Efficient, gentle animals becoming more common in mountain West

Ruth Higdon watches Johnson, a bull yak. Johnson is part of a herd of 11 yaks in Ridgeway.

Ruth Higdon holds a calf named Chini. Yaks are very social and often used as pack animals.

Peter Hackett brushes Johnson. Despite his size, Johnson has a mellow demeanor and loves to be brushed.

Naks, as the females of the species are known, and their calves hang out in tall grass in Ridgway.

By now, they are used to the sound of brakes being stomped on and the sight of cars jerking to the highway’s shoulder.

“We’re lucky nobody’s crashed out there,” said DeGrey Phillips, laughing.

But consider the scenario: Driving along U.S. Highway 550 between Ouray and Ridgway, enjoying the mountain vistas, casting a casual glance at the cows grazing belly-deep in a grassy field nearby. Except those are weird-looking cows. Kind of shaggy. And wearing wigs? With horns?

Wait a second. Are those ... yaks?

Stop the car!

This is not what you expect to see in a Colorado mountain pasture. Beef cattle? Of course. Sheep? Sure. But yaks still seem to be for National Geographic pictorials of Himalayan highlands. Over the past decade or more, however, the number of yaks in this region has steadily grown. Though still far from common, and still no threat to beef cattle for the title of America’s Favorite Bovine, it’s becoming less rare to see yaks grazing in nearby fields and pastures.

(And though the word “yak” represents both the male and female of the animals in the United States, it’s more correct to call the males “yak” and the females “nak.”)

“They’re just wonderful animals,” said Patty McNall, Phillips’ wife. She is the heart inside Patty Yaks (pattyyaks.com), the business that has grown from their 2009 decision to raise and breed yaks.

“I’d always wanted animals,” she explained, “and when I turned 50 my husband said, do you still want animals? Because now’s the time to do it.”

She researched everything: beef cattle, sheep, llamas, buffalo, but she kept coming back to yaks. They seemed too good to be true — their hardiness, their economy and efficiency, their multiple uses. After a visit to the National Western Stock Show in Denver, however, they bought three yaks and then three more, forming their core herd of six.

Now, “they’re my babies,” McNall said. They come when she calls, the calves flop onto their sides for belly rubs when she’s near (she tries to be present at each of their births), they let her put Santa hats on them at Christmastime.

She said anyone involved with livestock must be practical, “and I wouldn’t hesitate to butcher an animal if it turned or became dangerous, but we’ve been really lucky.”

The majority of yak operations in this area are breeders with small herds, though some — including Bob and Ann Hasse at Delyaks Yak Ranch in Montrose (yakmeat.us) and Carl and Dana Hawk at Hawk-n-Yak Ranch in Ridgway (hawk-n-yak-ranch.com) — raise yaks commercially, particularly for the meat.

Nationwide, smaller breeding herds are most common, said Montana yak rancher Jim Watson, president of the International Yak Association (iyak.org). This is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to determine an exact number of yaks in the United States or in Colorado: not all animals are registered with the IYA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes yaks in the “wild ungulate” category, which includes wildebeest and other African game animals. The Colorado Department of Agriculture, currently conducting its five-year census, doesn’t have a separate category for yaks among the bovine count.

Watson said there probably are about 7,500 yaks in the United States, “but that’s guessing.” And he estimated that this number originated from a core of 20–30 animals, so yak breeders have become a tight-knit group partially of necessity, to keep U.S. yaks genetically healthy.

The majority of the world’s yaks live in China and central Asia, an estimated 14 million animals, but the United States has an import ban on yaks and yak fluids from Asia, in part due to fears about hoof and mouth and bluetongue diseases, Watson said.

Also, because yaks do best in high, dry climates, there are a limited number of places in the United States where they thrive. The majority of U.S. yaks live in the mountain west, Watson said.

Despite those limitations, “I watch the herd book and we’re having more animals registered all the time and newer breeders coming in all the time,” Watson said.

Among that group is Peter Hackett and Ruth Higdon, both medical doctors, who got their first yaks in April and are raising a herd of 11 in Ridgway. Higdon had yaks in Alaska and rented them as pack animals for mountain treks, and Hackett lived in Nepal for six years, “in a village where the main occupation was yak herding,” he said. “I fell in love with yaks and the Sherpa people.

“I really admire the way Sherpas interact with yaks. They take such good care of them, they groom them, hang bells from their horns, weave ribbon through their hair. And they use every part of the yak — they use the fibers, the meat, the dairy products. They use them for packing caravans over the Himalayas. In a lot of places, they’re a symbol of wealth.”

According to “The Yak,” a comprehensive text produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao.org/docrep/006/ad347e/ad347e00.htm), “The Yak is a relatively insignificant species in global terms, yet it is critical to the livelihood security of the herders in a rather difficult environment.

“The Yak’s ability to survive in harsh conditions and the peoples’ ability to derive sustenance from it are classic examples of adaptation by both the animals and the human beings. The need to ensure the maintenance of domestic animal diversity, therefore, cannot be overstated.”

Those who raise yaks locally praise them for their efficiency — they require half to one-quarter of the grazing land beef cattle need, McNall said — and economy. McNall said she and Phillips spent $180 per animal in their first year of having yaks.

“For our herd of six, we put out one bale of hay per day,” McNall said. “They require a lot less food.” And each year, the calves sell for $1,500 to $1,700 each.

A big sell for many newer yak breeders is that domesticated yaks have the potential for great gentleness and familiarity. McNall said she is outside with her yaks every day, talking to them, brushing them and just being around them, so their personalities have become almost pet-like. She even designed the door of her workroom, where she weaves on a loom, to be wide enough for yaks because it’s adjacent to their pen. And they do wander in sometimes.

“Our neighbors call her the yak whisperer,” Phillips said with a laugh.

Sometimes she puts one on a lead and takes it to the nearby KOA, to the delight of all. Likewise, Hackett’s enormous bull Johnson, with his giant, bucket head and mellow demeanor, is a favorite with everyone who meets him. Hackett advises visitors to watch Johnson’s horns, though, because the bull gets jealous of any other yak being brushed and tends to shove his way between the brush and the other yak.

So it is because of that, because they can be big, silly babies or because they can be viable commodities, that the numbers of yaks regionally are growing.

“They have provided me with material products (i.e. milk and wool) of finer quality than I had imagined,” wrote Shannon Holder of Butte Pasture Yak Ranch in Crested Butte (yaksmatter.com) “They have connected me with other farms and ranches and friends that will always be an invaluable part of my life. Our pack-trained yaks have proven to be willing and capable workers. Sales of animals and yak products have outweighed their expenses. Their loving companionship and spirited dispositions have been more of a joy than anything else they have to offer.”

So, Phillips and McNall are never surprised when they see cars pulled to the side of the road and mystified visitors with cameras watching the yaks grazing in a field.


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