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BEULAH, N.D. — Gerald Skalsky was at an auction sale when his wife called about an unusual calf born Wednesday on the couple’s ranch south of Beulah in western North Dakota.
“You’re just going to have to see it for yourself,” she told him.
Skalsky came home to find the calf, seemingly healthy, but with an extra set of hind legs hanging off the side of its neck.
“I’ve been ranching my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” the 59-year-old rancher said as he watched the Black Angus calf’s bald-faced mother come to lick its baby on the nose.
State Veterinarian Susan Keller said the extra limbs could possibly be one of two similar genetic disorders called polydactyly or polymelia. With polymelia, the extra limbs are often smaller or shrunken in appearance.
Keller called the defect an “important topic that producers should not be afraid to report to their veterinarian and to all breed associations. … Now that DNA testing is possible for more genetic defects in cattle, it is always good to report findings to the breed association offices so they can help determine if the defect is genetic or due to other potential causes.”
Keller became informed on polydactyly from two of her former college professors who were some of the first geneticists trying to determine causes for the disorder and help producers eliminate known carriers. She said polydactyly is one that happens in a multitude of breeds and is the result of genetic combinations involving recessive genes.
Keller suggested taking a DNA sample from the calf, cow and bull and said breed associations sometimes offer to pay for the cost of the test if asked for assistance.
“I’ve been in practice 42 years, and I’ve seen three or four (calves) with an extra limb,” said Gerald Kitto, a veterinarian at Sheridan Animal Hospital and member of the North Dakota Board of Animal Health.
He said, in his opinion, it could be a set of twins that didn’t split during development.
“It can be something else, but I think it’s more a mistake in gestation,” Kitto said.
The condition isn’t fatal and often the extra limbs can be surgically removed, which Skalsky plans to do so it doesn’t get caught in a fence.
Morgan Dallman of Knife River Veterinary Clinic, Skalsky’s vet and another Board of Animal Health member, agreed with Kitto. And he said this situation is one of the better ones in terms of birth defects, as many are fatal.
Dallman said he may recommend DNA testing in situations where there are multiple cases of defects but he said most of the time they’re isolated situations. And he suspects the case is likely one of those random occurrences.
Skalsky said he doesn’t plan to keep the calf for breeding but will likely keep the cow, a heifer that he bred and raised, as it appears to be a good mother to its first calf, even though the baby is deformed.
Skalsky said he got into ranching, following in his family’s footsteps. Both his father and grandfather raised milk cattle, with his grandfather starting the ranch in 1928. Not wanting to be tied to twice-a-day milkings, Skalsky crossed a neighbor’s Angus bull with a few of his father’s milk cows and built up a herd.
After 28 years as a carpenter, he retired to ranch full time.
Looking up to the sky, he said he couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather be: “I love the land, I love the cattle.”