Cattle are a familiar site all around Colorado, and even the occasional buffalo is not uncommon. However, there is another breed of bovine animal that is increasing in popularity, and that is the Tibetian yak.
A yak is similar to its bovine relatives in many ways, but offer many advantages over either of its relatives. Yaks are low maintenance, and offer income opportunities through meat, milk wool and packing.
The Gillette family is taking advantage of this unique animal. Located in Livermore, Colo., Gillette Farms is a small yak operation that is family run by Stephen and Katherine Gillette, and their son Jason and his wife Allison.
Even though they originated in Tibet, yaks can be found on nearly every continent today. However, they are still most popular in the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas, Russian, China, Afghanistan and also in the United States.
The family first got into yaks in 1999, with two heifer calves and a bull calf. “We originally started looking for a healthy meat because I went to a health fair and my cholesterol came back a little high. Being so young, I wanted to try and do little things to get it down naturally. In our research we came across many animals, but yaks had the most advantages health wise. On top of that they were the easiest to keep and had additional uses beyond food,” said Jason Gillette.
Since that time, the operation has grown to include 12 yaks, as well as a separate yearling herd that will start calving next spring. “Right now the goal is to build the herd up to around 30 animals, with around five animals being ready each year for slaughter. We also would sell live animals as breeding stock for others wanting to get into this great alternative to beef,” he said.
It usually takes about two full years for a yak to reach processing weight, and the animals are grown on pastures. “The healthy meat market was the primary reason for choosing yaks. The meat is actually better for you than a skinless chicken breast. Fat content is nearly zero, and their is barely enough fat on the whole animal to make ground yak. There is nothing like raising your own food and not only is this a healthful meat, but you know exactly what is in the meat,” said Gillette.
Yaks breed in the same way that cattle do, and their gestation is similar as well, which is about nine months. Yaks usually have a single calf.
The family looks forward to calving season each year. “Our fondest memory of this experience so far was when that first calf came and we knew that we had a breeding program started. No assistance for the cow yak was wanted or needed,” he said.
He continued, “It just happened naturally and quickly and the calf was up walking within a couple of minutes. The new calf and its mother were pretty far out in a pasture, and we wanted the momma to get some water so I walked up, picked up the calf, and the cow followed me in closer to water.”
The breeding program that the family uses is fairly simple. “When we breed it is most important to us that we keep lines of purebred yak with no inbreeding or crossing of any kind. These yaks are naturally disease resistant, smart and docile, and we do everything possible to maintain the genetics as close to the original ancestors as possible,” Gillette said.
The animals are only bred using live cover, and they are not preg-tested. “As part of keeping everything natural we don’t use any alternate methods of breeding. Actually I am not aware that any other method currently exists for yaks,” he said.
In general yaks are pretty easy to keep, and require very little maintenance in order to thrive. “The best part of yaks I think is the ease to keep them. They do not require any vaccinations if you don’t want. The only thing that is required is a yearly or semi-annual anti-parisitic,” he said.
He added, “These animals are so naturally disease resistant, if you cross a bull yak with a female beef cow, the baby will come out as a newborn more disease resistant than its mother.”
However, there are some challenges. “Any bull animal will be a bull. When our bull was two and a half, he would tear up anything not cemented in the ground. This must of been his teenager stage as it has since stopped but last winter was tough with him,” Gillette stated.
Their second biggest challenge is not necessarily with the yak itself, but with their rarity. “Yaks are still not very well known, so most veterinarians really have no experience with them. They are bovine, so most things are the same as cattle, but there is definitely not a lot of experience out there relating specifically to yaks,” he said.
However, since yaks are self-sufficient and disease resistance, this is not usually a big problem.
The wide use for yaks makes them versatile throughout their lives. “The main use for yaks is meat but there are other uses. A pack animal, a pasture guard for smaller animals, a docile pasture pet, fiber uses and we have heard of others using yak milk for cheese and other things,” said Gillette.
Yaks prefer to live at higher altitudes and are very sure footed, which makes them a great pack animal. “Now that we have gotten into yaks, we are really surprised at what a smart and useful animal it is,” Gillette said.
He continued, “One of the best other uses is to train these animals to pack. We use them in that capacity for hunting, and certainly appreciate not packing elk out by hand anymore.
These animals are built for the cold, and have very dense, long fur that hangs down lower than the belly, forming a skirt. This fur has a dense, woolly undercoat. Both sexes have long, shaggy hair that covers the chest, flanks and thighs to insulate them from the cold.
“We have started combing a down underlayer of fiber each spring. This can be spun and comes out similar to cashmere and is worth selling,” said Gillette.
In Tibet, Yaks are milked and the milk is turned into butter. It is a prized ingredient in tea, and is also just for fuel in lamps. Their dried dung is also used as fuel by nomads, who have no wood to use for this purpose.
No matter what they are used for, yaks offer many advantages to a producer. “We want people to know about yaks because this really is an animal that is easy to keep and has a variety of uses. With a little work and patience anyone can raise these animals even if they don’t come from an agricultural background,” said Gillette. ❖