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So You Own… Yaks?

Charlotte (4 yrs) and Lucy (9 months)

Yup! We are just crazy enough to own a small herd of Tibetan yaks!

What exactly is a yak? Well, we did our research before we started our herd and we learned that a yak is an extremely hairy horned member of the bovine family. Females weigh between 600 and 800 pounds with the males reaching roughly 1500 pounds and standing about 5.5 feet tall at the shoulders. They are native to Tibet, where for thousands of years they have been treasured for their wool, milk, and lean, nutritious meat. In addition, they can be an agile pack animal that often even lives in the homes of the Tibetan natives. They can withstand temperatures of -40 degrees, calf entirely on their own, defend themselves against predators, are extremely hardy, easy on fences, thrive at higher altitudes, and pound for pound when compared to a beef cow only need between 1/2 and 1/3 the feed. Like I said, that is what we knew before we became yak owners, but there were a few things the text books forgot to mention.

So, what do we know about yaks now? Well everything we learned before we began our adventure has turned out to be true… but there were a few things we weren’t expecting that definitely caught us off guard!

Charlotte escaped and decided to come say "Hi!"

1.       Yaks are very, very, very herd oriented… and they can adopt you into their herd. This means, for instance, when you leave on vacation they can get to feeling a little left out, and come looking for you. Yup, that’s right; if you spend a lot of time with them they will miss you when you are gone (more on how we learned this lesson later)! They have also been known to watch us as much as we watch them; even going so far as to line up along the fence to watch us walk around inside the house when we have people over. And yes, we have had them come knocking at the back door!

2.       Yaks are extremely agile. I have heard that they have an extra vertebra compared to a beef cow, and I believe it! They can sit down, bend around and clean themselves like a dog does. Winston (our bull) has even out sprinted a horse! Lucy likes to rear up and box with her hooves when she gets excited, and we have had youngsters squeeze between barbed wire strands just because, well, I guess the grass was greener on the other side.

3.       They are smarter than we were expecting… and more mischievous. For instance, when spunky little Lucy used to get out into my orchard, I could holler at her from the house and she would look at me and then turn and run back where she belonged. She also takes great joy (I am convinced of it) in hopping inside of a wooden fence my husband built to protect a tree we planted and taking a nap. And yes, if I holler at her she will hop-up, jump out and start grazing like she did nothing wrong. Winston knows his name and will come when called, even from a long way off, and Lilly likes to play with the water in their trough and will splash the water around with her tongue and even blow bubbles!

Winston (2.5 years) playing in the snow

4.       They may be easy on fences, as in they don’t lean on them, but if a yak wants out, nothing will stop them. We have had Winston clear a 4 foot fence like it wasn’t even there. Their hide is so thick (about 3 times as thick as a cow’s) they don’t even seem to feel hot wire and they can squeeze through tiny gaps and climb on, and over, wooden fences. Winston really likes attention, and before we got all our fence boards bolted down, he would use his horns to lift boards to come hang out around the house. The good news is once you get decent fencing, they do tend to stay where they belong. They are much more afraid of fences that are loose and seem like something they could get tangled in than they are of solid fences.

We have a few other “yakisms” that we learned along the way, like, “Thou shalt not rope a yak”, and we are sure that we will learn many more. Fortunately, we met some awesome people who live nearby who have owned yaks for many years who have taught us a lot!

So would we recommend yaks to a homesteader and someone looking to become more self-sufficient? If you live somewhere with summers that get much above 90 degrees, then no. Yaks do not handle heat well. If you live in a milder climate, there are specialty cattle breeds, like Dexters, that would probably be easier to own but don’t have as much to offer as yaks.  If you live in a climate with hard winters, absolutely yes… just be prepared and never underestimate a yak!


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