Demand grows for yak-cattle cross | A meal for royal couple featuring yak meat proved to be good publicity for these Alberta producers
Yaks have been raised as livestock in Alberta for more than 100 years, but some people still wonder if they’re something like an ostrich.
“They don’t understand it’s a bovine,” says Russ Friesen, who raises yak-cattle crossbreds with his wife, Melissa, near Pincher Creek, Alta.
The Friesen family moved to the area from Saskatchewan in the early 1990s.
Two cold, rainy springs in a row prompted Russ’s father, Helmut, to think about calves with a thicker hair coat than his Red Angus.
He remembered an article he’d read about a cattle-yak crossbreeding study at the University of Sask-atchewan.
After researching the possibilities, they decided to add yak-cattle crossbreeds to the herd.
“I raised buffalo just after high school,” Friesen said.
“We also raised wild boar for a while and my brother had chinchilla for a while. We had all kinds of things, so it wasn’t like this was to-tally crazy.”
They brought in two yak bulls in 1995, bred a dozen cows and were impressed with the offspring.
“They hit the ground just about running and right away they were up sucking, aggressively sucking,” he said.
The next year they bred 40 heifers, producing 40 more vigorous calves.
However, when those first calves were ready for market, nobody wanted them.
The animals looked more like yaks than cattle, which spooked buyers. They had a bit of a hump and because they were crossed with Red Angus, they were all brindles, striped red and brown with occasionally a bit of tan.
“Right away that put up a red flag for the cattle buyers, because it’s something different,” said Friesen.
“Brindle cattle never bring as good a price.”
The Friesens responded by fattening the calves and selling the meat from their farm. It helped that they loved the meat.
“It was just fantastic,” said Friesen.
“It kind of reminded us of the buffalo … somewhere halfway between beef and buffalo.”
The meat has less marbling than beef, but like pure yak, is high in essential fatty acids and low in cholesterol. This is particularly true if they’re fed and finished on a minimum amount of grain.
“If you feed them like they do in commercial feedlots, those qualities diminish,” he said.
Friesen said a purebred yak takes four to six years to mature, but the crossbreds will finish in about the same period of time as regular beef cattle. Their feed conversion is significantly better than cows.
“When we first started, we had a feed wagon with a scale on it and weighed everything. We estimated they would eat probably half to a third of what a regular beef animal would eat. They are about two-thirds the size of a beef animal.”
Farmgate sales were strong, but BSE was a setback, causing one or two years of lower sales.
But in time, specialty stores in Calgary and Edmonton picked up the Friesens’ product. They also sell through farmers markets, on an internet classified ad site, from their own website and directly from the farm.
Dressed weight for yak-cattle cross animals averages 650 pounds with some as high as 800 and some finishing at around 400 lb.
The wide range in weight may be why the meat hasn’t caught on with the mainstream market, Friesen said.
However, the meat has benefited in the specialty and alternative marketplace from the fact that the cattle are naturally raised and finished using only small amounts of grain: six pounds of barley per day for six to eight months.
“We try to graze them as long as possible in the fall,” he said.
“When we run out of pasture, we feed them good quality hay, either by rolling it out or chopping it in the field. We try to practice good nutrient management on our pastures by feeding in a systematic way so as to spread the manure evenly.”
Heifers that weren’t bred this year were finished solely on hay and sold as pure grass fed. They’ve been well received and have been grading triple A, he said.
The Friesens also sell horned skulls popular in Western décor and tail hair for making ropes, wigs, masks and puppets.
Russ and Melissa run 100 yak-cattle cross, as well as more than 100 regular cattle. They did consider going entirely yak-cattle cross.
“We moved in that direction, but got caught when there was a downturn in the economy a few years ago and we didn’t have a market for the finished animals,” he said.
“After that we decided that we would not put all our ‘yaks in one basket.’ ”
Yak-cattle caught a break and gained notoriety when Prince William and his wife, Kate, dined at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall in 2011.
The menu consisted of unusual Canadian food such as kelp from Nunavut, herring roe from the Great Lakes and yak-cattle meat from the Friesen farm in Alberta.
The meal boosted sales but also stirred controversy because some people thought pure Alberta beef should have been spotlighted. For a time, talk shows were abuzz with indignant callers. Friesen said he wasn’t bothered.
“I said, ‘you know what? People are contacting us on email and phoning us. They want this meat.’ Even bad publicity is good publicity. And we actually ran short of slaughter animals that summer because we had so much demand,” he said with a chuckle.
“Other people were adamant that there were no yaks in Alberta.”