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A Yak Attack on Beef and Bison

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/05/22; May 22, 2003.] The New York Times
May 21, 2003 By MELISSA CLARK

QUESTA, N.M. AS the sun sets on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains here in north central New Mexico, the dun-colored topsoil turns as red as blood itself. Long black shadows creep down the slopes in varying shapes: low and gnarly from thorny sagebrush, tall and majestic from oak and pinyon trees, and squat, shaggy and handlebar-horned from roaming yaks.

Yes, yaks. These woolly animals, originally from the Himalayas, have been turning up on ranches in the western United States and Canada. And although their numbers are still minuscule compared with those of bison and cattle (North America counts about 2,000 yaks, 350,000 bison and over 100 million head of cattle), ranchers are increasingly betting that, like such low-fat red meats as venison and bison, yak burgers, stews and sirloins will soon be on menus all over the continent.

That may be a long shot, but the quality of the meat makes it a possibility. Yak is as lean as venison or bison (about 5 percent fat, compared to about 15 percent for beef), and, to some, tastes juicier, sweeter and more delicate. Certainly the people of Tibet and Nepal think so. There, yaks have been an integral part of the culture for 5,000 years, used not only as pack animals and for milk but also as a source of meat. Originally brought to the Western Hemisphere for zoos a century ago, yaks have been bred commercially here for only about 15 years. North America now has more than 30 yak ranches.

Tom Worrell, who grazes 125 yaks on his 3,300-acre Latir Ranch here, estimates that he is the third-largest yak rancher in North America. Mr. Worrell, an entrepreneur who also owns Dharma Properties, which builds environmentally friendly resorts, is a solidly built man with blue eyes, a leathery tan and eyebrows as dark and bushy as a yak hide. He delights in the merits of his hairy, humpbacked beasts.

"They only eat about a third of what a cow eats and can forage for food without damaging the environment," he said. "They have small hooves and are nimble, so they can move over rough mountainous terrain. They don't need much attention. Unlike cows, you don't have to get up in the middle of the night and calve them. They are pretty disease-resistant, so they don't need any hormones or antibiotics. And unlike bison, they are docile and easy to maintain."

Since yaks thrive in forbidding, rocky landscapes at elevations up to 14,000 feet, they can easily forage in places that most cattle could never even reach. Ranchers generally leave them alone to search out grasses, weeds and wildflowers. In winter, the yaks are in their element, cavorting in the snow without the need for shelter and eating ice instead of drinking water.

"Yaks are what you'd call free-range animals," Mr. Worrell said. While they are never put on feedlots, some ranchers - though not Mr. Worrell - add grain to their diet a few weeks before slaughter to whiten their fat. Meat from exclusively grass-fed animals has a yellow tint from the carotene in the grasses.

"It's just for looks - American consumers aren't used to yellowish fat," said Bob Hasse, president of the International Yak Association and the owner of Desert End Yaks in Montrose, Colo.

The grain fed to yaks has no hormones or antibiotics, because it's not necessary. Much of the meat, Mr. Hasse pointed out, would satisfy the Agriculture Department's definition of organic, though no rancher but Mr. Worrell has filed the paperwork required to label it organic. All yak meat sold today is inspected by the department.

Mr. Worrell's yaks are raised by the ranch manager, Chuck Kuchta. With his worn Levi's, 10-gallon hat and bowlegged gait, Mr. Kuchta is the very picture of the cowboy he once was. But don't call him a cowboy. And definitely not "yakboy."

"We like to say Chuck's a recovering cowboy," Mr. Worrell said. "You've got to be careful about what you call him. For a while we were saying yakeroo, but I think Chuck prefers yakalero."

Mr. Kuchta is among a small group who have made the switch from cattle to yak, some going by way of bison, or American buffalo. But why should yak succeed where other exotic meats like ostrich and emu have failed? And the bison market is suffering from a huge oversupply after a decade of speculation (despite Ted Turner's best intentions). At the height of the bison bubble, the animals were selling for as much as $3,000. Now the price is less than a tenth of that. Yaks, which are about two-thirds the size of bison, are selling for an average of $2,500.

"The bottom fell out of the bison market because ranching bison doesn't make sense economically," Mr. Hasse said. "You need more capital to start out with. You have to put in a lot of sturdy fencing, and bison are much harder and more expensive to handle and feed than yaks. People wanted to raise bison because they have good eye appeal. They look good on the plains, and there's a romance to having this native animal on your land. But they just aren't feasible."

That is because at their core, bison are wild, ornery creatures that don't take to fences or, for that matter, to people who try to lock them up. As a result, a ranch needs more hands to manage the same number of bison as yaks or cattle. "You can never turn your back on bison," Mr. Hasse warned. "They're too aggressive."

Mr. Kuchta, who also raised bison in his post-cattle days, agreed that yaks require much lower maintenance. Domesticated yaks, he said, are so tame they are often considered family pets in Tibet. "You even hear stories about them sleeping inside the huts of their owners," he said. "I wouldn't try this with a buffalo."

Yaks are efficient eaters, needing less food pound for pound than either bison or cattle. To gain one pound, yaks need only 6 pounds of forage, as against 8 pounds for cattle and 12 for bison.

But even if yaks are more environmentally friendly than cattle and easier to handle than bison, finding a market for their meat has been is a challenge.

"Most people don't know what a yak is - that it's a Himalayan bovine related to a cow," said Jerry McRoberts, who has been raising yaks for 15 years at the McRoberts Game Farm in the Nebraska panhandle near Sidney. "But if you get them to try it, they love it."

There is indeed a lot to love about yak meat. Although it is low in fat, it is very succulent, with a deep crimson color and a mild, rather than gamy, flavor.

"It's sweeter than even farmed venison and more tender than buffalo," said Joseph Wrede, the chef and owner of Joseph's Table, a restaurant in Taos, N.M., that is in the process of moving elsewhere in town. He serves cubed yak meat in a savory stew with aromatic vegetables, and "yakballs" in a heady red-wine sauce, atop pappardelle pasta or simmered in a chili. "We sell a lot of it," he said. "The people who are brave enough to try it really get into yak."

About a dozen restaurants in the United States regularly offer yak. They include De la Tierra at the Sundy House in Delray Beach, Fla., where Johnny Vinczencz coats yak tenderloin in a mustard crust, and the Cosmopolitan in Telluride, Colo., where Chad Scothorn serves yak steaks as a special, using the same kinds of sauces he would with beef.

De La Tierra, which is owed by Dharma Properties, gets its yak from Mr. Worrell's ranch. Mr. Scothorn buys his from Mr. Hasse, who also sells the meat retail, as does Mr. McRoberts. In the western United States, yak meat occasionally shows up in supermarkets and health food stores, where, at about two and a half times the price of beef and one and a half times that of bison, it remains a tough sell.

"A lot of people are turned off by the word," Mr. McRoberts said. "They think yak? Yuck."

"We wanted to change the name to woolly Himalayan beef," he added, "but I don't think the U.S.D.A. will ever approve it. Someone suggested we send it to David Letterman and have them come up with 10 alternate names for a yak. Who knows, it just might help."


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