CHAPTER 9: BE HERD - YAK WRANGLING IN THE ROCKIES
WC: approx. 11,200 +
What makes a yak a “yak”?
Seems like a straightforward question with a simple answer.
Just look at an alleged yak’s physical characteristics – the hair, the hump, the horns, the grunt – and instantly you’ll know if you have a yak on your hands.
Or consider yak behavior.
If said alleged yak can communicate with other yaks and “be herd” – finding a natural place within the evolving hierarchy of a larger grunniens community – than surely you are dealing with a yak.
Physical and behavioral characteristics.
We all know a yak when we see and observe one.
If only it were that easy.
For several years now, North American yak lovers within the IYAK and US YAKS communities have engaged in a contentious continental debate about what makes a yak a yak. This heated hairy discussion is fueled by questions surrounding a yak’s genetic makeup, made possible by advances in scientific research, genetics, and bioinformatics - enhanced analytical computing power via the digital leveraging of big data.
To capture the IYAK/US YAK debate in a single question:
How many yak alleles does an alleged yak possess in order to actually be considered a yak?
And how North American yakkers settle on the answer may determine the destiny of the grunniens/sapiens relationship on this continent for generations to come.
Where’s the best place to crack open this debate?
Denver, Colorado, and the National Western Stock Show.
Late January 2020. Awakened by my alarm at 2:30 am on the eastern edge of central Vermont’s Green Mountains, I am on the road by 3:00 am, at the Burlington International Airport by 4:15, and by 5:30 am I am winging my way west through Philadelphia to Denver International Airport. US YAKS director Grant Pound, our youthful 60+ YaksPo organizer, energetic, newly retired from yak ranching, and living with his wife in Loveland, picks me up at DIA, and we head west towards downtown Denver.
The Rocky Mountain morning is cloudy and cold, and it feels great to be back in the epicenter of North American yakking - Denver, Colorado - for my second annual visit to the National Western Stock Show (NWSS). Affectionately known as the “National Western,” the NWSS is the world’s largest annual urban congregation of cattle, horses, and the humans who love them. It is here, for the first time in NWSS history, that two rival yak organizations - IYAK and US YAKS - will square off against one another – yakkers all – as part of the planet’s largest single annual bovine and equine trade show.
Post load in "Golden Hour" at the 2020 National Western Stock Show.
“Catch me up on the yakking,” I say to Grant Pound by way of greeting as I jump into the passenger seat of his hybrid pickup truck in front of the Denver International Airport. “Is US YAKS ready to party?”
“The yak business is slow here,” Grant replies, after pondering my request for a few moments. “People are fearful, on edge, not willing to take risks. Other than the yak meat business, not much action at the moment. I only got somewhere around $1K per yak when I sold off my herd and retired from yakking this past year – 1/3 as much as I paid for my yaks when I got in,” he concludes.
“Still,” he says hopefully, as we pass the National Western complex on the interstate enroute to my hotel, “it’ll be great to get everyone together again at the stock show.”
A bit of history about the “National Western.”
Post-Civil War, the frontier city of Denver established the Denver Union Stock Yards in 1886, and stockmen in the Denver region assembled in fall 1898 to decide that “some kind of exhibition” should be held in conjunction with the Mile High City’s 2nd annual National Live Stock Association. The result? January 1899 saw the first “National Exhibition of Range Cattle” event, “in effect, the initial session of what became the National Western Stock Show,” with stockmen exhibiting 35 train carloads of feeder cattle. “This small show created much talk and attracted considerable attention,” explains the official NWSS history.
Seven years later, Colorado luminaries including Elias M. Ammons, president of the Colorado Cattle and Horse Growers Association and later governor of Colorado; George Ballentine, general manager of the Denver Union Stock Yard Company; and Fred P. Johnson, publisher of the Record Stockman, officially founded the National Western Stock Show (NWSS), billing the 1906 NWSS launch as “the premier livestock, rodeo, and horse show in the nation, serving agricultural producers and consumers throughout the world.” The first NWSS saw “50 carloads of feeder cattle (aged steers, 2-year-old steers, yearlings and some calves), 8 loads of fat cattle, 7 loads of breeding heifers, 11 loads of fat lambs, 5 carloads of hogs, and 78 head of breeding cattle” exhibited, along with “10 pens of 3 barrows, 11 pens of 3 lambs, 20 single fat steers, 16 single lambs and 4 single wethers.” As a side note, the NWSS exhibit notes, “the number of exhibitors was restricted by territory.”
Over the decades, the NWSS only grew in popularity with national and global audiences. In 1908, only two years after its official founding, NWSS directors opened up the show to entrants from all over the world. By 1913, according to one NWSS director, “the real object of the Annual Stock Show is now and always has been to build up stock farming in the west and incidentally to provide a home market for the output.”As the 20th century unfolded, sheep, breeding cattle, and hogs arrived in Denver via rail cars to complement the carloads of feeder cattle, and the National Western Stock Show went global. Herefords first dominated in annual competitions, with 1909 seeing over 3,000 feeder animals competing in the 4th annual show. By 1the 920s, bull prices ranged from $82.50 to $225.00 with 60 carloads of bulls being traded. 1941 witnessed an astonishing 1,236 bulls sold to 17 states at an average of $239 per animal. “Good quality stock was disposed of with little difficulty,” explained the Record Stockman in the 1920s, “while buyers shied clear of the plainer quality stock, with some of the latter going home unsold.” Let the market decide!
Meanwhile, NWSS horses and horse rodeos attracted global attention, with more than 18,000 equine entries at the 2006 event, including Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, Hunters & Jumpers, FUSE Open Horse Shows, Mules Shows and the Draft Horse Show & Pull. More diversity and growth accompanied the annual NWSS every year, as the railroads gave way to the auto age in the mid-1960s, with Colorado State University’s Dr. John Matsushima taking over management of the Fed Beef Contest. “The history of judging in the ‘Yards parallels the changing trends in beef cattle type and production,” observes the NWSS showcase exhibit. “Many of these changes in type and kind were started or influenced by judging decisions made at the National Western.” “The happenings in the ‘Yards was, and continues to be, a barometer for the beef industry; whether in judging or selling.”
NWSS plans for the future.
Today, the new millennium is witnessing the “National Western” embarking on an ambitious $100 million “Honoring the Legacy…Building the Future” 2019-2021 campaign to build a new NWSS “National Western Center.” “Be a part of a once-in-a-lifetime transformation!” states their web site at www.honoringthelegacycampaign.com. The vision? 20 acres of “flexible outdoor space for cattle bison, or events like concerts, farmers markets and more,” states their web site. “Honoring the past and celebrating the future, the new yards will be a flexible area with indoor and outdoor spaces for year-round activity (including a 43,000 square foot Herd Sire and Stock Dog Area to house the popular annual cattle dog herding event.)
Thursday afternoon yak load in at the 2020 National Western Stock Show.
Welcome, fuzzy grunniens, to NWSS 2020!
An ambitious “once-in-lifetime transformation” indeed. While 21st century Denver is now known as the craft beer and cannabis capital of the central Rockies, the “Mile High City” has long enjoyed a reputation as being the US west’s urban center for all things cowboy, and there is no better expression of this wild western mythology than the annual National Western Stock Show. “One of Colorado’s preeminent tourist destinations, and a nationally recognized western heritage and entertainment event, the stock show hosts one of the world’s richest regular season professional rodeos, one of the country’s largest horse shows and Colorado’s largest western trade show, attracting attendance numbers over 650,000 visitors each year,” reads NWSS’s web site. “Throughout this historic event, the National Western strives to strengthen American agriculture through enrichment programs and youth education in livestock, equestrian, farming, ranching, animal awareness and appreciation. We celebrate western lifestyles, our communities, provide life-long memories and family traditions.” Indeed, according to a January 20, 2020 FencePost.com news story, “after a record-breaking opening weekend, the National Western Stock Show has accumulated a total of 450,267 guests over its first 10 days,” all clamoring to consume popular spectator events such as bareback riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and bull riding, and let’s not forget the “Fun Mom Boots Scramble,” shepherded by the ever-popular rodeo clowns.
The view from the aerial catwalk - known as "The Walk" in NWSS parlance.
All this at NWSS, and now, yaks, too.
Building on their YaksPo success, US YAKS has an ambitious NWSS weekend planned, including a Friday yak judging and ribbon awards, a Saturday yak masquerade parade and public yak training demonstration by legendary exotic animal trainer Terri Lindley, a Sunday arena showing, a felting demonstration by Steer It Up ranch’s Erin Powell, and a talk on “calf health from birth to weaning” by Dr. Rob Callan.
Grant drops me off downtown, and after checking into my hotel, I grab a Lyft over to the National Western Stock Show arena to help with yak unloading – the Denver day growing more clear, warm, and sunny. On site, I am immediately transported to the American West in all of its mythological manifestations. Good-looking cowboys and cowgirls of all ages – tan, rangy, weathered - sporting 10-gallon hats, skinny blue jeans, and spurs lead haltered horses and cattle across the 20-acre premises, mingling with hordes of gawking tourists – four generations of folks from everywhere imaginable. Accented by the smells of fresh sawdust, pungent dung, greasy hot dogs, and the tang of fry bread, handmade printed flyers promote all things agri’cattle – meat, fiber, breeding, calves, consulting, farming, ranching, genetics. Announcements adorn every available poster space, focusing on “advertising, marketing, data, catalog, sale animal preparation, sale facility set up, and other details” of the agricultural industry. The famed long skinny aerial catwalk – “the Walk” - parallels the old NWSS train tracks, giving onlookers (potential livestock buyers, historically) a bird’s eye view above the daily proceedings, with downtown Denver stretching off to the south and the magnificent snow-capped Rocky Mountains off to the west.
Bob Stuplich of American White Yaks unloading yaks - white and black.
Close your eyes, dismiss the automobiles, and be transported back more than a century to Denver in its stockyard heyday. The NWSS is an annual global agri’event that still has legs, “an old landmark, steeped in history,” according to one Colorado-based news journal commenting on the 2020 show. Half a million NWSS visitors does not include the 50 plus yaks and dozens of yakkers from all over the greater Rocky mountains – Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico – as well as eastern yakkers from Ohio and Michigan, and yaks from as far south as Kentucky, where US YAKS president Greg Dike and his wife Linda of "Zhi-Ba Shing-Ga Yaks" have traveled to celebrate all things yak here in Denver. Side by side, the established IYAKkers and the rogue mavericks of US YAKS – I versus US – assemble for a long weekend of halter showing, felting exhibits, yak meat sampling, yak judging, note comparing, and communal conviviality. As the storied NWSS moves into its last weekend, the North American yakkers commandeer an area at the far north end of the NWSS stock yards, with ranch signs and prayer flags of various colors, yaks of every description (Royals, Goldens, whites, trims, imperials, and the classic blacks), and IYAK and US YAKS banners on full display. The sun is warm, the atmosphere festive, the passersby curious about all things yak – it promises to be a fantastic weekend.
USYAKS president Greg Dike's yak pen and walking with a black yak calf under the famed NWSS aerial "Walk."
Thursday afternoon load in time. A number of us descend to the west side of the NWSS stock yards and help unload yaks from trailers – Del Yaks, Smiling Buddha and Bob Stuplich’s American White Yaks from the west side of the Rockies, Hay Springs Yaks – “Registered Breeding Stock, Grass-Fed Meat, and Fine Yarns, Hand Combed and Collected”- in from northwestern Nebraska, and the Wyoming contingent – Coal Creek Ranch and the Cutrights of Casper Creek Ranch, featuring Carlice the teenage yak whisperer, now a high school graduate and on her way. Working together, we manage to get all yaks off of their trailers and into their respective NWSS pens with only one band of temporary escapees, who manage to “hard charge” their way through a gate before we got it closed. Par for the course, given yaks’ natural propensity to make a run for it whenever possible.
Grant is right. It is good to get the yak band back together.
Before leaving, I pop up onto the Walk to grab an aerial view of our newly yak encampment. Looking around the show area, with all yaks assembled, I observe the two rival yak camps – IYAKs to the south, US YAKS to the north. To a casual observer simply wandering through, all appears hairy, humpy, horn’y, and harmonious. To those in the know, though, it promises to be an interesting weekend.
USYAKS community, with IYAKs off to the left/south - 2020 NWSS.
Tired from my day of travel, I head back downtown for an early dinner and some shut eye.
Walking into NWSS’s main corral area om Friday morning, I pick up a January 20, 2020 copy of the Fence Post, the authoritative agricultural news journal out of Greeley, Colorado. “The National Western Stock Show Yards are brimming with history and cattlemen with the wisdom won through hard years and experience,” writes journalist Rachel Gabel in this issue’s feature article spotlighting the NWSS, entitled “In The Yards.” “The business of selling seedstock doesn’t begin or end with the stock on display at the Yards, many of the ranches are selling their reputation built on generations of genetics.” (6)
Debates about yak genetics are the crux of the conversation between IYAK and US YAKS – I versus US. I’ve come to the NWSS to map the history of the discussion, and to discern the parameters of the debate. Amazingly, approaching the yak pens, I have the good fortune to almost immediately run into Dr. Ted Kalbfleisch, Associate Professor at the Glucke Equine Research Center located at the University of Kentucky, Louisville, who has been working with US YAKS on groundbreaking yak genetics research.
“Kalbfleisch?” I ask, my eyebrows raised in amusement as we meet.
We laugh at his last name. “Veal Flesh,” he says, nodding. “I know.”
We immediately hit it off, and I ask him if he can walk me through his yak genome work.
One year before, in a press release dated January 16, 2019, US YAKS announced a ground-breaking partnership with the USDA to map the yak genome.
Official PRESS RELEASE celebrating the successful "yak genome mapping project."
Here is the press release:
Scientists, led by Dr. Timothy Smith of the USDA, presented the first chromosome-scale assembly of the yak species at the 27thAnnual Plant and Animal Genome Conference this week.
This groundbreaking work, based on a new methodology utilizing data from parents representing two species and their offspring, is a major advance not only for yak, but for the entire field of animal genetics. USDA scientists called this work “the best assembly of a mammalian genome ever.” Dr. Edward S. Rice, who presented this collaborative work at the conference, reported the new genome assembly has far fewer missing pieces than previous attempts to construct the genome of the yak, and at the same time improved the cattle genome.
PHOTO CAPTION: Pictured on the dais are the researchers involved in this work: Drs. Edward S. Rice, Jessica Petersen, Theodore Kalbfleisch, Tim Hardy and Peter Hackett. Not pictured are Drs. Timothy Smith, Michael Heaton and Sergey Koren.
US YAKS was instrumental in providing registered animals for the research. Previously, yak DNA was often mapped to the cattle reference standard, which yielded important discoveries, but also had limitations. This high-quality “map” of the entire DNA of the yak will facilitate research to understand the biology of the species and provide an improved resource to build upon current genetic testing.
At the time, I remember celebrating this genetic milestone with other yakkers around North America. Now, to be in the presence of one of the geneticists who spearheaded this project, I celebrated my good fortune.
“Begin with SNiPs,” Ted jumps right in as I scramble to turn on my voice recorder. “Essentially, what you can do is look for single nucleotide positions - in the yak, the bison, the gaur, the zebu – that differ from cattle.
“Isolate differences?” I ask.
“Look for the places where they are all different from cattle, and we’ve got loads of sequence data on cattle,” Ted explains, “so we know for a fact that those positions are fixed and different from the rest of these, right?”
“Right,” I say.
Ted has a wonderful habit of asking “right?” after he completes a scientific thought, which I find helpful as a layman. American White Yaks’ patriarch Bob Stuplich wanders over and listens in, as Ted continues.
“And again, all these species came from the same common ancestor,” Ted reminds us. “So what happened was, at some point, cattle changed that allele, it was associated with something good in cattle, so it got fixed in the population, right? But it provided the rest of these animals no advantage, so it never changed. OK?”
We nod. OK.
“So, in that subset, there would have been, I don’t know, a couple of million positions like that – in that subset, we found about 500 positions where the yak had 2 allele positions that differed from the cattle, right? So, for example, in this position,” says Ted, pointing at a species chart that magically appears in his hands, “the cattle had an A, but the yak had either a C or a T. In all 3 billion base pairs of the genome, this happened five or 600 times, right?”
Again, we nod.
“But we found that group of SNiPs. This was the part here we got really lucky, right? When you develop a parentage test, typically what you would do is you would sequence hundreds of animals from that species, and you would ask the question – can I find alleles that vary at high frequency across the whole group I am looking at? So you’d look at 100 animals, at least, to find alleles that were about between 30 to 50% in allele frequency – essentially, a coin toss polymorphism. Those are going to give you the greatest poser in segregating the animals, right?” So, if you got a panel of 100 or so of these things, the odds that any two animals are going to have the same genetic fingerprint is one in many many billion – more than all the animals that have ever been on the earth.”
“Yah,” I agree, completely amazed.
So, you typically start with a lot of animals,” Ted explains, laughing. “We had two. We had the Chinese yak, and we had Queen Alante.”
“So, when you say you got lucky,” I noted, smiling. “You got lucky.”
“Yeah, we got really lucky,” Ted says. Everyone laughs as a yak grunts in a pen nearby, and visitors gawk at our hairy neighbors.
"So, at those 500 positions that were fixed different from the cattle, right,” Ted continues, “we found about 500 positions that were heterozygous for two different alleles in the yak - CT in the yak, and A or G in the cattle.”
“So, you can imagine the GeneSeek panel they are working on right now is a panel of 98 SNiP subset of this – so if you took one of these yak, and crossed it with a cow, and then genotyped that cow, then across all 98 of those markers, one of the alleles they have will be from the cattle, right, the other allele will be the C or the T you find in the yak,” Ted explains. “So, it was a pretty cool problem – we were fortunate to have all the data where we could work it out, and we put together that set of markers and sent it off to GeneSeek and they put together the panel, and it us working remarkably well.”
“It is,” I affirm, with a nod to the US YAKS award poster hanging on a nearby fence post.
“When you say ‘remarkably well,’ what does that mean and how do you measure this?” I ask.
“That means that we got lucky – those alleles turned out to be pretty discriminating across all the yak that we’re looking at,” Ted says, “there are some that aren’t working as well as others, but that’s technical, that’s not because of the genetics.”
“When you say ‘some,’” I ask, “you mean some SNiPs?”
“Yes,” Ted replies. “They’ll design an assay to amplify that chunk of DNA in the animal, and that part isn’t working so well for all of them.”
“What percentage isn’t working well vis a vis the whole?” I ask.
“Maybe 3 %,” Ted says. “But we’ve got another set of 500 or so that GeneSeek hasn’t looked at yet, or hasn’t tried yet, we’re gonna give them those, and perhaps they can augment the panel and give it a little more power.”
“So, the plan is to expand the genetic analysis?’ I ask.
“We aren’t certain what the plan is,” Ted responds, “they’ve got a set of markers on the panel that aren’t working great, but they’ve already tested the other 400 – those aren’t gonna work – we’ve got another 500 that we can give them, and they can see if they can backfill.”
“That’s so cool,” I say, marveling some more.
“They might get another 98?” Bob jumps in.
“Maybe,” says Ted.
He pauses, gathering his thoughts, while we wait patiently, punctuated by a yak grunt from a nearby pen.
“They’re out there. There’s a better technology that’s maybe 5 or 6 years down the road, that will eliminate this SNiP test and give us a way to get an even more accurate answer, but the test that we got now is pretty good, especially with respect to introgression, so if cross a yak and a cow, that animal will be 50% for those yak alleles, no question – that has to happen, so that’s easy to pick up. About 25% will be cattle alleles in a grand dame or grand sire – 3 generations back, 12 ½ %, and it’ll just keep going.”
“You can fractionate your way on down,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Ted. “If we have multiple cattle in there, then the math’s going to get a little bit wonky, but you’ll be able to pick it up.”
“I know you are busy, but what do you make of the fracas between the IYAKkers and the US YAKkers about yak genetics?” I ask.
“I have stayed completely out of it, and my position is – if you send me GeneSeek genotypes, I will give you a report,” he replies, smiling. “I’ve remained agnostic.”
“IYAK isn’t working with me any more,” Ted reveals. “They wanted to bring the GeneSeek test as applied to yak registrations inside their organization. Nobody’s gonna get rich doing this, and if you just want to bring in the genetic testing and be able to control a few more things, bring it in internally is the right thing to do.”
“How many years have you been doing this?” I ask.
Ted redirects the question to a woman who is just joining us. In another astonishing stroke of luck, she turns out to be Dr. Jessica Petersen, Ted’s colleague in yaks genetic research, based at the University of Nebraska. I’ve heard her name. This beautiful Denver morning is turning out to be most auspicious for yak genetics research.
“Five years?” she asks.
“One last question,” I ask Ted. “What makes a yak a ‘yak’? One answer to the is genetic. Look – we’ve got patterns of DNA, and chromosomes, and alleles, and SNiPs, and we can measure those and assess them, and we can say with more or less definitive certainty that this cluster of genetic material indicates that this creature is a yak. Is this – and I don’t mean this to be a loaded question – but is this the best way to determine ‘yakness,’ if you will?”
Ted nods, getting where I am going.
“Who draws the lines and where you draw them is still a non-trivial question, right?” he says carefully. “You can look at modern horses around here and you can find bits of DNA that came from zebras or asses or whatever – it’s a cassette of DNA that is 4 1/2 million years diverged from everything else you see in horses, right? It didn’t come from horses, but it’s in there.”
“Interesting,” I say, by way of inviting him to continue.
“So yes, you can determine ‘yakness’ genetically, but how remains an open question. Sit smart people around a table and work until you come up with a good answer that would get consensus.”
“So there’s no definitive scientific statement that says – here’s an animal – this is a yak?” asks Bob.
“You cross a yak with a cow, and I can tell you it’s an F1 cross, right?” Ted says. “You took their parents, I can tell you their parents with reasonable certainty that the mom was a yak and the dad was cattle, you can do that. Yes.”
We all remain silent, as Ted carefully considers his words.
“It’s a subjective thing, really,” continues Ted, “because you’ve got 98 alleles and you say if there are 10 cattle alleles, you say ‘we know that there are 10 cattle alleles in this animal,’ the cutoff could be 5 – that’s a judgement call, we want a real pure yak? We want 2 or less, but when you start getting into 5, 6, 7, or 7, or 8 – they’re all pretty close.”
“If you gave me wild yaks, we can tell you if they are yak or not,” Ted says. “Or you could substitute one of those animals from over there and I can tell you, unequivocally, that it doesn’t belong.”
“So US YAKS says 10 or more alleles, then it’s a hybrid,” Bob asserts. “That’s a subjective call?”
“When you start drawing lines,” Ted says, and then pauses…
“Like if you say you say a black Angus can’t have a white nose,” chimes in Jessica, who has been listening intently.
“Or if you are IYAK and you say, if it's white, it can’t be a yak,” says Bob, grinning.
I recount my story about an IYAKker dissing on white yaks because “they are obviously not yaks” because we know that Jerry McRoberts crossed his yaks with French Charlevoix cattle, but, I countered, “if the white animal walks like a yak, and talks like a yak, and acts like a yak, and behaves like a yak when it is amongst yaks in a yak herd and behaves as a yak would…”
I let my sentence trail off.
“And the same animal has less than 5% of the cattle alleles…” Bob adds.
“And the difference is that one of the alleles it has is very visible to see…” adds Jessica.
“So, I don’t want to get myself in trouble with you geneticists,” I ask, poking the DNA Bear, “but can we say that genetic testing is subjective?”
“No,” responds Ted. “Genetic testing is accurate – how you interpret those results is going to be subjective. The allele that turns yak white – you could take a fertilized egg out of one of these animals, and Crispr that allele in, right, and it would have that one allele and it would be white – and everything else would be yak. I would defy any geneticist to tell you that’s not a yak.”
“So, I’m the problem guy,” Bob interjects. “I have 2/3 yak and 1/3 cattle – phenotypically, one of my cows - she’ll throw a calf on a given year that looks better than my best yaks, but the next year, she’ll throw one that looks just like a Charlevoix. So phenotypically, the two calves probably have the same number of cattle alleles, but shuffling is evident.”
“She’s got the same number,” interjects Ted, “but the number that she’s giving to the calves is different.”
“No actually, it’s maybe the ones that she gives rather than the numbers that makes her calves look the way they do,” Bob muses, “she’s given us 8 unbelievably unique calves – each one looks very different.”
“What’s this cow’s name?” I ask.
Francis,” Bib says, “She’s given us 7 white calves and 1 black one, and the black one is the fluffiest, yakkiest looking thing that you can imagine, and the white ones – there’s some fluffy beautiful ones and some cow’y looking ones.”
“Same bull or different bulls?” I prompt.
“Mostly the same bull,” Bob says. “First Pistol Pete, and now Curly.”
“Remember, we’re polling the genome,” Jessica reminds us.
“We’re not testing genome wide,” Ted says. “We’re looking at 96 positions in 3 billion base pairs – 2.7 to be precise.”
“3 Billion!” I say, amazed.
“I think I am beginning to be able to discern, phenotypically, which ones have double,” explains Bob.
“They have lighter pigment?” Jessica queries.
“Absolutely,” Bob says. “And pink noses, and pink eyes.”
“So that’s a physical manifestation of the difference,” I offer.
“And they are whiter when they are born,” says Bob. “Like these two right here,” he gestures at two young yaks in a nearby pen, “they are the same color right now, but one was silver when she was born – and today she is white.”
With a break in the conversation, I confirm our two geneticists’ respective research locations – Ted is at the University of Kentucky, while Jessica works at the University of Nebraska, which piques my interest. “Do you know Trent, the zoologist in Lincoln?” I ask her, referencing our 2018 Loveland YakSpo conference. She nods, smiling, with a nod to US YAKs.
“And are you both hip to this crazy genetics scheme,” I ask them both, “tracking down and grabbing some semen from a wild yak bull and bringing it back to diversity North American yak herd genetics?”
“I don’t want to be the one grabbing it,” Jessica chuckles. “but if you’re gonna hog tie him…”
“With the Chinese, we’ll do it,” I laugh. “What could possibly go wrong? Xi Xin Ping himself is gonna do it. What do you think of the idea of importing cryogenically suspended bos mutus semen – either from India or China?”
“If the goal is to widen the diversity, then absolutely,” she replies, “but I’d be worried that if there is one bull and one semen sample, then every yakker in North America would want to use it.”
“And,” I finish, “create the problem we’re all trying to avoid!’
We all laugh. A banner morning for the yak gene pool here at the National Western Stock Show.
Can you give me your official title?” I ask Jessica.
“Assistant Professor of Animal Functional Genomics,” she replies.
“You know that Jessica was the project lead on the yak genome project?” Ted asks me.
“That’s where I’ve heard your name!” I almost shout at Jessica.
“Can we talk about that?” I ask them both.
They nod, and our conversation continues. All around us, visitors arrive at the yak pens to admire these unique animals – families, couples, solo photographers on the hunt for the new and the exotic. The sun warms the ground all around us, as clouds wander by overhead. A beautiful Friday indeed.
“Consider adaptive introgression - evolution is great, but it’s slow,” says Ted, breaking the reverie. “The environment changes very fast on particular animals, adaptively, and let’s say there is this other species with which you can cross – and bring in wholesale already adaptive genes.”
“Could you speed up evolution, in other words?” I probe.
“It happens in nature all the time,” he responds.
“And there is not a single definition for what makes a species,” adds Jessica. “We talk about this regularly in our genetics classes.”
“Can you tell me about the yak genome project,” I ask, “If I bribe you with the promise of lunch afterwards?”
They both laugh, and Jessica takes over the telling of the story.
“We took a highlander bull and crossed it with a yak cow, so the offspring – half of her genome was all from that highland, one half of her genome was from the yak,” Jessica begins, “and not just half, but actually full chromosomes, so one full chromosome #1 was cattle derived, and one full chromosome # was yak derived…”
“Why is this significant – a full chromosome versus not?” I ask.
“If you cross continually, you’ll have recombinations of those chromosomes, so you’ll have chromosomes that are part cattle, part yak, and in unpredictable ways,” she says.
The two exchange glances, partners on a team doing groundbreaking work.
“So Ted can talk about the bioinformatics more, but what we did, Ed Rice was the post-doc who did the bioinformatics work, sequenced the 2 parents using what we called short read technology – so 150 base pairs paired in sequencing and using that information we could then have long read sequencing of the F1, so really long pieces of DNA, and the two parents were so different that we could use information from what we have from their sequence to say, OK, so this long sequence from the F1, this had to have come from Mom – this had to be yak. So you can basically separate those two pieces of the puzzle apart, so sequence from her cattle genome in one pool, sequence from her yak genome in the other pool, and then when you assemble those…
“You assemble those separately?” I ask.
“Yes. You assemble the genome of the yak, and you assemble the genome of the cow,” says Jessica.
So you reconstruct two separate genomes?” I ask.
She nods, with a modest smile.
“Um, that seems rather amazing,” I say.
“And the other difference is they’re haploid genomes,” she explains, “because its only one chromosome from the yak, one example of every chromosome from the yak, so there’s no heterozygosity in that genome you are assembling, so it makes it a lot easier to put them together…”
Haploid? I interrupt.
Ted takes over. “So you’ve got 22 pairs of autozomic chromosomes - 22 of those you got from your mom, and 22 you got from your dad, right? Now, if we were to build a reference genome from you, what we would do is what we have done in every other species,” Ted explains. “We would take that diploid and we would effectively collapse it to a haploid genome, right, to just say, OK, if we were to start at one end of your chromosomes and go to the other end, it would like this…well it wouldn’t, right, because we would be going through and we would have these 2 pieces that are different, right, that are heterozygous.”
“They are very similar,” adds Jessica, “But they are not identical.”
“They’re going to be different, and you’re going to have to make a decision,” explains Ted. “Which one do I use, so the reference genome we would build from you would be this mosaic of your mom and your dad, right, but we didn’t have that problem with the genome that we built for the F1 cross, right, because we could separate them cleanly, and there is no heterozygosity, right, because the pile that came from mom and the pile that came from dad are completely separate.”
“Wow,” I say, marveling. “I get it.”
So simple,” responds Jessica jokingly.
I laugh. “You make it sound so easy!”
Well, that’s the idea,” Jessica replies with a smile.
“With respect to the contiguity, right, so what does that mean?” asks Ted. “If you were to look at the human genome or any other genome you’d go along and chromosome 1 has like 190 million bases, you’d go along a couple million and then you’d come to a gap, right, where they’re are absolutely certain that this is separated from this by a couple thousand bases, they just don’t know what they are - and there will be thousands of gaps like this in the human genome. In the genome that were built for her project, there were maybe twenty gaps total for each animal.”
“Astonishing,” I marvel.
“And we got entire chromosome length – no gaps,” Ted says.
“Start to finish,” adds Jessica.
“Is that why they say this is the best assembly of a mammalian genome ever?” I ask. “Because there are so few gaps?”
“Yes,” Ted says conclusively. “Because the contiguity is so good, the accuracy is going to be so good.”
“And these are chromosomes that exist in nature,” Jessica adds. “Like any of our other reference genomes to have the same, some of its i from your dad, some of it is from your mom, this is actually a chromosome that was inherited by that F1.”
“And this is important, right,” Ted continues, “because if you’ve got a regulatory region that you might have gotten from dad, so, if we built a reference from you, right, we might have included the regulatory region from your dad and the gene that gets transcribed from your mom, and those two actually might not work together.”
“But to be able to separate them,” I probe.
“Being able to separate them and know exactly what the environment of these genes is pretty important,” Ted finishes.
“’Informatics’ is a term you used earlier,” I ask Ted. “What is that?”
“Informatics is where computer science and data science meet biology,” explains Ted. “And only the coolest people do it.”
“And it’s about twenty years new. Data science being applied to scientific problems, and we started getting good at data science about the time molecular biology got really good at generating a lot of data – it was just a wonderfully perfect storm.”
So is it safe to say that yak as a species is pioneering this sort of genome work?” I ask.
“Yaks are proof of principle of this method, that it can work,” Jessica replies. “And now it is happening everywhere.”
“So yaks were the first mammalian species with whom this was done?” I ask.
“There was a Brangus, a Brahmin bos crossed with the Angus,” Jessica notes, “but the difference here is that we had two different species, so the parents are even more different, so it was easier to make that clean break in which came from which.”
“And that was why it is so important to separate them into two piles,” I add.
“When you realized what you had done, what was your reaction?” I ask them both.
“This is really cool,” Ted jokes.
“Way cool,” I laugh.
“Super cool,” adds Jessica.
“We now know the environment where these genes are sitting in a genome, so we know what their regulatory regions look like, but having tried mapping a lot of different species mapping traits to try and figure out what variants cause a certain phenotype,” explains Jessica, “it seems that you get to a region in your reference genome and there’s a gap, or there’s diversity that you don’t know exactly what to believe, and so now, this project has helped solve this problem.”
“And the work that’s being done in humans,” explains Ted, “Vastly more money than what you’ll find in animal science, vastly more people working on the problem, many of them are the same – but they got more minions to work on the human part of the problem.”
“Minions,” I smile.
“But this is where THEY want to get,” Ted says, connecting the dots. “They obviously don’t have as nice a system, but if you want to study what is the advantage of having a haploid genome, this is it.”
Our conversation ends with Jessica and Ted ruminating on the challenges of what they call “balkanized research.” “At the Plant And Animal Genome 2018 conference in San Diego with more than 3,000 attendees, our work made a bit of a ripple,” Jessica recalls, “but I guess everyone else had bigger fish to fry and other geneticists already knew what we had going on.”
I am ecstatic, however, and offer to buy them lunch at the nearby NWSS bar and grill. By mid-afternoon, my brain full of genetic information, I head back downtown to transcribe notes and take a breather. I unearth the official scientific paper celebrating this ground-breaking yak genome project, entitled “Chromosome-length haplotigs for yak and cattle from trio binning assembly of an F1 hybrid,” and wade through the scientific jargon.
Here’s the first paragraph by way of background:
Assemblies of diploid genomes are generally unphased, pseudo-haploid representations that do not correctly reconstruct the two parental haplotypes present in the individual sequenced. Instead, the assembly alternates between parental haplotypes and may contain duplications in regions where the parental haplotypes are sufficiently different. Trio binning is an approach to genome assembly that uses short reads from both parents to classify long reads from the offspring according to maternal or paternal haplotype origin, and is thus helped rather than impeded by heterozygosity. Using this approach, it is possible to derive two assemblies from an individual, accurately representing both parental contributions in their entirety with higher continuity and accuracy than is possible with other methods.
I chuckle to myself. Scientific papers sometimes have a way of sucking the soul out of a conversation – I am happy to have had the opportunity to spend the day with Ted and Jessica.
Saturday morning, I arrive to NWSS site by 9:00, anticipating a morning yak training session with Terri Lindley.
I am not disappointed.
Oklahoma exotic animal trainer Terri Lindley talks with an USYAKker.
Wearing jeans, boots, and a bright fuschia jacket sporting her mobile phone contact number on the back, along with her title - “Horse and Exotic Animal Training – Wild Thing, I Think I Love (Heart) You” – Lindley immediately gets down to work. Yakkers already have tied up a number of feisty calves in the training/show pen in anticipation. We all enter the pen, and without a pause, Lindley begins moving smoothly from one yak calf to the next every few minutes, walking us through her approach to yak training. Her focus? Quickly developing a mutual rapport with each calf that establishes what might best be termed “co movement” guidelines, allowing both human and yak to work together without threatening each other or getting in each other’s way. After an hour of penned halter work, punctuated by Lindley’s puffing on a cigarette and questions and laughter from the assembled, she begins to lead the yak calves out into the main arena, walking them up and down to “oos” and “ahs” from the crowd. A fuzzy headed yak calf is at once wicked cute and often hard to handle – Lindley’s masterful management brings appreciative “thank yous” from onlookers.
"Wild Thing - I Think I Love You."
After lunch, I wander the pens, listening to yak chatter and admiring the assembled grunniens. While wandering, my eye is drawn to an older couple camped out under the NWSS catwalk in a big white tent in proximity to a small but stunning herd of white and golden yaks – a real anomaly amongst the mostly black and royal hairy assembled ones. Founed in 1997, DelYaks is owned by the legendary Bob Hasse, one of the first North American yakkers to get into the industry. Bob happens to be at NWSS this year working his booth with his wife Anna, who proves at once delightful, knowledgeable, and welcoming, offering me a seat next to Bob, who is bedecked in canvas pants, a light tan jacket, and a “Trump 2020” ball cap.
Exchanging introductions, I nod at Bob’s “Don’t commit Hairy Kari!” sign, taking in all of their information about Golden Yaks, meat and breeding information, and the beautiful yaks themselves. I briefly update Bob on my own yak history, and he agrees to an interview.
“I’m not going anywhere!” he laughs, with a nod to his grunniens in the pen.
“Tell me – why golden yaks?” I ask, quickly turning on my voice recorder.
Visiting with DelYaks Bob Hasse, who has built North America's premiere "golden yak" herd.
“Goldens are a recessive gene,” Bob leans in, “and as a recessive gene, there are very few of them in the country. We have maybe 10,000 yaks in North America, and 99.9 % of them are black.”
“Really?” I ask. “I knew most of our yaks were black, but that high?”
“Yeah, and of those 99.9% that are black,” Bob explains, “maybe 25% of those are black Royals, might even be as low as 20%.”
“Of all the Goldens, there are probably 100 goldens in the country. That’s it. Very small numbers.”
“Wow,” is all I manage to say.
“When I first got into the business 25 years ago, there were only six goldens,” Bob remembers.
“Really?” I chuckle in amazement.
“Seriously,” Bob says, smiling. “I got my goldens from a small herd in Washington state, started before I did, and they had the only golden herd in the country, inbred, and they got a divorce and they had to sell out, so I bought his herd, and I was able to find two other bulls in other parts of the country to solve the inbreeding problem.”
“The golden gene is recessive, but its floating around out there in the North American herd – it is a natural gene in the Himalayan Nepal region for yaks – it’s not a cattle gene,” Bob explains.
“So, the golden gene goes back to the Tibetan plateau, and maybe the yak’s evolutionary ancestor, the auroch?” I ask to clarify. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yah, the color actually goes all the way back there, and golden exists in the wild yak today as a recessive gene,” Bob says.
“So mutus has a recessive gene for golden,” I confirm.
“Yes,” Bob replies. “So with all that said, we were able find these other golden bulls and get the inbreeding out, and then along came a golden royal, which was the only one in existence, and I bought that one, and started our golden royal herd.”
“Where did you get that original golden royal?” I ask.
“I got that one from Larry Richards,” Bob explains, laughing. “As much as he bad mouths my yaks…”
I jump in. “Larry sold you your original golden royal?” I ask, laughing. “That’s hilarious, and yeah, I want to get your ‘take’ on IYAK/US YAKS politics, but before we do…”
“He was an outlier from that golden herd – golden royals, golden trims,” explains Bob, “and so we started breeding all goldens at that point, and then I bought a ton of high quality black royals, cause I wanted to bring in a lot of outside genetics, high quality royal genetics, and then started breeding them to my golden royal bull, so first generation, of course, we got no goldens, but we got a black royal with a gold gene, ok, and we kept on going in that direction, and so our focus the whole time is to get lighter colored goldens and higher volume of white in the royal color pattern. That was our program.”
“Nice,” I say, listening intently. “And still is?”
“And still is,” Bob agrees, nodding and shifting in his seat.
“25 years later?” I probe.
“25 years later,” Bob agrees, laughing quietly. “It takes a while to do this stuff, especially when you got an outlier color program – you don’t have a lot of choice.”
“So you are really, literally, in the business of coaxing that recessive gene out, year by year, out of the species…” I suggest, marveling.
“Yeah, and I sell off the blacks that come out and even the blacks with golden genes I wind up selling off – I didn’t like selling them off initially, because then somebody else would be my competition, by buying some cheaper animals and winding up with goldens, so I would actually kill off all the males that had the golden gene – blacks with the golden gene.”
Just to keep the goldens artificially scarce?” I ask incredulously. “That’s so strategic of you,” I conclude.
“Thank you,” Bob says modestly, with a hint of pride in his voice.
“So you are really calculating this out,” I conclude, “We’re gonna bring goldens back in North America, we’re gonna drive the bus on this, and we’re gonna be the ‘go to’ golden people…”
“Right,” Bob says. “And I put a high price on them cause I really don’t want to sell them. If someone wants to pay me $20 grand, well, then good, but very few people wanted to pay that kind of money for a yak, and our intent was to keep everything in the herd in control and be the only exiting golden royal herd for years and so as time went by 10-12 years later, I stuck with the golden royals only and sold off the golden trims…”
These are all golden royals,” Bob says, gesturing at his small herd in the corral in front of us. “Those three standing there are second generation goldens - lighter than a first generation golden – and “Caramel Prince” is a fourth generation golden – while the one of to the left is a third generation golden.”
“In terms of the commercial value of the goldens,” I ask, “it seems like you’ve really made it work – do you sell meat as well? Breeding stock?”
“Jerry and I started the meat program from the start, and so we developed the meat program together, he did a lot of research with U of Nebraska, Texas A and M on the yak meat – the chemical characteristics of it are just outstanding – absolutely the healthiest meat you can eat bar none, healthier than chicken, healthier than fish, everyone argues that fish are so healthy cause the omega 3s are so high, true story, but there are other factors beyond omega 3s, and when you look at all the factors involved, including pollution cause you can’t buy unpolluted fish any more, so you when you take everything into consideration, yak is the healthiest meat you can eat, so I capitalized on that, and most of my meat I sold for health reasons more than for flavor…”
“It’s so good,” and we pause together, savoring. ”That’s what got us into it.”
“Nice,” I say. “So – you’ve been doing this 25 years. How many in your herd currently?”
“100,” Bob replies.
“And you are in Montrose over Monarch Pass?”
“Right,” he says. “You have yaks in Vermont?”
I detail our birth as Vermont Yak Company in 2007, and our first yaks imported to Vermont from Minnesota bought from John and Becky Hooper. “Value added yak meat through our food cart is the way to go,” I explain. “I can sell ¼ pound burger off our cart for $12, add extra garlic, bacon and egg for $15, and bam, we’re making money and feeding people delicious, nutritious yak beef.”
Bob nods in agreement.
“Were you involved in the IYAK startup?” I ask, shifting us to North American yak politics.
“Not the founding members,” Bob explains. I came about 5 years later. IYAK’s founding members were Jim Watson’s father-in-law in Kalispell, and Jim inherited the operation up there in Montana at Spring Brook Ranch, and Jerry McRoberts, Dane Smith in Washington state where is where I bought my goldens initially, and I think there were maybe a total of ten members who started IYAK. And to this day, the only ones left are Larry and Jim from the original.
“We lost Jerry,” I mused, “and other people moved on.”
“Yeah, so I got in, we had to bring IYAK out of bankruptcy, reformulate everything, and I worked closely with Jerry McRoberts on the meat processing project right from the start – he had a huge operation - thousands of pure yak, and maybe 2,500 hybrids, that’s how big his place was…
“Nebraska, right?” I confirm. “That’s amazing – such a big operation…”
“It really was, and he was basically just accumulating yaks from around the country and buying out smaller operations. People get in, two years later, want to get out.”
“Ain’t no picnic,” I say, and we laugh, “and it’s not easy to get out,” Bob says.
“We romanticize farming until people have to do it and then realize, ‘hey, this is hard,’” we laugh. “And people buy calves and then find out they don’t stay calves and they don’t want to big ones,” Bob observes.
“The cute fuzzy factor is real,” we laugh.
“So Jerry buys up all these yaks, 2 here, 5 there,” Bob explains, “til he got a big herd. And then he got cancer, took him out in 2 years…”
He pauses, lost in thought…
“So you resuscitated IYAK?” I ask, after a moment…and then what happened?
“Between Lynn Wilkinson, myself, and Cynthia Huber, we put a lot of effort into just registering animals and we had no criteria other than it had to look like a yak cause back then we didn’t have DNA, so if it looked like a yak we would register it regardless of its background…”
“And the idea was to bring a lot of people into the organization so we could talk to teach other about what made a good yak, and create the quality characteristics of what a yak should look like - and that went very well for, I don’t know, ten years…
“And this is in the 1990s?” I ask?
“More like the 2000s,” Bob remembers.
“I think I remember seeing your name and learning about your golden yaks when we got in to yakking in Vermont in 2008?” I muse…
“Was IYAK taking my name in vain back then?” Bob asks jokingly.
“Not yet, I think they still liked you back then,” I joke, and we both laugh. “But seriously, tell me what happened with you and IYAK, ‘cause I don’t really know?”
“Well,” Bob says with a chuckle and a sigh, “a lot of things happened. We talked about registering a lot of members, and we got IYAK up to 100 members taking anything that looks like a yak, and then Larry and Jim were essentially taking over the association at that point. I retired as IYAK board president, was on the board for probably a couple more years, and then a variety of people had come in – Lynn took it over for a couple of years, and we wanted to set a precedent that a president would only serve a couple of years and then be gone – we didn’t want to have a staleness in the organization, we wanted to bring in new people…”
“Term limits?” I ask.
“Term limits,” Bob says, nodding. “Like what we should have now and everywhere else.”
“Then John Hooper became IYAK president – great guy, but not a leader type, and Jim took over while John was president – back doored it, running IYAK behind the scenes, and he and Larry worked together to establish the new “foundation yak” concept.
Seeing my quizzical look, Bob elucidates.
“The term ‘foundation yak’ came from Larry and Jim – IYAK never had this before. There idea? A yak was big, black and hairy – this was their concept of a ‘foundation yak.” They later termed it a “North American yak.” Big, black and hairy – that’s all that mattered. And of course, all those genes were featured in Jim’s ranch – his dad had crossed yak with bison for years to get huge yaks and kept breeding back to yak – and Larry bought all of the yaks out of Canada from a guy who was crossing yaks with Highlanders for 15 years maybe, a long established line of Highland/yak cross…Larry later became the founder of the ‘foundation yak,’ and they were essentially Highland/yak crosses – and we still had no DNA testing capability at that point.”
“So when Larry advertises on his sign here,” I muse, gesturing in the direction of the IYAK booths, “Tibetan yak”…
“That’s his term now,” Bob finishes my sentence. “They went from ‘foundation yak’ to ‘North American yak’ to ‘Tibetan yak.’ That was the progression – trying to make it an official concept.”
“’Foundation yak’s’ principle was closing the book, so if you had registered yaks you could continue to register them – if you didn’t have registered yaks, you could not register a new yak as a pure yak – it had to be registered as a hybrid. Well, nobody wanted to do that, so registrations went down, and it wasn’t too many years before the only ones who had foundation yaks were Larry and Jim, or anyone who bought from Larry and Jim, because they were the only ones who had that history going.”
“And this is around 2010?” I ask.
“Right,” Bob confirmed. “And that’s when IYAK stopped registering my yaks because my yaks are not big, black and hairy – so mine were obviously not pure yaks, so they refused to register my yaks.”
Silence for a few moments, as I let this sink in.
“And that was about the time that DNA started to become possible, to become feasible, for yaks in the early 2010s…”
So genetic testing is just a ten-year-old phenomenon?” I ask, confirming.
“So all the scientists in IYAK – Peter Hackett, Tim Hardy, Grant Pound to some extent, and a few other guys – said this DNA thing will turn IYAK from a subjective to an objective organization for registering yaks,” Bob explains, “and that’s what we want to do, and Jim and Larry said no, we’re not doing that, because it would prove that they had hybrids – which would destroy their whole scenario – and it would also prove that we had genetically pure yaks, not foundation pure yaks.”
“So, the insurgency against the IYAK leadership began within the IYAK science committee?” I ask to clarify.
“Correct,” confirms Bob. “All the guys heading up the DNA genetics committee were saying ‘hey, we need to do this,’ and when Larry and Jim refused, the genetic committee split and created US YAKs.”
“I was already kicked out of IYAK, because my yaks weren’t big, black and hairy,” Bob jokes,
“but my goldens are unique – they’re not just another big, black, hairy yak.”
“So the scientists in IYAK teamed up with the scientists at University of Nebraska, with the minimal DNA we had in IYAK, it was done with the University of California, Davis – at the time, Davis was the early leader for the industry with bovine – and then the action moved to University of Nebraska, and GENESeek took the latest DNA technology and said ‘we can now do a total DNA test of thousands of chromosomes for $30 grand – just the year before it was $300 grand – and now we can do a 200 chromosome DNA for a few hundred dollars, so we started doing some, and Larry would not do it.”
“We had a guy coming here to the stock show and taking tail hair samples – I volunteered, almost everyone volunteered, and Jim and Larry refused – they would not participate,” holding out for what they call the “purest yak in North America” – Prince Alante, considered the “purest yak in North America,” a Highland / yak hybrid cross that they wanted to establish as the foundation yak to try and control the genetic inheritance.”
“So interesting,” I nod, listening closely. “As if no one would object.”
“Well, IYAK initially had all the money and the resources,” Bob muses. “So that’s what happened They used Alante as the genetic marker, and shut down any discussion within IYAK about it.”
Anna and Bob Hasse of DELYaks at the 2020 National Western Stock Show.
Bob’s wife Ann joins us – gracious, affable, smiling – after listening to Bob. “I think we have IYAK shaking in their boots here at the stock show,” she says laughing. “We’re friendly, and helpful to one another, and we’re allowing all colors, and there’s no such thing as a pure yak.”
She sits down and joins us.
“I think the last thing we need is two competing yak organizations in North America, but here we are,” I say. “What happens now?”
“It depends a lot on Larry and Jim – they do not want to relinquish control of IYAK, but I think right now members are switching over from IYAK to USYAKS in decent numbers,” explains Bob.
“They only had 40 people at their banquet last night,” Ann chimes in.
“The last time we were here was four years ago, and then IYAK wouldn’t let me come,” Bob says. “Unfortunately, the current IYAK president is following orders for Larry and Jim – we all used to be the best of buds years ago, but then they went the route of hybridization for meat purposes, grain fed their yaks, and we parted ways.”
We digress into a grain versus grass fed discussion – agreeing that grass over grain is way healthier.
“Hybridization in and of itself is not a big deal, and the USDA rule established 30 years ago with bison as ‘beefalo’ has said that your meat can be only 40% yak and you can still call it yak,” Bob explains. “We used to do blind test tastes between their hybrid grain-finished yak meat and our pure grass-fed yak meat, and our pure yak meat would win every time, and the IYAK folks hated that,” Bob explains, laughing.
“The saddest part? It’s hard to hear people talk and watch the fallout from afar,” I say. “I hope there’ll be rapprochement – eventually maybe we yakkers can put it back together again?” I wonder.
“Well, it’s even more complicated than that. You still have Larry and Jim controlling IYAK, period,” observes Bob. “And with talk of an IYAK/USYAKS merger, I for one will not accept them in our yak organization, period, under any conditions. If they’re in, I’m out,’ Bob declares definitively.
“In a nutshell, why?” I probe.
“Larry and Jim are just flat out liars on everything,” Bob states, “presenting a false pure yak concept, bad mouthing anything that isn’t big, black and hairy…”
“Don’t commit hairy kari!” I say, laughing and pointing to Bob and Ann’s informational sign hanging off the corral.
“I asked the geneticists here – ‘what makes a yak a yak’? “And we agreed there’s no one right answer.”
“That’s a good answer,” Bob replies, laughing.
“There is a subjectivity here, right? We can do all the testing we want,” I say, “but at the end of the day we humans have to agree on the criteria we accept.”
“What really is a pure yak, yes, and also - where do we want to take the yak – genetically speaking?” Bob asks. “That’s a question open for legitimate debate.”
“Diversifying the yak genetic pool – producing more genetic diversity within the species – is the answer. Am I right about this?” I wonder.
“Exactly,” Bob says. “You know from history, the entire North American yak gene pool is so limited, right from the start – there are inbreeding problems – so to limit yaks to this big, black, hairy concept is, well, it’s insane. It’s suicide.”
“Is there room for friendly competition among yakkers?” I ask, half jokingly.
“Absolutely,” Bob explains. “I’m a golden guy. But look at Bob Stuplich at American White Yaks. He initially bought into the ‘big, black and hairy’ concept, but then moved to the white yak. The problem with the whites, genetically speaking, is that the gene is inconsistent – but when females do throw white yak calves, they are beautiful to look at!”
We talk for a few more minutes, admiring the yaks in the corral next to us, while Ann converses with passers-by.
“I’m ready to retire from yakking. I’m 71 years old. My body is no longer able to do what I used to be able to do,” says Bob, matter of factly. “Many of the IYAK records have been destroyed,
“The bottom line is that US YAKS was founded on not just the principle of DNA objectivity, but on the principle of honesty,” Bob concludes. “That is a major factor – we don’t want dishonest people in this association. That’s a tough call. So what do you do?”
“It’s not just about yaks and genetics,” I observe. “It’s about humans, too. The yaks are like the easy part,” I joke.
“The yaks are the best part of this association,” Bob says, nodding in agreement. “We have not done the yaks justice.”
“Those of us who believe in yak DNA genetics and the whole history of the yak,” Bob explains, “We believe this is one of God’s best designed animals on the planet.”
“I’m a believer, I’m a Christian – my faith is a big factor in the way I do business.”
You are a God-fearing yakker,” I say, and Bob laughs.
“Man screws things up – the more domesticated an animal becomes, the more screwed up it becomes, the more disease intolerant it becomes, and the animal lose attributes God designed into it,” Bob explains. “Man comes in, we have all these beef breeds, and they are concentrating on one, two, three prime characteristics, and sacrificing all the rest.”
I listen intently, intrigued by Bob’s fusion of philosophy, faith, and evolutionary biology.
“Fortunately, with the yaks, Man has not screwed around with the genetics that much,” Bob elucidates. “Yaks have been essentially the same for 5,000 years – we have debates about whether bos mutus is even related to bos grunniens, and my personal belief is that mutus is what God has designed, and grunniens is the hybrid of mutus with other breeds,” Bob speculates.
“That’s my philosophy, that Man has not hybridized yaks other than those few crosses,” he concludes, “so yaks are essentially the way God designed them, and God does good work – He designed yaks as intelligent beings, and this is why they relate to us so well.”
There you have it. Intelligent design, yakker style.
I thank Bob and Anna for their time, my mind reeling as I return to my hotel to compile notes.
That night, forty US YAKkers assemble for the organization’s second annual meeting at Real de Minas Mexican grill a few miles from the NWSS arena. Veteran yakkers like Bob and Anna Hasse of Del Yaks and Bob Stuplich of American White Yak Company are in the house, mingling with young yakkers, including Carlice Cutright, and Bob’s grandson Jack, who I’ve only seen in photos standing bareback on a giant yak bull with a big smile on his face.
As our Modelas, margaritas, and fajitas arrived, US YAKS board president Greg Dike welcomed everyone to the event. “After two years of existence, US YAKS now has 75 members and 535 yaks registered,” Greg proclaims as we hoist our glasses, “let’s continue to have fun together as we care for the yaks that lead us forward.”
Indeed. Be herd.
Like yaks themselves, the US YAKkers have made their voices known in a scientific challenge to the IYAK North American yakstablishment.
What the future for yaks holds is anyone’s guess, but here in Denver, Colorado at the 2020 National Western Stock Show, the continental conversation within our USYAK/IYAK herd is now cracked wide open.