Alberta Ranchers Expand Into the Yak Market
Albertans produce a lot of different proteins. Obviously we have our cattle, but local ranchers are also raising pigs, chickens, turkeys, lamb, bison, elk, and even shrimp. Few of us realize, however, that Alberta also has the ideal climate for raising yak.
Yak may not be a particularly well-known herd outside of yak-rich regions like Tibet, but a growing group of farmers is hoping to raise awareness of the beauty of yak meat, which is similar to beef (and yes, Alberta yak is raised primarily for meat — yak milk isn’t a popular commodity here). Yaks are hardy animals with dense coats and little need for shelter, making them a great choice for Alberta’s cold winters.
David Weber is the man behind Fleet Yaks in Castor, Alberta, which he runs on his family grain farm. When he took over the operational management of the farm from his father, Weber knew he wanted to introduce livestock to the business and after some research, he realized that yaks would be suited to the characteristics of his land. Initially he brought on his herd of yaks as a way to support his grain crops.
“The animals themselves are fairly low maintenance and independent, and hardy through the winter,” Weber says. “But I really wanted to use their grazing as a way to manage my crop rotation and as a way to diversify the way I use the land, and to try and build up the organic matter in the soil.”
Weber eventually learned that there is also a market (albeit a small one) for yak meat. He currently produces about 30 calves a year and has about 120 head of yak on his land, since they aren’t butchered until about two to three years of age.
Keeping with the spirit of sustainability that led him to bring the yaks onto the farm in the first place, Fleet Yak’s animals are fed on both grass and pesticide-free grain that Weber grows on his own farm.
Weber isn’t alone in his yak endeavours; there are a growing number of upstart yak farms in Alberta. Jennifer Rath runs The Yak Ranch near Caroline. She started raising yaks four years ago — she wanted to utilize the land she lives on, but the demands of her day job meant that she needed a herd that was low maintenance, and animals that were small enough so that she could handle calving on her own.
She currently has about 150 yaks on her farm, including calves. Like Weber, Rath also sells meat, but she’s also diversified into selling fibre (the yak’s wool is why they are so fit for cold winters) and is also focusing on breeding animals with easy-to-handle dispositions to sell to other upstart yak farmers.
“They’re very diverse animals, as far as everything can be used,” Rath says. “The fibre is comparable to cashmere and is often used as a cashmere alternative. I also sell the skulls because they have very big horns on them. So I have a couple of ladies that buy the skulls and bleach them and make them into artsy items. Everything can be used, from the head to the hide to the fibre.”
Going back to the meat, both Weber and Rath say that consumers who like the flavour of beef and the leanness of bison or elk should appreciate a yak steak or roast, as well as the sausage, pepperoni and jerky that Weber makes with his yak meat.
“I would say it’s between beef and elk meat, but not gamey at all,” Rath says. “It’s more delicate and kind of sweeter than beef is. It’s also juicier than bison because of the high Omega-3s in the meat.”
The next challenge for ranchers like Rath and Weber will be growing the market for yak meat — which the vast majority of Albertans haven’t even tried. We’ve seen the market for bison grow over the years and while Weber doesn’t envision yak reaching those levels of popularity, he does think that there’s room for yak in Albertans’ diets.
Right now both Rath and Weber are primarily selling meat off their farms to friends and friends of friends through word of mouth, but Weber is in talks to move his product into a major grocery store chain, which could be a game changer for the yak industry.
“It would be great if the market expanded,” he says, noting that the market price for yak is similar to bison or local grass-fed beef. “I think there’s quite a number of people who’d be interested in taking on a herd of yak. But part of the sustainability of that is ensuring that there is a demand for the meat.”