Domestic Yaks: The Next Buffalo?

Cattle ranchers at the National Western Stock Show in Denver were doing double takes the other morning when they walked by the yak pens. The yaks, with their shaggy appearance and grunting sounds, look like Ice Age relatives of the massive beef cattle elsewhere in the stockyards. Yaks are about half the size of domestic cattle -- with the three-month-old calves no bigger than an adult Newfoundland dog.

Yaks are still quite exotic in the U.S. and Canada. But the fact they've been a presence at one of the world's largest livestock events for several years now says something about both the animals and their breeders -- who swear up and down that yak meat and yak wool are the next big thing. Perhaps, at some future point, even the new buffalo.

Self-Sufficient, Ecologically Sound

Native to Asia's Himalayan Mountains, most of the 9,000 or so domestic yaks in North America reportedly descend from zoo animals brought to Canada a century ago. The animals love high altitudes, cold weather and dry climates -- and have done very well in the Rockies.

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Some yak ranchers say their animals eat like goats, consuming weeds and shrubs most beef cattle and horses avoid. "You can put four yak cows on the same acreage as one commercial beef cow," says breeder Bob Hasse, who's also on the International Yak Association's board of directors. While there is some difference of opinion over whether it's four cows or two cows per acre, there are other good reasons to raise yaks. "They're much lighter weight, so they're much easier on the environment," says Hasse.

"They'll thrive where cattle would starve. They also eat and drink about a third of what beef cattle do," says Joe Phillips, who started raising yaks about two years ago in Colorado's High Country. This time of year, he says, "you do have to feed them some hay, but they can handle the cold, they can handle the predators, it's not an issue. So I'm hoping to see more of them in the county and surrounding high-altitude areas."

Expensive Meat, Valuable Wool

Yak tastes like very lean beef, and their meat is low in fat. They take twice as long as cattle to mature, however. And yak is still considered an exotic meat like bison or elk. Because of that classification, Hasse says, any yaks prepared for public consumption have to be processed in a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility under a volunteer program -- where the yak producer pays for both the inspections and the inspectors' time.

And those costs add up for the yak rancher. "You can get grass-fed beef [processed] at a private facility for 50 to 75 cents a pound," he says. "The price of beef that goes into a store from a monster facility . . . runs between 25 and 35 cents a pound. Our costs [for Yak] run between a buck to a buck-and-a-half [per pound] for processing."

All those processing expenses mean that, even if you can find yak meat at your local market, it'll probably cost you two to three times the cost of a similar beef cut.

Good Reviews From a Weaver

Yaks are also valued for their wool. The animals have a coarse, dense, protective outer coat, but their inner "down" coat has a texture that compares favorably to cashmere. "The down is competitive to -- in the same realm as -- camel hair [and] alpaca," says Heather Morrissey, a weaver and hosiery producer from Ontario. She's currently working with yak wool fibers from Mongolia but is "looking at some of the domestic wool, both in the U.S. and Canada."

And while yak wool is still a niche market, Morrissey says it's where she wants to be. "I think it's got potential, probably in the next decade, to seriously bump it up a notch or two, looking at a commercial level," she says. "But right now I think it's at its infancy. It's going to be at a cottage-level for a bit. But I think . . . you have to structure it in such a way that it's similar to the way the other wool businesses are, so that you can take it to market."

"We're seriously in the pioneering stage," says Hasse. "We're learning what we have. Every time we learn something new, it's positive. With less than 10,000 animals in the country, we're scratching the surface. But the more people get to know [yaks], when they take the time, [the more] they're interested in the economics."