CHAPTER 4/FREE RANGE: LOVELAND LOVEFEST IN COLORADO COUNTRY
Rob's Note: This is a draft of THE WAY YAK, Chapter 4, entitled "Free Range: Loveland Lovefest in Colorado Country." WC: approx. 9000. Feel free to email me with edits and ideas - email@example.com.
“Look at yaks.
They are built to fight, and they are as intimidating as all get out, but on the inside, they are sweet as sweet can be!”
I am standing in a giant, near-empty warehouse hangar at 8:30 am on an autumn Friday morning, listening to Bob Stuplich, owner of Montrose, Colorado based American White Yaks, describe his experiences with bos grunniens. Tall, rangy, and noticeably spry for a man in his seventies, Bob is dressed in classic US ranch attire - beat up tan Carhartt overalls, a brown flannel shirt, and a blue ball cap sporting the iconic green John Deere logo. He bounces on the balls of his feet as he talks, clearly delighted to share stories with this fellow yakker, a complete stranger from Vermont.
“This guy is so sweet on the inside,” Bob says to me, bending down and hugging his red-haltered pure white yak calf around its shaggy neck. “And built to fight – all of a yak’s head and neck muscles come up to his hump, and I’ve seen videos from Tibet where a 1,500 pound yak bull throws another 1,500 pound yak bull over his horns when he sets ‘em just right,” Bob marvels. “I talked to a guy just the other day from New Mexico who had purchased some yaks who told me when he got ‘em home, one of ‘em snuck up behind him and then cartwheeled him - and boy, can these yaks go!”
As a species, yaks are famed for their ability and their desire to “free range.” Light, nimble, hearty, and resilient, yaks have evolved and are built for long distance travel, and stories from yakkers around the world marvel at yaks traveling over epic distances in search of grass, water, and perhaps, more adventure. Yaks seldom travel solo, instead preferring to sojourn in small bands together, with every animal in the herd settling into a “free range” community. In my quest for #TheWayYak, I realized I need to embark on some free ranging of my own, leaving the quiet comfort of our Vermont shire to go global, where the yaks and the yakkers are. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are the epicenter of North American yakking, with dozens of yak operations within a long half day’s drive of Denver, extending south into New Mexico, east into Nebraska and Kansas, north into Wyoming and Montana, and west over the Rockies towards the Utah border.
I’ve just arrived in Loveland, Colorado, which seems an inauspicious place to begin trekking outward from Vermont in search of North American yak wisdom. A town of 77,000 people located between Denver (to the south) and Fort Collins (just north) at the crossroads of state route 34 and Interstate 25, Loveland boasts like most towns along US interstates) an auto-friendly commercial strip mall, a cute older downtown hub with craft breweries, restaurants, and coffee shops, and an eagerness to cater to Rocky Mountain tourists and bedroom commuters who daily head to work in larger CO cities running up and down the Front Range. Surprisingly, the Colorado autumn weather, famed for its dry air and sunny skies, proved cold, grey, and gloomy when I arrived, but talking with Bob confirmed that I made the right decision. Bob and I were among the first to arrive at an event called “YakSpo,” held at the Larimer County Fairgrounds and Events Complex (affectionately called “The Ranch”) just northeast of downtown Loveland. USYAKS, a national trade organization and the organizational sponsor of YakSpo, had been formed the year before, and when I found out about its birth, I tracked down US YAKS director Grant Pound on Facebook, and asked if I could attend.
Welcome to YakSpo 2018!
“You bet!” he wrote back. “Come on out to Colorado!”
Pound told me via email that “YakSpo 2018” involved a wide variety of “yaktivities” over the course of a single weekend – workshops on halter training, lectures on DNA breeding, demos on yak packing - along with other pleasures: local food vendors, yak crafts, craft beer, and a live musical performance by an all-woman folk rock quartet called “Lois and the Lantern.” In short, YakSpo 2018 was a “hands on” yak networking event designed for grunniens enthusiasts to meet, greet, and learn from one another and our shaggy comrades. Pound, who ran his wn small herd of yaks at nearby Snow Cliff Ranch, was one of the founders of US YAKS, and the main organizer of YakSpo for the second year in a row. A few weeks after I spoke with him last spring, Pound emailed along the schedule below. Upon reading it, I immediately jumped on the Internet and booked a flight west.
Friday October 12, 2018
8am - Noon - Load in animals and set up for vendors 2:00 pm - Seminar: Carlice Cutright - Halter Training Yaks 3:30 pm - Seminar: Dr. Peter Hackett -What breeders need to know about DNA 5:00-7:00 Live Music with “Lois and the Lantern.”
Saturday October 13, 2018
7:00 am - Facilities open for visitors 8:00 am - Judging begins 9:00 am - Regan Olsen -Yak Packing 10:30 am - Seminar: Tom Laca - Disaster Readiness For Yak Breeders Noon-1:30 - Lunch. Food and beverages available for purchase 1:30 pm - Seminar: Dr. Rob Callan -Yak Calving 3:30-pm - Yak Obstacle Course Demonstration 4:00 pm - Judging results announced/food and beer available for purchase 6:00 pm - No-host dinner at Nordys (one mile north of The Ranch)
Sunday, October 14, 2018
Load out by noon.
In a word – a “spectyakular” schedule.
A few words about I versus US.
IYAK versus US YAKS.
One year before the YakSpo, in 2017, deep disagreements among members of the International Yak Association (IYAK), the one and only national trade organization for continental yakkers, prompted a number of IYAKkers to jump ship and found US YAKS, a second competing yak-focused trade group for North American yak enthusiasts. Way back east in Vermont, I was dimly aware of the debate, subsequent fallout, and new launch of US YAKS, and, curious about the brouhaha, I initially spent some time reviewing US YAKS mission and philosophy, a curious blend of heady enthusiasm and practical agri’advice.
“There are not too many of us yak lovers out there. We need community and collaboration. No one in this country is an expert in yaks and we can learn from each other regarding health, promotion, breeding practices, meat, fiber and dairy production,” states the US YAKS web site. “We are planning regional shows and sponsoring trips to visit yak people in other countries, and US YAKS can register your animals in a nationally recognized DNA database and keep track of pedigree, so when you join US YAKS you will also be supporting research and advocacy on important yak issues.”
I was sold, and promptly paypal’ed my way to a US YAKS membership.
Time to free range and go meet the US YAKS tribe.
Friday morning, the day after I arrived in Loveland, dawned more October’like, clear and crisp, and, after an early morning run through the Devil’s Backbone open space preserve (a must when you are in town), I headed over to “The Ranch” early to meet yakkers as they arrived. US YAKS president Cinde Moore met me at the giant hangar door in front a rectangular card table exhibiting the weekend schedule, US YAKS information, and name tags for all registered yak ranch businesses attending the YakSpo: American White Yaks, Hay Spring Yaks, Steer It Up Ranch, Casper Creek Yaks, Rolling Thunder Yaks, Yaks of Coalbank Creek, and (my favorite) Smiling Buddha Yaks.
YaksPo 2018 - Loveland Lovefest with yaks and yakkers, including Ruth and Brad, below.
Cinde, all smiles and in the company of her granddaughter Morgan, immediately launched into her backstory when I asked her how she became president of US YAKS.
“My husband Mark and I live in northern Colorado, and we have 4 children and 5 grandchildren,” she tells me. “After being introduced to yaks in 2014 and doing what we thought was a ton of research (not! she laughs), we bought our first starter herd of yaks and Rolling Thunder Yak was born.”
Cinde, I soon learned, like Bob, was a conversational juggernaut, as well as presenting a thoughtful and positive face for this new organization. As she moved off to welcome other arriving yakkers, I quickly consulted the US YAKS.org web site, beginning to match names and faces to bios.
“I am so very excited to be a part of this grassroots organization, to help other yak owners grow, develop and fulfill their vision, and help raise awareness of yak in the United States,” I notice Cinde has written in her official statement on the US YAKS board of directors page, which she pronounced as US (“us”) YAKS.
Bob has arrived early with Cinde, and already had his yaks set up in one of the hangar’s many corrals for showing when I found him. Together, we began what turned into a half hour conversation about his work living life by the horns.
“Why yaks?” I ask. Turns out, that’s all the prompting Bob needs.
“This yak guy’s daddy is just awesome – let me show you,” Bob says, whipping out an iPhone from his Carhartt overall picket and rapidly scrolling through photos: Bob hugging a giant white yak bull; Bob’s tiny grandson Jack, completely relaxed, lying atop the same massive beast; Bob’s daughter Shannon brushing out a white yak’s hide; Shannon lying on the ground next to a giant grunniens. Bob shows me all of these photos and more, while yakking nonstop.
“You can tell this big bull is a royal because in the womb, the hair color gets dyed by the skin color – her royal’ness is on her neck and on her ear,” Bob explains, pointing closely at the photo in question.
“This big guy? He’ll take his horn, and he’ll lock me in right up close next to his body while I am scratching his neck, and he’ll say with his horn – ‘when you are done scratching my neck, I’ll let you go,’” Bob marvels.
“He could break me in half with that horn – but he just gently brings it around and holds me right there, and it feels so good to know that that much power is being gentle,” Bob says, getting visibly emotional. “All of that is to explain why I like yaks – they are intimidating ominous creatures who are so sweet on the inside if you spend time with them.”
Sensing an opening, I ask Bob about why US YAKS formed, if the International Yak Association (IYAK) already existed to serve North American yakkers as a trade organization?
Bob grunts. Then frowns. “Ask Grant Pound about the politics,” he says. “But I can tell you a bit about yak DNA, which is the crux of this situation.”
Bob then launches into a lecture about the relationship between yak genetics and yak politics in North America.
“In order to differentiate between yak and cattle, the geneticists have come up with what they call ‘SNPs,’ which are single nucleotide polymorphisms (pronounced SNiPs),” Bob explains peripatetically, me struggling to keep up. “SNPs are the differentiating genetic factors between yak and cattle, and we’ve got 196 of them that we use to differentiate between the two. Curly, our big white yak bull, only has four cattle alleles, so he is considered a full yak, so we’re breeding him.”
An “allele,” I soon learned over and over again during the YakSpo weekend, is a variant form of a given gene, and, according to the latest epigenetics research, a single DNA chromosome sports two alleles. Understanding the science of epigenetics, I begin to realize, defined as the “study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself,” was central to not only recognizing the rift between IYAK and US YAK, but proves key to understanding what makes a yak a “yak,” genetically speaking, as opposed to some other bos’like bovine.
“In order to officially register yaks with US YAKS, each yak has to have ten or less cattle alleles. All yaks have cattle in them somewhere, and over time, we are working to breed more yak qualities into our yak herd,” Bob elucidates.
“Starting off with what I had to begin with, which was about 40% cattle, and 60% yak, was our first cow,” he says. “We didn’t create that cow – I bought it from the first president of IYAK, Jerry McRoberts, who died a few years ago.”
Indeed, I knew of McRoberts by reputation. Now deceased, he was a legend in North American yakking circles, and had provided yakkers across North America with starter herds over the past few decades. Back in 2008, Vermont Yak Company had purchased many yaks that traced their origins back to McRoberts’ herd, and at one time, McRoberts’ Gurley, Nebraska ranch housed close to 50% of all the yaks in North America.
“Most of the black females that we have – all the ones we are breeding – have yak mitochondrial DNA, because it comes from the Mom, not from the Dad. And we breed the white into our yaks for the fiber. There are only three white yak breeders in the United States – it’s a unique and rare thing,” Bob explained. “There are few white yaks – and white fiber is in great demand, because you can color it. We do mostly fiber and packing at American White Yaks, and we just got back from a trip to Tibet.”
Out came Bob’s iPhone again, and immediately we are off on another global mobile multimedia yak tour. Going local first, Bib shares photo after dramatic photo of white yaks ensconced on Colorado’s western slope, and then a short video of Bob’s daughter Shannon doing two fisted milking brings more excited narration. “Yaks are agreeable to milking if you train them from an early age,” Bob says. “If you mess with their butt, their udder, their feet, their tail, get them used to regular touch and interaction from an early age, and you play with them, the yaks think this is normal – that’s what happens.”
Bob then shows me a Tibetan farmer plowing his field with a yak in halter/harness –and suddenly we are in Tibet, enjoying photos of yaks packing, leading, ploughing.
“Here’s how they lead ‘em in Tibet – no person in front. The yaks lead, and the people follow,” marvels Bob. “The yaks know where they are going.”
Meanwhile, here in the real world of Loveland, Bob’s yak steer, listening patiently behind Bob in the corral, is gently but firmly nudging him with his hairy horned head – bonk, bonk, bonk – in the pen.
“Let me tell you about yak dung,” Bob says excitedly. “The Tibetans bring their yaks into a one-acre spot at night, and in the morning, the lady of the house scoops up all the poop – flinging the patties over her shoulder and swishing ‘em like a basketball into a basket she carries on her back. Talk about fun working with poop!”
Indeed, I had seen the same phenomenon across Eurasia – Mongolia, Nepal, the Tibetan borderlands, western China – yak dung was a hot commodity among nomads, equivalent to the bison for nomadic Plains Indians here in North America. “The Tibetans squish wet yak patties up onto the walls of their houses,” Bob says. “Yak poop is fuel for the winter, as well as used for repairs on their houses. It’s amazing. They use everything from the yak.”
Amazing indeed, I think, remembering my own observations from global travel in yak country.
“We've got quite a yak network going on Colorado’s western slope,” Bob says proudly. “All in the yak family - five of us working four ranches over there,” gesturing vaguely to the west with one hand while reaching down to stroke his patient yak with the other.
At this moment, a young woman comes over to say “hello” to Bob and introduce herself. Erin Harlacker, of Steer It Up ranch, is a member of Bob’s extended family, and a yakker in her own right. “This is like a family reunion!” she jokes.
I talk with Erin as she sets up her craft tables, adorning them with felted, festive yak hats of multiple colors, sizes, and styles.
“My degree is in zoology, and we found our yaks in the San Luis Valley, south of Salida, when my husband Nicholas and I began our homestead,” Erin explains while bustling about. “We’re trying to be fully sustainable – we headed back to Illinois after our daughter Willow was born, and returned to Colorado a year and a half ago. Bob posted on Facebook looking for a ranch hand, and that’s how we connected.”
Steerin' It Up at YakSpo 2018.
“What do you enjoy about yaks?” I ask her.
“Pretty much everything,” she replies, smiling.
“They’re really smart – they are usually smarter than we are – sometimes you have to try and outsmart ‘em.” Her husband Nicholas, who has just joined us, chimes in. Bespectacled, rangy, and soft-spoken, and dressed in jeans and a flannel, Nicholas picks up the conversation as we exchange introductions.
“You get our yaks all the way up to the corral, and then they head fake you,” Nicholas says, smiling. “You go right, they go left.”
“Yaks are versatile, and there so many functions to a yak – you can use them as a work animal, and then for meat, fiber, and milk,” Erin explains. “Yak is our red meat because it tastes better and is better for you – the perfect balance of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids – and really lean.”
“Yaks don’t eat grain – so yaks are a tasty lean alternative to beef,” Nicholas explains.
“We eat yak meat twice a week,” Erin adds, explaining that they also raise Flemish Giant rabbits and Bantam Silkie chickens. I laugh, asking about animal relations. Turns out, yaks, rabbits, and chickens are all best buds, according to this Colorado yakking power couple.
“We have a pretty strong commitment to sustainable living – live simply so other might simply live,” says Nicholas. “Yaks are great for small acreage because they consume 1/3 to ¼ as much grass as a cow, and they’re easier on the land. Their feet don’t tear up the land as much as a cow, and their manure is separated out – almost pelletized depending on their feed – so it breaks up really easily into fertilizer when you are raking.”
I learn that Steer It Up Ranch now has 13 yaks, and recently had a few calves which are “learning the ropes” over on Colorado’s western slope.
Bob of American White Yaks and Erin of Steer It Up Ranch taking their yaks for a stroll.
Lost in these conversations, I look up and notice that several more YakSpo attendees have arrived, trailers and yaks in tow. Over by the giant hangar’s wash stalls behind the welcome table, Grant Pound is busy washing and primping two beautiful one-year old Royal (black and white) yaks for judging, his muck boots and overalls completely soaked in soap and water. Bob, meanwhile, temporarily at a loss for words, harnesses up his gorgeous white yak, and leads him over for a quick wash and then, working with a young woman I have not yet met, the two begin to blow dry Bob’s beast.
YakSpo 2018 organizer Grant Pound scrubs down his royal yak for judging.
That’s right. Blow drying. A yak. Sexy beast, indeed!
Blow drying a yak is a sight to behold. Watching the slightly closed eyes of Bob’s steer as the heat from the dryer poofed up his hair, I swear that animal was about as close to bliss as any yak I’ve ever seen.
Show Time! Bob blow dries a white yak in preparation for judging at YakSpo 2018.
The co-blow dryer in question turned out to be 17-year-old Carlice Cutright. Hailing from Casper, Wyoming, Carlice manages Casper Creek Yaks with her folks, Michael and Sonja. While Bob and Carlice carry on with the coiffing, Sonja talks with me about their yak journey while setting up their yak pen for the week-end.
“We started with yaks in 2015, and after three years, Carlice and we run six yaks at our place, including two royals, as well as a native trim,” Sonja says, quiet pride for her daughter evident in her voice.
Why yaks?” I ask.
“We self-sustain, raising our own meat, explains Sonja. “We absolutely love the meat, and I like the lean – yaks eat about ½ of what a cow does.”
Again, sounds familiar.
“I like their personalities – our bull is a gentle giant, and we bought our starter herd from Smiling Buddha Ranch,” Sonja relays. “They are more docile than cows – you can’t tame cows like you can yaks, which are easily trainable if you spend lots of time with them.
I found this to be of interest, given our Vermont experiences with yak mayhem.
“How did Carlice get into yaks?” I ask.
“Carlice is our baby, we have a 30-year-old son, and she got involved with Future Farmers of America, and then started yakking with our first female, John Deere, right after we got her.”
I laugh. “You have a female yak named ‘John Deere’?”
“That’s right. ‘JD’ for short,” Sonja replies, smiling. “She was supposed to be a boy, and when we got her home, discovered she was a girl, but we kept the name.”
We both grunt with suppressed laughter.
“JD is even potty trained,” Sonja says, smiling again. “She starts lifting her tail in our diesel shop office when she visits, but then she holds it and goes outside in a special spot.”
A potty-trained yak? This was a first.
“Anyway, Carlice started working with JD, and now they are best buddies. He’ll even wear a riding saddle,” Sonja tells me. “Carlice loves working with them, and started showing ‘em at the county fair, and then the state fair in Douglas. Other kids were jealous of yaks because we put shavings out and we never had to clean ‘em. They don’t dirty everything,” she laughs.
Looking around at the corralled yaks, many of whom have been here for a few hours now, I notice and appreciate, with a few sniffs, the decided lack of stench that often accompanies the confined clustering of many barnyard creatures.
“Carlice is a high school senior, and she is hoping to win at state this year,” Sonja is saying. “We’ll lease another yak so we can show off more of them in competition – so few are being shown right now.”
We turn to watch Carlice as she walks Bob through the finer final points of blow drying.
“What’s challenging about yakking?” I ask.
Sonja smiles and points to over to Carlice and Bob, bent over their one hot-looking yak.
“Grooming. It takes a long time to make a yak look pretty. 2 ½ hours as opposed to ½ hour for other cows, because of all the yak hair. More work, but more fun,” Sonja says.
“Does it take any special skills to learn how to work with yaks?” I ask.
“I would call Carlice a ‘yak whisperer,’” says Sonja, the pride again evident in her voice. “She’s even been working with Solomon, our only bull – we call him SOLO man –a Royal, age 3 ½. No competition for the females,” she laughs.
Carlice Cutright of Wyoming's Casper Creek Ranch, working with her yaks.
“Are there lots of yaks in Wyoming?” I ask.
“Yaks are catching on,” Sonja says, getting excited now. “Our neighbors sold out of farmer’s market yak meat, and we have people coming every week for yak roasts, steaks, rounds, the works.”
I thank her for her time, and she returns to corral chores, as the YakSpo faithful take a break for lunch and conversation.
After lunch, about two dozen attendees gather ‘round Carlice outside the Caspar Creek Ranch corral as she demonstrates how to train a yak to halter, rope, ride, and pull, easily handling a well-coiffed “John Deere” (the boy who is a girl) with quiet commands and gentle but firm leash work. Carlice, sporting glasses, a ponytail, jeans, and a blue and white checked work shirt, projects an aura of quiet confidence as she walks listeners through the finer points of halter training a yak. Her yak, a gorgeous healthy one plus year old black, behaves beautifully, to admiring looks from the audience, while Carlice’s parents, Michael and Sonja, look on quietly, wisps of proud smiles on their faces. Carlice then walks us across the hangar and over to a large animal trailer parked by the main doors, where she easily commands JD up onto and then off of the trailer multiple times.
Everyone marvels. “That’s amazing,” says one yakker, clearly astonished. “I’ve never seen a yak load so quietly,” says another.
No question, ladies and gentlemen.
17-year-old Clarice Cutright represents the future of yakking in North America.
Still shaking my head at Clarice’s masterful yakking, I walk over to an adjacent corral and introduce myself to the owners of Hay Spring Yaks, who are putting the finishing touches on their weekend corral set up.
A big bear of a man wearing blue jeans, a red denim shirt, Carhartt vest, and a brown cowboy hat, Tim Hardy turns out to be genial, affable, and like Bob, a gregarious yakker, as well as one of US YAKS’ several qualified scientists.
“I have an Idaho State Ph.D. in mathematics and was a professor for 25 years,” Tim tells me. “I decided that if I raised yaks in retirement, I could STILL deal with dimwitted animals who think of little but food and sex, and teach THEM how to multiply,” he says with a straight face.
A university professor myself, I crack up as his crude but insightful joke comparing college students to yaks, and we bond immediately.
Their Hay Springs Yaks operation, Tim explains, is based in the town of Shadron, Nebraska, right again the Black Hills, 19 miles from South Dakota and 70 miles from Wyoming. “We are primarily a seed stock operation, and mostly sell starter herds to hobby farmers,” Tim says, while a woman I presume to be his partner sets up ranch information, photos, and some wonderfully soft yak yarn on a nearby card table. “Along with Peter Hackett,” Tim explains, “I’m the science guy inside US YAKS.”
Peter Hackett and his partner Ruth run Smiling Buddha Yaks, Tim tells me, and I notice on the schedule that Peter is giving the DNA testing talk later in the day. I mention this to Tim, who nods, modestly acknowledging that he gave last year’s inaugural YakSpo talk on yak genetics.
Remembering my morning conversation with Bob, I ask Tim to tell me more. Like Bob, Tim immediately launches into yak epigenetics, while I listen closely.
“We now have some of the most sophisticated genetic testing in terms of dealing with cattle /yak introgression, and we look at individual alleles to find the sequences that belong to yaks as they exist in the Himalayas versus cattle,” Tim explains, while he fills a water bucket for his penned yaks. “Bos mutus are the wild yaks and bos grunniens are the domestic yaks, but even bos mutus have cattle genes in them, and our hypothesis, what we speculate, anyway, is that various bos yaks have spent centuries moving back and forth and up and down the mountains interbreeding between mutus and grunniens.”
“Remind me what an ‘allele’ is?” I ask him, not wanting to consult my notes.
“An allele is a tiny base of a gene – a gene is made up of many alleles,” Tim explains. “In North America, cattle introgression isn’t any more significant than in Asia – but we are concerned that the mitochondrial DNA might tell a different story than the nuclear DNA. Plenty of debate about this.”
Tim gets distracted by the arrival of a large sign that needs hanging, and the woman with the yak yarn comes over to exchange introductions.
Quiet, thoughtful, and delicate of features, Una Taylor, Tim’s partner, turns out to have been a music professor and a guitarist, and is now self-described “chief yak hair specialist” at Hay Springs.
I laugh, and ask what she means.
“Yak hair makes fantastic fiber, and we’ve been combing our yaks this year – the first year we’re doing so,” she explains. “I am hoping to spend more time with them as babies.”
Intrigued, I ask her how she tames the yaks enough to comb out their hair fibers – no easy feat, based on our yakking experiences at Steadfast Farm.
“Tim and I made calf trap doors, so yak babies can come into smaller places, and we entice them in with “creep,” which is pelletized grass, small, like chicken feed – and then we isolate them from the mamas,” Una explains. “We trap them in the calf trap door. While they are still nursing, the calves come in and out, but this way, we can work with the babies every day and they get to know us well.”
“So, Hay Springs Yaks is your retirement project?” I ask innocently.
“Apparently,” Una replies, with a trace of a grin.
Behind her, his now sign hung, Tim smiles sheepishly.
Just then, Cinde’s voice - “time for our first YakSpo presentation!” - carries across the hangar, and I see Smiling Buddha co-owner Peter Hackett reviewing a PowerPoint presentation over by a large screen surrounded by low slung metal bleachers. So enamored of the yaks all morning, I hadn’t even noticed our mini-amphitheater until now, and I move to join two dozen other yakkers ambling over to take their seats.
“DNA – what is it?’ Peter asks by way of framing his talk for the assembled yakkers on the bleachers, clicker in hand.
I brace myself, remembering my conversations with Bob and Tim that may have given me glimmerings into yak epigenetics.
“Start with a yak calf, which has about 10 trillion cells,” Peter begins. “Each cell has a nucleus and 30 chromosome pairs featuring an A allele from one parent and a T allele from another.”
I glanced at my notes – “an ‘allele’ is a tiny base of a gene, comprised of many alleles” – marveling at how steeped in yak genetics Bob, Tim, Peter, and other members of US YAKS seem to be.
“Genes have DNA sequences encoding proteins, which do the work in cells to regulate a yak body’s tissues and organs,” Peter continues. “Most of the genetic diversity in livestock occurs at the level of nucleotides, coded A, C, G, T and called SNPs.”
I looked at my notes again, remembering my morning’s conversation with Bob. “SNPs – single nucleotide polymorphisms,” I read, trying to keep up, “are sites in the genome where two different nucleotides occur.”
“Take any three individual yaks,” Peter is explaining. “The first yak’s DNA trace file may reveal an A/T combination (A is a maternal chromosome, and T is paternal chromosome), the second yak’s DNA trace file may reveal A/A, while the third yak may have T/T.”
Given Moore’s Law and the rapidly diminishing cost of genetic testing, Peter says, any yak can be sequenced 10 x for a cost of $2,700 (and dropping). He then moved into practical applications for DNA testing, and everyone’s ears perked up.
“What can you do with a 10x whole genome sequence of a North American yak? Plenty,” Peter says. “US YAKS can design custom North American yak-specific DNA tests for parentage determination and pedigree analysis, animal identification, ‘traceback’ (forensics – like if a yak gets gutted by a pack of wolves and needs identifying), as well as the BIG one - managing inbreeding, what the pros call “’conservation genetics.’”
Murmurs of interest from the bleachers.
Yak inbreeding seems to be on everyone’s mind.
“We can also genotype yak for ‘new’ genes discovered in cattle or sheep,” Peter says, “allowing us to deal with monogenic traits, track disease resistance, and breed for special yak characteristics like coat color or hair/fiber type.”
I see Bob nodding vigorously off to my left, his white yak in the background.
“Why else should we do DNA testing?” Peter asks the crowd. “We need to establish parentage, and be able to verify pedigree by identifying offspring in multi-sire pasture matings.”
More murmurs. One of the challenges with yak breeding is establishing parentage, especially with multiple bulls in a herd, which makes controlling which sexy beast mates with which a difficult prospect.
Dealing with cattle introgression and “hybrid” yaks is a challenging problem, Peter explains. When it hived off from IYAK last year, US YAK founders made an organizational decision to allow for a maximum of 10 cattle alleles out of 190 (5%). Anything less than 5% will be considered a “hybrid” instead of a “pure” yak. Fractionated, in allele-speak, Peter says, giving an example, 31/32nd yak = yak, but 15/16th (30/32nd) is not a yak. The current average in North American yaks = 1.3%, which amounts to two cattle alleles.
Or, stated epigenetically, cattle alleles in yaks have only 95 SNP markers, or a total of 190 alleles (not thousands). The current margin of error is plus or minus two alleles, and therefore, the threshold is set high (ten alleles). “North American yakkers should NOT discriminate between 0-4 alleles, as rival organization IYAK was currently doing,” Peter asserts. “We should take more of a ‘my yak, your yak’ approach - alleles shuffle on mating and offspring are not entirely predictable.”
A better DNA testing solution is to considering probability estimates for offspring, which makes much more sense given what we know about genetics, Peter observes, rather than taking a hard and fast “allele count per individual animal” approach. “We want more genetic diversity in the North American yak population,” he explains, “which is only a tiny sliver of the yak genome, with most of our yaks tracing their origins to a small herd in Canada.”
Again, nods of assent from the bleachers.
“Greater yak diversity means more success against disease and environmental problems, as well as a better chance of improving yak milk, meat, and fiber,” Peter says, advancing his slides. “DNA testing measures genetic diversity or heterozygosity, which is good, as well as measuring homozygosity, or inbreeding, which is bad.”
One yakker on the bleachers raises a hand and asks Peter to summarize problems with yak inbreeding.
“Inbreeding means a loss of diversity and a whole host of problems,” Peter explains. “Yaks become smaller, less robust, infertile, and more prone to genetic diseases and undesirable traits.”
He then elaborates, detailing how using DNA testing to measure what’s called the “Coefficient of Inbreeding” (COI) allows for optimal herd management, as well as strategic and safe breeding for herd diversity and specific traits.
A sort of “Match dot Yak” situation.
What we really need, I think, is a yak yenta, someone who can strategically sex up our North American yak population for maximum diversity.
“DNA can be used to estimate maximum diversity of offspring, and computer simulations of mating pair offspring help predict probabilities, but not assurances,” Peter cautions. Genome sequencing using SNP markers, he elaborates, allows for identification of more traits, as well as what are called EPDs (“expected progeny differences”). EPDs are common in cattle and other industries, with some computer chips coded for as many as 50,000 SNPs. “Eventually, we’ll get there with yak,” Peter says.
The big goal? Identifying every yak with a unique DNA “fingerprint” to establish ownership, trace meat and animal products, contain the spread of disease, assist buyers and sellers in choosing the right yaks, promote yak science, and more deeply understand the genetics of our North American yak herd.
“How do we get a test sample?” one yakker asks, anticipating Peter’s next few slides.
“Getting a good sample from each yak you want to test is vital,” Peter explains. US YAKS, it turns out, is partnering with a company called GeneSeek, which recommends an “ear punch” approach in which a yak is immobilized, its ear hair trimmed, and a sample taken with a simple ear punch device. DNA testing samples can be rendered as hair cards or blood cards, and US YAKS’ “call rate” threshold (the percentage of SNPs that work for any given sample) based on 98 total “assays” (95 characteristics + 3 traits) – is 95%. If a GeneSeek test returns less than a 95% success rate, yakkers can either rerun the sample (which usually doesn’t work, according to Peter) or submit a new sample.
Brace yourselves, yak ears everywhere.
“Determining yak parentage is done by exclusion,” Peter explains. “Yak offspring have to have an allele from a parent at every site – if alleles on that site are not the same, we don’t have a parent march.” Zero exclusions are best, and up to 1-2 exclusions are OK, Peter notes. “Though the test is not perfect, it provides a picture of any yak’s parentage,” he explains, sharing several slides of individual yak DNA tests.
Several minutes of discussion about the details of the slides ensues, and then Peter winds down his talk.
“We want to preserve yak alleles, or reduce inbreeding problems, and to do this, we all want a yak with a high Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) to mate with an unrelated yak to lower the COI in the next generation,” Peter concludes. “Hypothetically, if a yak with a COI of 0.3 mated with another yak with a COI of 0.3 that is unrelated, we get a COI of 0.0 in the calves. Bingo!”
“We need a new service – Match-A-Yak!” – someone yells from the bleachers.
Everyone laughs, and then Peter has the last word.
“Let me say, one more time, and seriously now,” Peter advises, “the biggest problem we face is that North American yaks are so closely related.”
Heads nod, and the presentation is over.
Yakkers hive off into smaller herds to compare notes, swap stories, and take a breather from our deep dive into yak DNA.
Are genetics the best way to determine what makes a yak a yak, I wonder to myelf?
Friday’s YakSpo festivities came to a fitting end with a performance by “Lois and the Lantern” – a four-piece all-women’s folk-rock group that played this event the year before. Yakkers mingled, sipping beers, comparing notes, telling stories, and tapping along in time to the music. Bob entertains a number of visitors over by his corral, Carlice, her folks, and their haltered yak sit quietly on the bleachers enjoying the music, and one couple grabs each other to cut the rug for a few tunes.
“Can you play “Jumping Yak Flash?’” one smart aleck yells from the back. “We can do even better!” says a band member, Lois, presumably. And when the band busts out “Yakkety Yak – Don’t Talk Back,” everyone in the hangar sings along to every word.
Yaks gittin' groovy with "Lois and the Lanterns" at YakSpo 2018.
YakSpo 2018: Free ranging dawn patrol run in Devil's Backbone wilderness area.
Saturday’ YakSpo event brought more fun and surprises.
Snow was in the forecast, the first of the winter season, and attendees arrived making plans for their YakSpo departure – how much snow would determine which mountain passes might close, and whether or not load out should happen earlier rather than later. The Ranch exhibition hangar was now full of yaks – close to a dozen ranches’ worth – quietly munching on hay and eyeballing us humans as we arrived for the day.
When I walked into the hangar around 9:00 am, I saw Cynde talking with two young men in sports jackets and cowboy boots I surmised were the today’s yak judges. Cynde confirmed my suspicions, introducing me to Blake and Cole.
Blake, who hailed from Eaton, Colorado, was a baby faced twenty-year-old with a Civil War beard and light mustache. Nattily dressed in a light green button-down jacket, jeans, and cowboy boots, he told me he got into fairs through Future Farmers of America as a kid, and began judging 4H competitions at age 15. “After I graduated from junior college, I judged all over the US, and was pretty competitive, especially in hogs,” he says modestly.
Fellow Coloradan Colton, age 21, started livestock judging at the ripe old age of 8. “After dairy cattle judging, I went to World Dairy Expo in Louisville, Kentucky,” he says, smiling, and then graduated from junior college and went back to livestock judging.
“This is our very first time for us judging yaks,” Colton notes.
Seeing my surprise, they both smile. I ask how they plan to approach the day’s judging.
“Yaks are similar to cattle, in a way,” Blake notes, “We’ll focus on how well they’re built, in terms of their joints and legs, and judge them as we would breeding cattle.”
Intrigued, I ply them with questions, and they prove happy to share their insights.
“We were taught to judge cattle from the ground up, just like you build a house from the ground up,” Blake explains. Their foundation is their legs, their joints, and their feet – and then you just work up from there. How well they’re built is how much muscle they can have – because you want them to get to a market weight and make it to 1600 pounds or whatever.”
“You want your yak to have some rib and body,” Colton adds. “The more they have, the more bold and robust, the more they can pack on top.”
As we are talking, Bob walks over and listens in. (No blow drying this morning.)
“One big difference between yak and other cattle is ‘sickle hock,’” Bob weighs in. “Typical cattle legs bend inward in the rear, because of sickle hock, which is bad. But us yakkers, we like sickle hock because it means our yaks can shoulder a heavier load and be more stable.”
“Personally, I was shocked by this at first,” Blake laughs, agreeing. “But it makes sense, given the yaks’ evolution and purpose.”
“Sickle hock also may make yaks faster,” Bob opines. “A yak can reach top speed in two to three steps, including those slow, lumbering bulls – when they want to move, they can go OVER stuff - you wouldn’t believe,” explains Bob, shaking his head in awe.
How to judge a yak? Blake, Colton and Bob discuss the details at YaksPo 2018.
I ask Blake and Colton to give us more insights into other yak traits they would consider judging.
“Yak heads are a good place to look for masculinity and femininity,” Blake says, “cause you want your ladies to look like a lady, and you want your men to look like a man.”
I laugh. “Tell me more,” I ask, thinking of Kunga, our long-lashed sexy beast from years ago back in Vermont.
“So, masculinity is about a stocky, stout, square hip – yaks are more round in the hip, to move their leg more athletically and climb better, is what I’ve noticed,” says Blake.
“Femininity is, like, a more slender skull, feminine headed, not a big robust stocky head like you’d see on a bull in his prime.” Adds Colton. “Yak skulls seem narrow, which often relates to their body type.”
What do you do about judging a yak’s hump?” I ask.
Blake explains that yaks are like Brahmin cattle in this regard. “You want yak hump right over their shoulder blade, symmetrical, not leaning to one side,” he says, “a rounder, less heart shaped hump is ideal.”
“Yaks humps help tell the story if they are more masculine or more feminine,” Colton observes. “Cows will have a smaller hump, bulls will have a bigger hump.”
“And yak horns?” I ask.
“We look for horns to be symmetrical the way they lay, not curved awkwardly, not one shorter, the other longer,” Blake details. “You want yak horns to be as even as possible – that’s the best way to describe how I judge horns.”
“Do you consider the hair in any way?” I wonder. “Like the thickness or length of guard hairs or the health of the fleece?”
“Guard hairs have nothing to do with fleece,” Bob jumps in. “Short guard hair and short fleece is good, but long guard hair on a yak can be bad because you can’t get the fleece out. We had super wooly yaks, and it was hard to harvest fleece because of the guard hair because it had so much lanolin it would ‘felt up’ right on the animal and we’d have to cut it out.”
This was an education.
“Do you ever worry, as a judge, about getting it wrong?” I ask Colton and Blake.
“I’m not nervous about judging,” Blake answers modestly. “I’ve always been taught its one person’s opinion, and if someone doesn’t agree, I’d be happy to explain why I chose the way I did.”
“That’s the life of the show,” Colton agrees. “You are bringing your consistent trained eye to all the animals and making judgements. In this case, we were asked to judge as a pair – first judge alone, then compare notes and agree on final rankings.”
“I like the team approach,” says Bob, and both judges nod in agreement.
“Especially because we’ve never done this before, Colton may see something I won’t, and vice versa,” says Blake, to nods from both Colton and Bob.
The two jacketed judges wander off, clipboards in hand, beginning their day of surveying yaks for judging, with the promise of prizes for the winning animals later that afternoon. Everyone else gathers around the bleachers surrounding a giant screen for our day’s two presentations –Pueblo County Animal Resource Team member Tom Laca on “yak management during disaster preparedness,” and Dr. Rob Callan on yak calving.
Having no yaks under my current care, I grab a sandwich from the food cart and listening with one ear to each presenter, my other ear aimed at listening to Colton and Blake’s muted conversations while the three of us walk around the hangar, peering at the penned yaks more closely. They seem remarkably at peace, contentedly lying in straw beds and occasionally munching on the hay provided by their two-legged companions.
“What hazards present the most risk to you and your yaks?” I hear Tom ask the assembled from across the hangar.
Other than trampling, goring, or getting steamrolled by an entire herd thundering their way to dinner time? I wonder, scratching a yak calf behind the ears in a nearby pen.
“Fires, floods, tornadoes, and blizzards,” is the better answer, and I listen as Tom proceeds to detail, through a series of disaster scenarios, how to construct a “yak evacuation kit” for animal identification and proof of ownership in the event of an emergency.
Note to all yakkers – your “yak pack” should include tags, brands, bills of sale, registration papers, pictures, feed, water, supplements, and supplies. Maybe a “yak satchel” would be better. A big one.
After Laca finishes and folks grab lunch, Colorado State University’s Dr. Rob Callan walks us through “yak obstetrics,” covering stages of labor, normal “presentation,” malpresentation, and how to support a yak cow through a variety of particularly difficult birthing scenarios. (I refer all interested parties to Zi XD’s 2003 article "Reproduction in female yaks (Bos grunniens) and opportunities for improvement,” published in a journal called Theriogenology, reference edition and pages 59(5-6): 1303-1312.
Amidst his labor’ed observations, Callan has particular fun with “yak parturition” – to shave or not to shave a pregnant yak – referencing Ren and Stimpy’s 1993 “Yak Shaving Day,” to a round of chuckles from the yakkers in the bleachers. He also throws out for consideration a computer code-focused “Firehouse Project” Medium.com article entitled “A Guide To Yak Shaving Your Code – How To Stay Focused When Thing Get Hairy,” a hilarious deep dive into “shaving the yak,” which begins, in the introduction, by nominating the phrase as “hands down, the best phrase in the English language.” The article, accompanied by a full-color image of a Scottish Highlander (not a yak), ends with the humorous admonition to “be aware of the army of yaks that threatens your time and sanity,” followed by yet another image of a Scottish Highlander (still not a yak).
I laugh, remembering how our Vermont yaks were often mistaken for our farm neighbor Doug and Donna Kenyon’s Scottish Highlanders just down the road back in Mad River Valley.
As Callan wraps up his talk, I notice an animated young man talking with Peter and Ruth of Smiling Buddha Ranch.
Wandering over, I catch snatches of conversation about “semen collection,” “deviated penises,” and “Gomer bulls.” Fascinated, I introduce myself. Trent Shrader, a self-described “for-hire zoology dude,” had just arrived at YakSpo from Lincoln, Nebraska with his girlfriend to sit in and find out more about yaks. Turns out, Shrader’s backstory was as intriguing as anyone’s in the hangar.
“I’m a zoo medical director, and my specialty is in reproductive cryo-preservation of nondomestic species,” Shrader tells us. “I am heading to South Africa in two weeks to freeze giraffe semen – semen has never been frozen in wild giraffe, but they had seen a couple of the publications I have done, and we’d been communicating with the researchers there, so they said, ‘Hey yah, why don’t you come with us? Lion, hyena, reptiles, black backed jackal – we’ve got interest in doing some zoos in species across the US.’”
“Why freeze animal semen?” I ask, in knowing this question probably has an obvious answer.
“For conservation of species,” Trent says, visibly excited now. “The problem is that these wildlife areas are protected, but have a high risk of diseases moving in and rare species may be subject to diseases brought in from away - as soon as there are die offs, those genetics are lost forever.”
“We want to bank genetics from rare animals as early as possible,” Peter chimes in, “and we’re looking at how to do that for yaks in North America.”
“The technology to freeze eggs and embryos is very complex and is not well understood,” Trent explains. “But for semen it is relatively easy, as long as we have a large enough sample and as long as we can run through a few different protocols and find one that works.”
Ruth, Smiling Buddha Yaks’ other half, joins us, and the three of us listen raptly to Shrader.
“Semen is so much more reliable than eggs – millions more sperm, right?” Trent asks, quickly moving on, “and we only need 35 % survival rate in semen for a good sample, as opposed to 80% survival in eggs, which is much more challenging –it’s an interesting field of research.”
This is like Jurassic Park,” Ruth observes.
“Yakrassic Park, even,” Peter jokes.
“One of the reasons we started to talk about yaks is because there has been no documented research of freezing any wild yak,” Trent goes on. “Domestic yak grunniens has been frozen, but wild yak, mutus semen, well, that’d be amazing.”
There might be some research results overseas,” Peter muses. “Might be published in Chinese or Hindi, which turns into gibberish when I try to translate through Google Translator."
“Bhutan might be a good place to go for wild yak semen,” Ruth offers, and everyone’s ears perk up.
“The other challenge with artificial insemination (AI) is you have to synchronize the females,” Trent explains. “We’ve been using domestic yak protocols to try and synchronize these animals, but we don’t understand the timing of yak cycling, and we don’t understand the stimulus that actually causes a pregnancy to ‘take.’”
Say more, I urge.
“What causes the embryo to actually bind to the uterus?’ Trent asks rhetorically. “We need to do more studies of fecal estrogen and fecal progesterone levels in yak and see what their cycling system really is. I just need to get a hold of the Indian protocols for AI.”
“Tell me more about AI,” I venture to the group.
“Two best practices for artificial insemination,” says Peter authoritatively, putting on his scientist hat. “First, get ‘em during the hormonal cycle, and second, use ‘Gomer bulls,’ steers that will react when a female goes into estrus, and then deviate their penises to the side so they mount but don’t ejaculate into the female.”
“A yak hates it when you deviate his penis to the side,” Trent quips.
“No yaks are volunteering?” Ruth asks, to laughter from our group.
“Hypothetically, you can get two good semen collections a day if you separate ejaculatory response by more than eight hours,” Trent muses, getting back to business. “Dairy bulls can go all year round, and let me tell you, those are some HAPPY bulls, when you get ‘em on a dummy mount over and over again.”
More grunts of laughter.
“We need non-animal protein based washed solution to wash the collected semen with, because we get way less membrane rupture that way,” Trent says, “but we have to make it in Tibet because they can’t fly in chemicals.”
“We have a lot of private funding,” he concludes, “as long as there can be scientific publications that come out of it, we can travel to India, Tibet, Bhutan…”
Our group grows silent, contemplating the possibilities.
YaksPo 2018: Judge Blake, Peter Hackett, Judge Colton, and the author.
Outside in the parking lot, the YakSpo organizers have set up our last event of the week-end, an obstacle course in which haltered yaks move through a series of ramps, jumps, and platforms. Everyone brings a yak out for the fun, and for the next hour, as winter storm clouds grow over the Rockies to our northwest, the USYAK faithful snap photos, trade stories, and enjoy one last romp with our shaggy beasts before loading them onto trailers and heading for home. I say my goodbyes to Cinde and Grant, thanking them for making this Vermont yakker feel so welcome in the Rockies, and we agree to stay in touch into the new year.
When I wake the next morning, Colorado’s first winter snow storm has dumped several inches of snow in Loveland, and close to a foot in the higher Rockies. I use my day to compile notes after a snowy hike through Devil’s Backbone, a time to contemplate all that I have seen, heard, and learned from my new US YAKS friends over the past 48 hours. Boarding the plane in Denver, bound for Vermont, blissed out from our Loveland Lovefest, I feel like I’ve found my herd –North Americanos who care as much about yakking with these remarkable beasts as I do.
YakSpo 2018 - Free ranging in Loveland's Devil's Backbone wilderness area.
Turns out that yaks have long understood what our Pleistocene hominid ancestors knew, too - free range travel, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “is the great enemy of ignorance.” Free ranging, as yaks seem to intuitively sense, is also a ticket to guaranteed adventure and wider wisdom.
And what of yaks globally?
Time to turn our attention to the wider global yakking community, with an adventure to the “Roof of the World.”