Lavaca County, Texas
Four decades ago, black-and-white spotted Holsteins were a common sight in the gently rolling countryside of Lavaca County, an area of south-central Texas where 20 or so dairies once operated. Now, the only herd of dairy cattle here is the herd of sweet-faced, big-eyed Jerseys that graze the pastures at Four E Dairy near Moulton.
Surviving hasn’t been easy for the Chaloupka family, the dairy’s owners. They lease and own 2,100 acres on which they graze their 450 milking cows and 325 replacement heifers. They also grow corn, silage and hay.
Drought and turbulent markets knocked out other dairies. Instead of giving up, the Chaloupkas innovated, switching from Holsteins to Jerseys, literally putting their cattle out to pasture, tapping into the raw milk market and creating a corn maze business that draws thousands of visitors every fall.
“We’ve had to diversify,” says Elyse Chaloupka, who runs the dairy and farming operation with her husband, Eugene, their sons Chad and Scott, and Eugene’s brother Erwin.
Four E Dairy dates back to the early 1960s, when Eugene and Erwin’s father, the late Ernest Chaloupka Sr., partnered with them and their brother, Ernest Jr., to expand his existing Holstein operation on land settled by his great-grandfather in 1868. In 1999, Eugene and Elyse’s son Chad joined the operation full time, followed by their younger son Scott this past year.
Volatile milk prices made the 1990s rough years. In 2000, when dairy economists were predicting the demise of small dairies, the family bought more Holsteins. In 2005, they went back into Jerseys because they tolerate the heat much better. “They don’t produce as much milk as Holsteins, but their butterfat and protein are higher,” Eugene says
Weathering Tough Times
Then came 2009. Dairy prices nosedived and drought conditions persisted. Once again, the Chaloupkas feared they might lose their land. “The price of milk wasn’t enough to pay for feed, much less anything else,” Elyse recalls. “We kept borrowing while everyone else dipped into their equity. We lost three or four dairies that year in Lavaca County.”
To provide capital, Scott borrowed from Capital Farm Credit in La Grange and bought 33 acres of the family’s land. Texas Farm Credit restructured the dairy’s financing.
“The Chaloupkas are wonderful people who have farming in their hearts,” says John Carpenter, a Texas Farm Credit vice president, who handled the loan. “It’s amazing how they’ve been able to pass the farm from one generation to the next.”
Refinancing wasn’t enough, though. Inspired by a fellow dairyman, the family built a purebred Jersey herd that grazed on existing pastures rather than feed in a confined yard. They also applied for a raw milk permit, and they changed their breeding program, switching from artificial insemination to natural service with quality bulls.
“That’s when everything began to work,” Chad says. “The milk industry might say we’re not progressive, but we’re progressive in our own way. We’ve gone back to the old ways, and they’re working.”
The Milking Process
At noon every day, the first batch of 16 Jerseys files into the Four E’s herringbone-style milking parlor. Two farmhands milk up to 65 cows an hour in one six-hour shift. A second shift starts at midnight. The commercial milk is piped into a chilled 5,000-gallon tank, which is emptied every other morning. A cooperative buys milk and sells it to a nationally known processor for pasteurization and bottling.
The raw milk is piped to a chilled 1,000-gallon tank. Elyse and two employees hand bottle the milk into half-gallon and one-gallon plastic jugs. They also make and bottle 60 quarts of cream, using a cream separator with 32 disks.
“It takes an hour to make cream and two hours to clean up,” Elyse says.
This fall, the Chaloupkas will add a cheese-making room to accommodate a business owned by Andre and Jillian Cudin, cheesemakers from Victoria. The couple plans to purchase raw milk from the dairy and make artisanal mozzarella and other cheeses.
“The new facility will give us an added use for our milk,” Elyse says, “and another way to diversify so we can keep our farm going.”