Yak groups are trying to determine the genetic makeup of 1,700 registered animals
March 1, 2019
Mary Jo Brockshus found herself battling high cholesterol 10 years ago and knew she and her husband Brad Peterson, could put their small acreage to work, providing an enjoyable hobby, and lowering her cholesterol at the same time. Buffalo required more land than they had available and cattle required more feed, but yaks filled the gap.
Yaks, she said, require about one-third less grass than cattle and are smaller, with females weighing about 600-800 pounds and males around 1,200-1,500 pounds.
Now, the couple have 20 yaks at their Nunn, Colo., ranch, including one of the most decorated bulls in the nation. Shiva, a 2-year old bull from the pair's Coalbank Creek Land and Livestock, was named Grand Champion overall for the second time at the National Western Stock Show in the International Yak Association sanctioned show. Shiva, who has been shown four times and has that many grand champion titles to his name, was also the People's Choice Award winner. This year, the NWSS saw 89 head of yaks in the show, a record high.
As the number of yaks in the U.S. increases and breeders and the breed associations strive toward genetic improvement, Brockshus said she hopes when AI technology is more accessible, they will have a bull many breeders will want. Genetic testing by the two registering bodies, the International Yak Association and U.S. Yak, is being done in hopes of also determining the genetic makeup of the 1,700 registered yaks in the U.S. The breed associations encourage registration and genetic testing through GeneSeek to establish parentage, determine the amount of inbreeding, measure the amount of cattle introgression, and to test for Bovine Viral Diarrhea.
Peterson said politics in Tibet no longer allow the export of yaks and the existing animals came to the U.S. by way of Canada when exportation was allowed in the 1950s.
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"They're working so we can bring in fiber or blood samples so we know what true Tibetan yaks are genetically, but the Chinese government won't allow it," he said.
Yak fiber, he said, is sought after by some fiber artists but isn't harvested like wool or other fibers. The downy fiber begins to loosen as the weather warms and the couple can then collect it, often spending time brushing the animals to collect it. It is warm enough, she said, that most fiber artists blend it with other fibers to create garments. Mills require 25 pounds of fiber per order and Brockshus said they've not collected that amount in the time they've raised yaks. She said they plan to host a local fiber guild in the spring when they begin collecting fiber.
Marketing yaks is primarily done in online yak groups. Brockshus said they see prices range from $1,200 and they saw one cow sell for $10,000. She said their yak herd is all personable, similar to goats.
"They look like a bison with the hump, they have horns like a bison, they have a tail like a horse, they climb like a goat and they can jump really high," she said. "They're not hard on fences, you just have to have the right fence. They're really personable but you get out of things what you put into it."
Their advice to aspiring yak owners is to begin with young animals to allow the yaks to be gentled at a young age.
In addition to fiber, yak meat is gaining popularity and a yak burger is even available at Bruce's Bar in Severance, Colo. Moving forward, the couple are working toward meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's requirements to make the meat commercially available.
Shiva sons, CBC Odin, won first place Fall Bull Calf, and CBC Arlo won second place Yearling Male and second place Halter Yearling Male. In addition, CBC Dawa took fifth place Yearling Heifer and CBC Liberty won sixth place for aged female. The show was judged by the Colorado State University Livestock Judging Team. The NWSS show also included the International Yak Association conference that featured a membership meeting, banquet and various educational sessions, a meat tasting, and a skein and fiber arts show.
Yaks are judged on a variety of criteria, which include conformation, structure, rise and curve of the horns, and fiber quality and coverage. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4410.