If you think yaks are only found in the Himalayas, think again. Forty years ago yaks were virtually nonexistent in the United States but their numbers are climbing. As a ranch animal, the yak is a jack of all trades. With proper training yaks can be ridden, packed for backpacking, pull a plow and provide milk, wool and meat.
Take a trip to Crawford and you'll find two ranchers eager to show you how they're raising yaks and getting the most out of this bovine alternative.
"My daughter started looking into sustainable ranching and discovered yaks," said Bob Stuplich, owner of American White Yak Ranch. He began raising yaks 10 years ago. After learning about them he traveled to Tibet to learn first hand about yak husbandry. He now has a growing herd of 48.
Two years ago Stuplich moved to Crawford from Crested Butte because of the yaks. "It was difficult to feed with all the snow and you couldn't grow hay for them," he said. His ranch includes several pastures for holding yak bulls, raising baby yaks and growing pasture for feed.
Erin Powell, who calls her homestead Steer It Up Ranch, started managing Stuplich's ranch in February 2018. In 2012 Powell stumbled upon a herd of yaks in Southern Colorado. She now has 11 of her own while managing Stuplich's herd. Having a degree in zoology, Powell has worked in both zoos and vet offices and with a range of exotic animals.
"I became excited to work with [Bob's] white yaks," she said. These are Stuplich's focus for the future, as they're rarer and their wool can be dyed. DNA testing is being done to see how they get their clean color, but some speculate it stems from being crossbred with cattle.
To grow his herd, Stuplich breeds white heifers back to 100 percent yak bulls. A white mom has a 50 percent chance of passing on the dominant gene to her baby. After attending the National Western Stock Show in Denver last winter, Stuplich plans to bring some of the white ones to show.
An easy-to-raise species
Part of the appeal of raising yaks is that they require fewer vaccinations and no assistance with calving. Yaks can calve year round in the U.S. and often earlier because they get supported feed. "We've had calves every month of the year now," said Powell.
Yaks tend toward a gentle temperament. Even when rarely handled, like the ones Stuplich recently acquired, they usually just take time and patience. "Some can be a challenge to tame but it's wonderful when something clicks between you and the animal," he said.
One way yaks are tamed is through brushing.
In spring when yaks shed they're brushed instead of sheared to collect the fine fiber undercoat. "It's pretty time-intensive but great for bonding," said Powell. "When we pull the brushes out they'll come and fight over the attention."
Once the wool is collected it's sent to a fiber mill, cleaned and returned. As roving it can be spun into yarn or easily felted. Yak wool feels like a cloud of cashmere, is strong and sells for a high price --upwards of $25 an ounce. During the summer Powell sells felted hats and other items at markets.
Once tamed, yaks can be milked and halter trained for riding and packing. Powell is currently working to create a milking herd. With the highest buttermilk content of any land mammal, yak milk makes rich cheese and yogurt. Agile creatures, yaks navigate rocky terrains well and can carry over 100 pounds. Once the younger yaks on the ranch are halter trained and get bigger, Stuplich plans to start training them for outfitting and backpacking.
"They're sociable and smart," said Powell. "They say if you train a yak, you can leave them for 20 years, come back and they'll remember it right away."
Yak meat is more sustainable than beef, and healthier. They eat a third of what a cow eats and are less damaging to the environment. Their meat is 40 percent higher in protein than beef, balanced in omega 3 and 6 oils, and has one-sixth the fat. Many say it has a "delicious and delicate" flavor.
Stuplich pointed out that one main reason yaks haven't taken off, even though their meat is juicy, is that it takes longer, about three years, to reach butcher weight. But with the milk, fiber and other uses, Powell said they can still be beneficial to a ranch while growing.
DNA testing and yak tours
When raising yaks, the only real challenge is having to sell after bonding. "Breeding bulls is hard because they become so gentle, but when they start having daughters around and there's not enough property to separate them then we have to sell," he said. "They become like pets, family."
Stuplich had one bull, Sanjaygawa who would even give hugs. A children's story was written about him in 2011 by Rebecca Braden titled Nordeman, "Sanjaygawa and the Yak Whisperer: A Story of Hope for Young Ones of All Ages."
Another challenge in general, which can actually be beneficial, is that yaks do best at higher elevations and in colder temperatures. They beat the heat by wading into streams or ponds. The USDA is investigating what makes yak hearts and lungs stronger, since brisket, or high mountain disease, is becoming an issue as more cattle experience heart failure at higher altitudes.
Recently Powell stepped up as vice President of USYAKs, a community of yak owners. She's working on a nutrition and fiber study to understand how to better care for these creatures. Members of USYAKS can register their animals and track their genetics.
Stuplich is using genetic testing to understand yak DNA and working to keep his herd as yak-pure as possible. He looks for yak with yak mitochondrial DNA since it's the key to their metabolism and how they process everything in their system.
For example, he tested a group of yaks from a meat farm and kept ones that had this special genetic makeup. So far, DNA testing has revealed that most yaks tested in the U.S. have cattle mitochondrial DNA because they've been hybridized.
While working with their own herds is an important goal, Stuplich and Powell overall want to help more people see the benefits to this multipurpose animal. Part of their mission is to educate the public. To help with that, they to start hosting yak tours this summer.
For example, a group could come visit the ranch and have opportunities to ride a yak, brush their coats, spin the wool and felt the fiber.
"I learn something new every day working with yaks, both about them and myself," said Powell. Stuplich agrees. "I get excited to go out at 6 a.m. to see if they have any babies. They're my pets."
Those curious about yak tours or to wanting to ask more questions about raising yaks in Delta County can reach Stuplich at 970-209-1356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on yaks, check out usyaks.org. Powell also shares her homestead experiences and everything yak at steeritupranch.com.