stick a tube down and bag her. The calves will get milk until they’re about 8 weeks old.”

VanLerberghe said he’s especially thankful that the triplets were all heifers because that will help production in the future.

“If there’s a boy with twins or triplets, then they’re considered freemartins and they won’t have calves,” he said. “At least 90 percent of them don’t have female parts inside. Vet (Scott) Kuecker will come out and say, ‘Yep, no parts in there.” For some reason, that’s the way it is with cattle.”

Most research reveals that about 95 percent of heifer calves born as a twin or triplet alongside a bull calf will be sub-fertile or sterile.

“I feel really fortunate,” VanLerberghe said. “We raise up the babies and keep them. That’s the best part and I look forward to that spring and fall.”

Though he does raise steers as well, VanLerberghe is most known — prior to the triplets being born — for his high-quality milk production. He has won several awards as a member of Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI).

“Brad is a good dairy producer,” said Carolyn Bootsma, field service for Sanborn AMPI. “He wins quality awards from us every year for extremely good quality milk. We had out very few of those awards. Brad does a good job.”

Bootsma was visiting the VanLerberghe farm, as she does periodically with other members. She was thrilled to hear about the birth of triplets.

“There’s not a lot of positives in the dairy industry right now, so it’s really nice to hear about things like this,” she said. “The birth of triplet calves being born, not to mention being born alive and doing well, is amazing.”

Bootsma said the dairy industry is about as low as it’s ever been.

“There’s very little profit at this price,” she said. “It shouldn’t be like this. But it’s always the farmer at the end of the production cost line because everybody takes what they need to make their business stay alive and what’s left goes to the farmer.”

Exports and consumption are the key, Bootsma said.

“We have more good milk in this country than we can use,” she said. “So we need exports, along with greater consumption, right now.”

AMPI consists of 2,100 farm families and 1,250 employees. In 2016, the dairy farmer-owners markets 5.5 billion pounds of milk, resulting in $1.6 billion in sales for the cooperative. While there are plenty of negatives nationwide, there are positives regionally as Sanborn is expanding its cheese production.

“They can handle 1.4 million pounds of milk a day, but very soon, they’re going to be able to handle 3 million pounds of milk a day,” Bootsma said. “They make cheese out of it. We have eight brand new cheese vats in, but we’re running at partial rate because we don’t have the whey side set up to handle the full amount yet. By January 1, we hope to have the 3 million being processed and the whey taken care of.”

Out of 100 pounds of milk, the yield is 10 pounds of chest and a substantial amount of whey. AMI has won first place in the World Dairy Expo competition for the last three straight years.

“We make award-winning cheese and we’re getting more customers, so we’re expanding,” AMI communications director Sara Schlect said.