Farming Magazine - December, 2012


Dairy Vet Turns Dairy Farmer for Second Career

By Wendy Komancheck

Farming has been in the Lopez family since 1949, when Mark Lopez's grandfather bought the property in Yellow House, Pa., that is now known as Wholesome Dairy Farms ( The farm was sold to Lopez's uncle, who worked the land until he retired. Today, Lopez and his wife, Elizabeth, raise and care for 45 Ayrshire cows on 100 acres.

Mark and Elizabeth Lopez with one of their daughters.
Photos courtesy of Wholesome Dairy Farms.

Lopez, a veterinarian, uses his skills primarily on the farm. Elizabeth works as a veterinarian at Silver Maple Veterinary Clinic in nearby Kutztown.

Lopez's cows are mostly grass-fed. He has about 20 young stock in various breeding stages, and he uses young sires to breed the farm's next generation.

"The cows eat grass, hay and a mineral supplement that I sweeten up with just a touch of oats, molasses or another grain just to make the minerals palatable," Lopez said.

He doesn't advertise his cows as 100 percent grass-fed because the herd eats a wide variety of foods to ensure that they produce enough milk to sell and to be used to make other dairy products.

"They eat salt and minerals; there is the flavoring that I use to sweeten up the mineral mix; they love to eat placenta after a cow has a calf; and clover is not a grass, it is a legume," Lopez explained. "They also eat weeds that are not grasses, so to say 100 percent grass-fed is a bit of an impossible idealization, but I know what people are talking about when they say that."

A new kind of farming

The couple is passionate about farming and they care about their cows, which is why Lopez decided to follow a unique dairy model.

"We could have entered into dairy farming and used a conventional production model, but we wanted to do something different that would reflect our values more closely," Lopez said. "I saw in my dairy veterinary life that cows were too often stressed and in a less-than-optimal state of well-being. Cow health and welfare are a priority for us."

Additionally, Lopez noticed that commercially produced milk is inferior in quality compared to the fresh milk he used to drink on his grandfather's farm. He wanted to produce milk the way he remembered it: clean, delicious and safe to drink.

Lopez is licensed through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk in the state. In addition to selling raw milk to local customers, Lopez makes a variety of dairy products from his herd's yield: yogurt, kefir, Greek yogurt, cheese curds and a variety of cheeses.

Mark Lopez's veterinary skills come in handy on his farm. Here he helps deliver an Ayrshire calf.

In order to adapt the milk house to his vision of healthy cows and safe milk production, Lopez installed a high-line milking system in the existing tie-stall barn his grandfather built 63 years ago. Lopez also installed a Patz barn cleaner, as well as a bulk tank, condenser and other equipment necessary for milking.

To match his farming philosophy, Lopez chose to use a rotational grazing, grass-fed model for his cows.

"Ayrshire cows are great grazers, and they have a good milk-to-cheese yield. They are a heritage breed and their milk tastes great; people travel for miles and miles just to buy our milk. This tells me that we made the right choice for our particular model," Lopez said.

Lessons from a vet

Lopez learned about dairy farming by observing other farmers while he was working as a vet. Lopez admitted that he's also learned a lot from his own farming mistakes.

Before starting Wholesome Dairy Farms, Lopez worked as a veterinarian on large dairies in New Mexico and Texas. At the time, he oversaw the health of about 20,000 cows. That's when he discovered the key to herd health.

"Fixing sick cows was only a part of what I did as a vet," Lopez explained. "I quickly saw that dairy management is what drives cow health and welfare. In other words, it isn't about curing an ailment in the cow, it is about fixing the management decisions that led to the ailment in the first place."

However, Lopez believes that any advice he would give dairy farmers today has come 50 years too late. If he lived in the early 1960s, when dairy farming started to go more commercial, he would have advised farmers to hold on to their rights to market their own product. He believes the end to independent dairy farms began when farmers handed over their milk marketing to big co-ops and dairy processors.

Wholesome Dairy Farms' Ayrshires in the pasture.

"I see a sad future where the dairy industry looks more and more like the poultry and swine industries, where producers are no longer independent, land-owning entrepreneurs," Lopez said. "The poultry and swine industries look more like feudalism than capitalism from the perspective of the actual operator/producer. At this point, to turn the tide in favor of the independent dairy producer, it would take something like a radical cultural and economic revolution in the dairy world. I don't see that happening. There will always be small farms like mine, but the general industry model for dairy has already turned the corner toward feudalism."

The customers are the silver lining around this dark cloud. People who live in areas where small farms still abound have the opportunity to get to know their farmer, witness cows grazing and see how milk is produced on the farm.

Lopez believes that many consumers don't understand why certain farming practices are performed, and consequently jump to conclusions. He used the veal controversy as his case in point:

"The truth is that if you enjoy dairy products, like cheese on your pizza or ice cream or even milk on your cereal, you'll have to accept veal as a legitimate food choice. Here is why: biology. A cow must have a calf to make milk. Roughly half of those calves are born as males. If a cow has a calving interval of 14 months, [this] means that every cow out there - about 9 million of them in the U.S. - has a calf every 14 months and half of them will be bull calves. That is a lot of bull calves being born on American dairies. These bull calves cost real money to raise and house until marketing age. When the veal market crashed because of the whole 'veal is cruel' image, this led to a drop in veal prices and some really horrible things started happening to these bull calves. For a calf to lead a short, dignified life that serves a purpose, [it's] more civilized than to completely waste the life that the farm has been blessed with."

Inside the barn at Wholesome Dairy Farms.
Lopez and other small dairy farmers market their goods in such a way that it introduces customers to farming life. This partnership between farmer and customer, with no middlemen in between, will hopefully reduce consumer misunderstandings of farm life.

Most of Wholesome Dairy's products are sold wholesale, but Lopez also runs a small dairy store on the farm. The farm's milk and other dairy products are sold in 14 health food stores and farm markets throughout southeastern Pennsylvania, and fresh cheese curds are used as ingredients at two Philadelphia restaurants, The Blind Pig and R2L Restaurant.

"My Ayrshires are all like family to me. I'm surrounded with love all day long," Lopez concluded. "There is the love between me and most of the cows; the love that the customers have for our products; and when I get home, the greatest love awaits me in my family. All this love has to be good for my health."

Komancheck writes about Pennsylvania farming from her home in Lancaster County, Pa.