Happy accidents don’t often happen in farming, especially when it comes to an animal that weighs several hundred pounds. But for Shane Juuti, of West Gimlet Farms, all it took was a bit of fun and a bit of luck to change the future of his farming operation.
Juuti now owns about 400 head of yak, but when he bought the very first bull back in 1996, he had no idea what would be in store for him.
“It was a fluke,” Juuti laughed. “Alder Flats had a buffalo auction, and they were also selling elk, deer and a yak. I bid on that yak for fun. I didn’t know what one was worth, but then they couldn’t get another bid, so he was mine.”
So Juuti, who at the time had a farm full of Simmental cattle, was the new owner of a yak and no plans what to do next.
“I figured I couldn’t have just one. They’re a herd animal. What was I going to do with one male yak?” Juuti said. He ended up calling Ken Jones, who ran the odd and unusual sale in Innisfail, and purchased a female yak.
And it turns out, this was just the beginning. Juuti said in 1999 or 2000, he sold his Simmental herd.
“We decided to do something with the yaks because we liked having them,” he said. “I’d had beef cows since 1989, so about 10 years at that time; we had purebred Simmentals. But my biggest issue with them was calving in January or February. Calving in the winter is tedious. Yaks are way less maintenance. Since getting them in 1996, I’ve only had to help three calve.”
Juuti found yak herds for sale in Saskatchewan and Ontario and brought them to his farm near Gimlet.
“We raise them like range cows,” he explained. “They like to be left to their own devices.”
While all part of the same bovine family, yak are quite a bit different than the traditional cattle seen in Alberta.
“They’re quite curious and they are very aware,” Juuti said. “When they see someone or something new, they’re cautious.”
Juuti also said yak are “herdy” and they like to stick together. Female yak have a strong maternal instinct and Juuti said if he has to remove a young yak from the herd for any reason, such as tagging, its mother will look for it for days.
The yak at West Gimlet Farms are raised for the dinner plate and yak has a number of advantages over traditional beef, such as being much lower in calories, saturated fats, cholesterol and triglycerides. Yak is lean, with about five per cent fat, and it tastes good, too.
Juuti also collects the hair from his yak and sends it to the US or to PEI to be processed into yarn or other finished products, such as socks or mittens.
“We have a maternity pen and we herd them in. You can pluck the hair off,” Juuti explained, adding that one-year-olds and two-year-olds provide the best hair. “If you get them when they’re shedding in the spring, it only takes about 10 minutes and they’re bare.”
Not only are yak less work than traditional cow breeds, but they also eat less and they’re quite at home in Alberta’s cold temperatures.
Juuti supplies his yak meat to several stores, such as Ranch Gate Market in Sylvan Lake or Hamels in Red Deer, as well as restaurants.
Juuti has about 1,000 acres near Gimlet and in addition to yak and some horses, he also grows his own hay for his herds. He and his wife, Patti, have six kids.