US Ranchers Look to Shake Up Cattle Industry with Yak Meat
[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/03/03; March 3, 2002.]
By Nick Wadhams
DENVER - The yak has grazed in the highlands of Nepal and Tibet for centuries. If Bob Hasse gets his way, thousands of the humpbacked, shaggy beasts will roam the American West, too.
With its low-fat meat and hardy disposition, the yak figures prominently in Hasse's plans to stir up the beef industry. Its meat is featured on menus in some restaurants, and flanks are available from ranchers in several western states.
So far, yak ranchers say, those who have tried the meat cannot get enough of it. Juicier than other low-fat meats, its taste lies somewhere between beef and veal.
"The worst comment I've ever had is it tastes just like beef, and that's not a bad negative comment," said Hasse, owner of Desert End Yaks in Montrose, 175 miles southwest of Denver.
Yaks require less care than cattle, and their meat is healthier and tastier than other low-fat products like buffalo or elk, ranchers say.
Some yak ranchers have experimented with yak-cattle crossbreeds that retain many of the yak's healthy, resilient traits. Hasse believes Americans could be introduced to an entirely new, healthier kind of beef if cattle ranchers could be persuaded to join the yak revolution.
The yak industry, with fewer than 2,000 head nationally, is valued at about $6 million. The beef industry, with 96 million head of cattle, generates $30 billion each year.
Yak meat has found a small niche in specialty stores and some restaurants where patrons can afford the higher price. Yak cuts can be two to four times as expensive as the same cut of beef.
"Everyone gave me a hard time when I said I was doing yak because the name just sounds silly, but the response was amazing," said chef Chad Schothorn, owner of the upscale Cosmopolitan restaurant in Telluride.
Scothorn serves yak thinly sliced, for about $28 a plate, though it can also be made into a burger or served in strips.
Schothorn likes yak so much that he plans to serve it at a showcase for the nation's best young chefs at the prestigious James Beard House in New York this April.
Yaks, smaller and lighter than cattle, are indispensable in the Himalayas, where they have been used as pack animals for 5,000 years. Their soft hair is made into wool and their tails are sold in India as fly-swatters. Yak dung fuels cooking fires at high altitudes where wood isn't available.
Accustomed to living at 14,000 feet, yaks tolerate cold better than cattle and consume less food. Unlike cattle, they don't stray as much, don't need help giving birth, and don't need feed supplements like corn. All those traits, ranchers say, come through when yak and cattle are bred together.
"I started crossbreeding yak and cow because I wanted to make them have pretty colors," said Jerry McRoberts, a pioneer in the industry who has been breeding yak since 1987 at his ranch in Gurley, Neb. "Then we found out the meat was the best there was."
Yet even yak ranchers acknowledge that gaining wider acceptance will be a formidable challenge. The exotic meat market is already crowded with animals from ostrich to elk, many of which have lost popularity after promises they would revolutionize the cattle industry.
"This sort of thing has happened with llamas, emus and ostriches," said George Seidel, a biomedical sciences professor at Colorado State University. "Some people promote it, some people make some money, but there really isn't that much of a market."
Bison, also touted for its healthy meat, has had the most success, though that industry is in turmoil because of oversupply. A mix of buffalo and cow called the beefalo never really caught on, so many wonder why a yak cross would.
In addition, while female yak-cow crosses are fertile, bulls are sterile.
Ranchers, though, say yaks aren't nearly as hard to take care of as bison. And unlike bison, yak meat retains its juiciness despite being lean.
For Phil Wykle, owner of the Wykle Yak Ranch in Kooskia, Idaho, that has meant a tidy profit from his 85 head of yak.
"I was the fodder for gossip in northern Idaho," Wykle said. "But the local ranchers have gotten over laughing at me since now I'm the one buying new pickups instead of old ones."
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