Yak herd began with lone bull; now there’s 225

The Juuti family has about 225 animals, which they sell or use for meat.  |  Mary MacArthur photos

Ideal for cold climates | The family sell meat and live animals but exports to the U.S. haven’t resumed after BSE halted trade

RIMBEY, Alta. — Shane Juuti can’t give a good reason for why he now owns a herd of yaks.

With nothing better to do one day in 1996, Juuti went to an auction in Alder Flats, Alta., where he noticed yaks for sale.

He unsuccessfully bid on a couple cows but ended up owning a yak bull with only one bid.

One yak bull is not good for much and after the sale he bought a cow from the fellow who had bought the other yaks at the sale.

It turned out to be a good choice. A week later the cow calved and the bull turned out to be a quiet animal that would follow the chop pail if it needed to be moved.

Since then, his herd has grown to 225 animals, one of the largest herds in Canada. It is a mixture of cows, bulls and calves of varying ages.

“They’re very easy to handle and manage. They reproduce on their own,” said Juuti, who operates West Gimlet Farms with his wife, Patti.

“I really like them over cattle.”

The animals stay in one herd throughout the year. The cows wean the calves in January, and most cows calve in April and May.

The animals are so easy to raise that Juuti sold his herd of Simmental cattle just before the BSE crisis hit in 2003 and now raises only yaks and Canadian horses.

“We had enough yaks by then we decided to sell (the cattle), or grow the yak herd.”

He doesn’t regret his decision.

Two of his Simmental bulls used to spend most of their time fighting and tearing through fences, but when the yak bull was put in the bull pen, it wouldn’t let the Simmental bulls fight.

“As long as he was in the pen, the Simmental bulls wouldn’t fight. They are the boss,” Juuti told a group of producers on a Clearwater County tour of his farm.

“He was worth his weight in fence posts and planks.”

Marketing is the hardest part of the operation. The family sells meat, robes, soap, fibre and live animals.

“I’m lacking in marketing skills.”

Few people on the tour even knew yaks were raised in their neighbour-hood or had tried the low fat, low cholesterol meat.

Most of the meat and live animal sales are through word of mouth. A bred cow sells for $2,500, a heifer calf sells for $1,500 and a bull calf for $1,200. At two years, a 1,100 pound yak will dress out at about 400 lb.

Juuti sells the hamburger for $4.25 a lb. and the other meat ranges from $12 a lb. for prime rib roast to a variety of steaks, sausages and meat packages.

Yak meat is promoted as having low cholesterol, about one-quarter the cholesterol of other animals.

He said the animals are easy to raise.

Originally raised in the Himalayan Mountains, yaks love Alberta’s cold temperature and graze bales through the winter and grass in the summer.

“I’ve never seen the cold bother them. When there is an ugly wind, they will go into the trees.”

Temperatures higher than 16 C force them to find a cool dugout or a breezy spot to cool down.

The calves weigh 20 to 25 lb. when they’re born.

“If you rope one, it’s just like pulling a fish in,” he said.

The calves are ear tagged at birth but not castrated. Yak mothers are protective of their calves at birth.

“The cows are quiet, but when they have their babies, they are different mothers. The yak cow knows where her baby is,” he said.

Cows return to their docile nature after calving and can be moved by walking behind the herd.

“They run quick, but they don’t like to go very far.”

Trade with the United states was closed to most animals, including yaks, after BSE was discovered.

Each breed must lobby officials in Canada and the U.S. to reopen the border, and that hasn’t happened yet for yaks.

“Yak is not a priority. I think they’re doing it in alphabetical order. I don’t know when it will happen.”

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