Out in the hills of central Alberta hundreds of yaks can be seen grazing hay far from their native Himalayas.
West Gimlet Farms, located west of the Gimlet Community and Rodeo Grounds north of Leslieville in Clearwater County, is home to approximately 450 yaks as well as some Canadian horses.
Shane Juuti says they got the first yaks in 1996 when he went to an auction near Alder Flats.
“I went to look just for fun more than anything and I bid on some, I didn’t know what a yak was worth, I didn’t know if I wanted one and at the end an old bull come in and I bid once and he was mine,” explained Juuti sitting at his dining room table.
Shortly after he realized he needed more than just one bull yak. Juuti then purchased a cow off someone who had just bought several.
At the time, Juuti says, the farm was more into pure bred Simmental cattle.
About a week after getting the yaks home, the female calved and the numbers kept growing as she had a calf the next few following years.
“Mostly what I found is that if I had the [yak] bull in with my herd bulls when they came together there was no fighting, he wouldn’t let them fight, so I used him for that, it was wonderful,” added Juuti.
A few years later in 1999 the decision was made to sell the cattle and ultimately make the switch to yaks.
Juuti explained at the time they had to make the decision to either sell down the number of yaks and “just have some to look at” or do something with them.
He said they liked them well enough and decided to purchase a small herd from Saskatchewan and another in Ontario.
Throughout the years the cows have continued to calve and the herd has slowly continued to grow, but those numbers took a jump about a year ago when another 120 were purchased bringing the herd up to its current 450.
Everything including bred cows, calves, young bulls and breeding bulls are counted in the herd population.
Since purchasing the yaks, Juuti has become fond of them because they are unique and easy to keep.
“I mean just the maintenance and the practicality of them and on the same amount of land we can run almost… well at least three to one to what we could run with beef cows,” commented Juuti.
He explained yaks are the most efficient at turning grass to meat compared to regular beef cattle or bison, adding the yaks eat about a quarter of what his Simmentals ate.
“When it was cold like this those big cows would be eating about 40lbs of hay a day and the yak was maybe eating 12lbs,” clarified Juuti, adding it would be “tough” to go back to beef cattle.
According to Juuti, the yaks enjoy the cold and seem to struggle more in warmer temperatures.
When he drove into the pen to feed late last week he saw young yearlings running, bucking and playing ahead of him, whereas during warmer temperatures, like about 20C, they start to slow down and enjoy swimming in the dug outs to cool down.
The yaks at West Gimlet Farms are mostly used for meat, which is a market that has been growing in recent years.
“When we started no one even knew what a yak was let alone tried any meat and so that’s been the hardest thing probably,” said Juuti. “It’s been harder to get someone to try it than to get them to try it again.”
Juuti compared the taste to being very similar to grass-fed beef, saying he’s not sure someone could tell the difference.
“I would say there’s less difference between yak and grass-fed beef than there is between grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef.”
The meat can be purchase locally on the farm or at The Ranch Gate Market in Sylvan Lake.
Most of the product is going to a grocery store chain in Calgary called Community Natural Foods and The Organic Box, an online store in Edmonton, sells the meat as well.
“We’ve definitely had an uptake on people eating it once the stores in Calgary started carrying it regularly,” he said, “our volume through them, I think, has increased quicker than they had thought it would at first and it’s just been slowly going up.”
He credits the growth in interest to the type of customer Community Natural Foods in Calgary attracts as they cater to a more health conscious market and yak is a healthier, leaner meat.
The hoops to become legally organic haven’t been jumped through, but Juuti says they are fed nothing but grass.
In the selling market Juuti was surprised by the need for bones and liver, adding the stores will take everything he can supply them with.
Aside from meat, he says sometimes in the spring they will collect the yaks’ winter hair.
The hair is the second finest natural fibre in the world and there is a market for it, although it is smaller.
Over the years the yaks at West Gimlet Farms have seen people stopping on the road to take a look and has even seen visitors from Calgary and Edmonton, but the farm may not be as unique as a person may think.
“There’s not a lot [of yak farms],” said Juuti. “There’s probably more around than a person would realize.”