If there were a lottery for cattle producers, Keith Sistad just won it.
One of the Red Angus beef cows on his ranch near Fosston, Minn., gave birth to four calves, all of which were healthy until Thursday night.
"I've never heard of quads before in cattle," Sistad said. "And to have all the calves doing well makes it so much better."
Quadruplets in beef cattle are extremely rare, although it's difficult to come up with a hard number. One study found that about one in 665,000 dairy cows have quads and that beef cattle are less likely than dairy cattle to have multiple births, said Doug Landblom, animal scientist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Dickinson, N.D. His main focus is on beef cattle.
He said he's heard of beef cows giving birth to quads, but that in those cases at least one of the calves died. Until Thursday, Sistad's calves all were doing fine.
He's not sure why one of them died.
"It's hard to lose one, especially when they were all doing so well," he said Friday.
Two at a time
Here's how Sistad tells the story of the calves' birth on Feb. 11.
He had a cow that wasn't due to give birth until early March. But the animal was "acting up" and so he put her inside the barn on the night of Feb. 10.
"I went out and checked at 2:30 (a.m.) and she had a set of twin heifers on the ground," he said.
Sistad spent two hours with the three animals to make sure they were doing well and then went inside the house to grab a little sleep.
"I went back out to check at 6:30 (a.m.) and there was another set of twin heifers. There was only one cow in the barn and four sweet little Red Angus heifers," he said.
The mother accepted all four calves, and Sistad has seen all of them nursing on her at the same time. Not surprisingly, he's providing the calves with extra milk to supplement what they receive from their mother.
Growing the herd
The four calves weighed from 36 to 48 pounds each, for a combined weight of about 160 pounds.
Typically, a single newborn Red Angus calf weighs about 80 to 85 pounds, Landblom said.
All four calves are female, or heifers. Sistad planned to keep all of them to expand his herd, which currently consists of 50 cows.
Even though the calves were born small, they have a good chance of bearing full-sized calves of their own, Landblom said.
Ranchers generally say they prefer one healthy calf to twins. The latter, though providing more potential profit, usually require extra expense and effort, including providing the second calf with supplemental milk.
But Sistad, who's an independent insurance agent in addition to operating his Rosebud Reds ranch, said before the mysterious death that he was happy to have quads.
"This is worth it," he said.
He noted that the number of cattle and calves in the United States is declining. On Jan. 1, that number stood at 92.7 million, the smallest the U.S. cattle herd has been since 1952.
The calves, Sistad joked earlier this week, "could help offset the shortage."