The high-quality Holstein livestock currently at Vala are the tip of a breeding program that stretches back for over 20 years. Over this time Alex Arena, the owner of Vala Hosteins has accessed elite genetics from a wide range of breeders overseas and within Australia usually by buying embryos and successfully implanting them here in Australia. The focus has been to access genetics from breed-leading Holstein cow families with a sound record of transmitting favourable genes to their next generation – this formula can be summed up as “good cows are the cows that continue to make good cows” or expressed somewhat differently as “good gene transmitters make good gene transmitters”.
Over the years these embryo-transplant (ET) breeding programs have often resulted in over 500 calves being born each year. Each calf is i) a registered pedigree; ii) genomically-tested under 3 leading indexes - the American TPI; Canadian LPI and Australian BPI; and iii) maintained at high health status to ensure export as a live animal to closed markets such as Japan and, in the case of bulls, to also allow for semen export.
Each year the top 15% of the Vala calves enter the Vala ET program. This means 30 or more of each year’s crop of heifers become donors. This constant process of selecting the best from the best over many years, running a very large ET program and doing this based on science that genomic testing provides means that Vala keeps moving the Holstein breed forward.
To gauge this one only has to see that, for example, in October 2019 Vala Bandares Boliana was not only the #1 heifer in Australia on the BPI index but also the outright #1 female Holstein; her herdmate Vala Quantum Nady was #3 heifer and #7 female Holstein. Clearly both of these breed leaders are examples of the embryo-donor heifers that come through the Vala ET programs and to produce embryos that will be tomorrow’s Vala breed-leaders.
Of the many different strands to breeding selections at Vala, six themes are currently our focus:
Dairy cows need to pay their way by making lots of milk effortlessly – and with high butterfat and protein components. We select both embryo donors and joining sires based on sound production traits;
Whether one believes in the “science” around A2A2 or not, clearly a lot of consumers of dairy products believe in it and are prepared to pay a premium for A2A2. Vala has been breeding consistently to meet this market demand and over 50% of Vala’s herd is already A2A2. We prioritise A2A2 in our choice of donor heifers and joining sires. Our aim is to achieve over 90% of our herd as A2A2 within 5 years;
Dehorning calves is an awful business and one that can be avoided by using polled Holsteins. The gap between the breed-leading horned Holsteins and breed-leading polled Holsteins has closed very rapidly in recent years. The reality is that now dairy farmers do not need to take a penalty in terms of production or any other management trait by introducing polled Holsteins into their herd. Eliminating dehorning calves also eliminates a “free kick” that the animal welfare lobby uses against the dairy sector time and time again. At Vala we have already bred homozygous (PP) bulls that are now in AI making semen for dairy farmers – every calf from a PP bull will be born polled. AI Studs have been keen to acquire polled bulls from Vala e.g. Vala Andreas BOLTI-P now at Agrigene had a gBPI of 514 in the August 2022 proofs and he remains firmly in the top 5 bulls (non-polled and polled) standing in Australia. In our Vala breeding program currently about half of the donor heifers are polled and we heavily use polled sires in our embryo production and in AI of our heifers. Within 5 years we would aim to be 100% polled;
4. Health and Welfare.
We like to breed Holsteins that survive a long time and are relatively trouble-free. In selecting donor heifers and joining sires we particularly look at DPR, Calving-ease, Productive Life, SCS and Feet & Leg traits. Poor scores on any of these would tend to rule a heifer out of our ET program;
We all like Holsteins that look nice when they come into the dairy every day. Sometimes at Vala we will deliberately try to produce a Show winner by emphasizing type traits but usually we focus on the four themes listed above and because we have kept an eye on type in our breeding selections over many years we often find that Show type comes naturally without sacrificing the four themes above; and
Every dairy-farmer knows that his cows dislike hot and/or humid weather. Cows suffer greatly in the heat and milking cows suffer in particular because of the conflicting demands of trying to control their body temperature while trying to make milk under adverse ambient temperatures – inevitably these demands result in a severe loss of milk production. Climate change is now considered inevitable as global temperature levels continue to rise. Dairy cows will face more demanding hot weather and dairy-farmers will see their cows suffer more and milk production will be compromised further.
One natural strategy to compensate for climate change is to breed Holstein cows that carry the Slick gene. This gene endows cows with a shorter hair coat that has been proven to allow the cow to regulate its body temperature better in hot and/or humid climates and thereby allows the cow to sustain higher milk production under these environmental conditions. This shorter hair coat has many advantages for dairy cows in Tropical climates as well as more Temperate climates facing larger seasonal extremes in Summer. For more information on Slick genetics please see this link to the University of Florida - University of Florida - Slick gene site.
Vala Holsteins has invested heavily in Slick genetics and now has a large pool of Slick cows, heifers and bulls – these are all fully registered on the Australian Herdbook and genomic data is available on every animal. Slick has become a major theme to incorporate in Vala’s future breeding programs and is being combined with the other themes above – for example, already Vala has fully registered progeny that combine Slick, polled and good type.
Slick promises to be a major contribution by Vala to the future of the Australian Holstein population. Vala will be soon releasing semen from its Slick bulls for use by Australian dairy-farmers. Vala is confident that eventually the Slick gene will become a dominant trait in the Australia dairy herd – just as A2A2 and polled have progressively become established as preferred traits and are now becoming dominant.
Hopefully the discussion above gives an insight into the breeding philosophy at Vala and why Vala livestock that are for sale either directly via the on-line catalog on our website (valaholsteins.com) or at a feature Sale have so many of these desirable traits already.
As a final word, we should emphasize that Vala Holsteins is a breeder – and only a breeder. We are NOT a commercial dairy farm and we do NOT have a milking dairy and therefore we have NO milking herd. We do not intend to become a commercial dairy farm therefore we do not hold back the best cows for ourselves and sell the rest. No, we sell everything (including our ex-flush heifers) so that they will go to good homes in someone-else’s dairy. Thus, the ultimate beneficiary of the Vala breeding program are those who buy our livestock or acquire semen from Vala-bred bulls standing at AI Studs.