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.

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."

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yaks@grunniens.com

I don't think yaks will ever become as popular as our traditional cattle but they are a terrific multipurpose livestock. They aren't optimized for meat, fiber, or milk, but each of these yak products is outstanding in quality. You can find yak meat in small restaurants in several communities. Companies like Ecco, Khunu, and Shokay are demonstrating the value and marketability of these products. Yaks are viable livestock, if they were a real ponzi scheme folks like the Social Security Administration, and Bernie Madoff would be promoting them not small ranchers. If you are really green, you would already know how for thousands of years, yaks have been at the heart of the sustainable lifestyles of the nomadic Tibetans. Instead the newest green cause is to stop the tibetans from burning yak dung in their tents because we know better. We will have them on corn syrup and GMO's as soon as we can convince them that yak meat is bad for them.
I apologize for the rant!

January 29 2011 at 2:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Jerry

YAK,YAK,YAK!

January 25 2011 at 8:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
moeelmore

I wish all the herbivores would just shut up! I eat meat and have no intention of changing -- they should concentrate more on alternative energy and leave my food alone!
At the same time I wonder if the Yak craze is not just the start of another more or less pyramide scheme like beefalo, llamas, emu and ostriches that have found riches for the first on board but not much for those that follow. Sure sounds like it to me!

January 25 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Vasu Murti

With the threat of global warming in an age of rapidly expanding human population growth, we should be eating lower on the food chain, and shifting to a plant-based diet -- NOT finding new animals to "domesticate" (read: exploit and kill) for our own ends. Former cattle rancher turned vegan environmentalist Howard Lyman writes in his 1997 book, Mad Cowboy: "A study at Ohio State University comparing various types of meats with various types of plant foods found that even the least efficient plant food is nearly ten times as efficient as the most efficient animal food. There is almost always an unseen pollution cost to the production of energy. Lowering the energy requirements of our nutrition would thus help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil and nuclear power plants...To this day, at taxpayer expense, the Forest Service administers grazing rights on public lands, and sells those rights for nominal fees, usually considerably lower than the fees for comparable private lands. In fact, federal agencies typically spend more money to administer grazing allotments than is returned to the Treasury in fees. The government often picks up the tab for water pipelines fences, cattle guards, seeding, and weeding. The government's Animal Damage Control division kills an estimated 250,000 wild animals annually to accommodate the ranchers who don't want the harming their livestock. The government also transfers public grazing leases when ranches dependent on those leases change hands; these leases therefore enhance the value of private property, only adding to the wealth of those most interested in protecting the 'right' to graze public land. The politics of public grazing, a classic example of the wealthy and powerful feeding at the public trough, make public lands ranching appear unassailable. Meanwhile, the consequent ecological damage to the Western half of the United States has continued virtually unabated for more than a century." (Howard Lyman gives his stirring account of his journey from meat-loving cowboy to vegetarian environmental activist -- Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat -- telling the whole truth about the catastrophic consequences of an animal-based diet. He is now one of America's leading spokesmen for vegetarianism.)

January 25 2011 at 7:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
WELCOME CHIEF!

Yakkity Yak!

January 25 2011 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to WELCOME CHIEF!'s comment
hfxmilkman

Don't talk back

January 25 2011 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
barbmike15

I had a ÿak" burger while I lived in Taos, NM a few years ago at a very nice hotel and I must say, I have eaten quite a few burgers across America over the years, but the flavor of the yak burger beat each and every one of the others, hands down. I was very surprised with the flavor. If anyone gets a chance, try it.

January 25 2011 at 6:14 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
fitzmom

Try goat meat...the most widely consumed meat in the world but not here. Lower in fat and cholesterol than even chicken and high in the good cholesterol. Tried it for the first time about 4 years ago (had to get over my "American attitude") and ended up liking it.

January 25 2011 at 6:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
grvstwn

PS: From my earlier comment. The e-coil problem in grassfed beef or bison is nonexistant. The human digestive system can handle any e-coil from grassfed animals. The fat problem is not even thought about, because everybody wants more of it. The omega 3 oils are in the fat, so people want burger that's 75/25. Again refer to www.eatwild.com. This website is considered the #1 source of info. by people who want to eat healthy meats.

January 25 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to grvstwn's comment
chuckposvar

E-coli.... not E-coil...learn how to spell

January 25 2011 at 6:49 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
hopefarm01

We live in south Florida and bought a Yak at a livestock auction a few years ago.
Because the Yak torn-up the auction area the prior week, I bought her for only $25.00. It was a big Joke around the auction. Well anyway, the Yak was with us for about 3 years and we decided to taste Yak meat. We did and it was great!!

I'd like to have a few more, they do everything this artcicle says and more. I've still got the head, mounted.

January 25 2011 at 5:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
SandhillsRider

As a young boy many years ago in the mid-west I remember going to yearly fundraisers where they would grill ox steaks. Why don't they sell more ox? I see what is called ox tails in the markets but where is the rest of the ox?

January 25 2011 at 5:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to SandhillsRider's comment
chuckposvar

good question!!

January 25 2011 at 6:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply