7 Things to Know Before Keeping Yaks

Thinking of adding a yak to your farm’s menagerie? Here’s how to plan for its housing, diet and health needs.

by Kevin A. Wellington, DVM

7 Things to Know Before Keeping Yaks - Photo courtesy Valerie/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com) #yaks #livestock

The yak is a diverse species, providing its keepers with meat, fiber and milk, and with training, can also act as a talented draft animal. Although kept similarly to cattle, there are a few key difference you need to keep in mind before adding one to your farm. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Yaks Live Longer Than Cattle
While yaks can generally be managed like cattle, they live longer—up to 30 years—and have slower growth rates. They’re also both browsers and grazers, while cattle are grazing-focused with minimal to no browsing.

2. Yaks Need Shelter
Yaks have evolved to handle extreme environmental conditions, such as low temperatures and high altitude, but they can thrive in more temperate regions with proper care and management. In warmer regions, an open overhead shade will improve the comfort of the animal. In cooler areas, a shelter with two or more sides is adequate for surviving cold, wet and windy weather. Shelters also improve feed conversion and fiber production.

3. Yaks Produce Quality Fiber—But It Takes Work
You can harvest quality fiber from yaks by implementing an aggressive pasture management plan, including removing burr-ridden invasive plants and increasing soil drainage. Diet management is vital to a fiber harvest, too—inadequate protein in the diet will have a negative impact on the fiber soundness, resulting in increased fragility and breaks, which causes the fibers to depreciate in value.

4. Yaks Need a Manure Management Plan
Manure management is often overlooked in yak husbandry. Proper pen and shelter design is essential for easy manure removal, and advanced planning for composting or manure disposal will prevent future crisis management.

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5. Yaks Need a Quality Diet
Yak nutritional management is similar to that of most other ruminants: good-quality hay, a clean source of water, and a cattle vitamin and mineral mix will suffice most of the time, while cattle growing or finishing rations will increase meat and milk production. For stocking rates, approximately three yaks are equal to one beef cow, and feed intake must be properly managed to reduce excessive weight gain on both idle and working yaks.

6. Yaks Are Prone to Cattle Diseases
Yaks are generally susceptible to most common cattle diseases. Each region of the country has specific endemic diseases, and a few diseases are prevalent nationwide. Yaks can also be challenged by internal and external parasites, so working out a health-management program with your local large-animal practitioner or extension specialist is recommended.

I loosely categorize vaccination programs into several basic uses: to protect individual animal health, the animal’s breeding status, overall herd health, and against zoonotic diseases, which are transmitted from animal to man. I prefer to tailor all my vaccine programs to fit the needs of the individual management program, the use of the animal, and disease prevalence in the immediate area: A yak cow used for breeding will require a different vaccination protocol than a working yak. However, I routinely recommend thevaccine. It falls into the individual animal protection category; it’s not a contagious disease.

7. Yaks are Good-Natured
Yaks are enjoyable animals to work with. Quality genetics are the foundation to good temperament, as are positive and patient handling and good husbandry practices. In my experience, the yak-cattle crossbreed tends to lose the gentle temperament. With any bovine, the younger you start working the animal and the more consistent the training, the gentler they’ll become. With patience and persistence, you can train a yak for any task, even lifting feet for hoof trimming. To train your yak to work, I highly suggest studying the basics of oxen or working cattle. The Internet has many resources, but Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide to Raising, Training, Driving and Showing (Storey Publishing, 2008) by Drew Conroy is one of the best.

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