Story and Photos by Carolyn White
Cedaredge, Colo.

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February 10, 2014
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West Slope veterinarian couple finds advantages to raising resource-efficient yaks

Drs. Jeff and Susie Hirsch of Cedaredge, Colo., have a busy veterinary practice, four children and a peaceful, hilltop home with a wonderful view of the valley, the Grand Mesa, — not to mention a herd of yaks.

Why choose such an exotic breed to raise on their 30 acres, as well as on the additional 30 that border the Surface Creek Veterinary Center they own?

Susie explained without hesitation, “They eat less than cattle. All the fat is external, so it can be easily trimmed. Plus, the meat is high in Omega 3 fatty acid, and it has a good flavor.”

Drivers who pass by the veterinary clinic — located at 17800 Hanson Road (off Surface Creek) — often slow down as they stare at the yaks. With their long, shaggy fur, impressive horns and humps (similar to those on buffalo), these animals are certainly unusual. “The fur is actually very soft and fine,” Susie said. “You brush it instead of shearing it to get the fibers.”

Those fibers have a very small diameter, which is measured in microns, making it valuable to weavers. The “guard hairs” — those that fall from the belly downward — are long and coarse, and “are useful for trapping heat and holding it against the body.”

Yaks originated in the Himalayas, in Asia, where they were used as pack animals. The couple found theirs in northern Idaho, where “they’d been bred by a man named Phil Wykle, who imported his own, original herd from Canada.”

Extremely sure-footed, with deep lung capacity, yaks have been known to climb to elevations as high as 20,000 feet to forage on lichens, twigs, leaves and dried grasses.

Additionally, they will eat snow and ice where water is scarce.

What’s most unusual about yaks, however, is their gregariousness.

Even with a stranger present, the members of the Hirsch’s herd began spontaneously bucking, running and spinning in the pasture as their hay was being spread, playfully flipping thick, bushy tails over their backs.

“Even our bull is gentle,” Susie pointed out, adding, “of course, it depends on how you raise them.”

Another, somewhat surprising fact about yaks is their extremely low birth weight. Newborn calves barely top 30 pounds, so “we’ve never had to pull one.”

They grow quickly, however.

Adult females will reach 700 to 800 pounds at maturity, and the bulls, 1,200.

A native of Grand Junction, Colo., Susie always wanted to be a veterinarian. She met Jeff, who is originally from Arizona, while both were students at Colorado State University.

After graduating, the pair returned to the southwest, where they bought the practice of a vet who was retiring. That business, located in Phoenix, lasted for 12 years.

Unfortunately, “we were kicked out by the laws of Imminent Domain,” she explains. “The city was building a light rail system, which went right through our property, so we had to sell that, as well as the home we had built.”

The couple was given fair market value for the real estate, only, and nothing for the actual business — which by then had accumulated “a great clientele.”

Disillusioned by the way they’d been treated, the couple and their three daughters, Winnie (now 10), Tori (8), and Alexandra (7) returned to Colorado, where they’ve been living now for the past five years.

“It turned out to have a good outcome,” Susie smiled. “This is a great place to raise kids. It’s a different world than Phoenix, and we like the small town atmosphere.”

As for the difference in temperature and elevation, that’s no problem, because, “our entire family loves snow, and everyone skis.”

There’s a family atmosphere at the Surface Creek Veterinary Center, as well. Because Susie was pregnant while the plans were being drawn, Gus, the youngest, has a crib and some toys in a little room by the office. Now 3, he continues to accompany his parents to work.

Susie said, “We pick our daughters up after school. They come here and clean cages, stamp envelopes, and do other odd jobs.”

As a result, “All are extremely well socialized.”

The children are responsible for chores at home, as well, and there are plenty when you consider that besides the yaks — which are limited to a herd of “around 10” — this family keeps a few head of cattle, some chickens and alpacas, a bunch of cats, a pet rabbit, and one exceptionally friendly Great Pyrenees dog.

Although the dog primarily stays in the pasture with the yaks, he isn’t needed to protect them.

“I don’t worry about predators,” Susie admits. “The yaks will get and aggressive if they think they’re being threatened.”

One day, she noticed a coyote was sitting outside of the fence, but it didn’t linger for long.

“The bull false-charged and it took off.”

They haven’t seen a coyote since.

But because the yaks are so good-natured around people, “one of our daughters wants to bottle-raise one, and eventually ride it like a horse.”

She looked skyward for a moment, and then shrugged.

“We’ll see.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Feb 10, 2014 09:51AM Published Feb 24, 2014 02:24PM Copyright 2014 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.