It’s not a beef cow. It’s not a yak. It’s a yak-beef cross.
Russ Friesen and wife Melissa of Springridge Ranch Yak-cross Beef near Pincher Creek have been farming these unusual animals for the past 25 years.
And when it comes to their herd, the Friesen’s always put their mouths where their money is. According to Russ Friesen, it has been years since they have eaten any other kind of meat other than their own.
“The meat is just excellent,” says Friesen. “People rave about it, both our customers and when we serve it to guests. When they go to try it, people tend to think it is going to taste like something wild, but it’s not. It’s quite a mild tasting meat, and I think it is the way beef wishes it could taste.”
Friesen remembers back to 1992 when he and his dad first decided to get into yak-crossbeef cattle.
“We moved to Alberta in 1992, and my dad had remembered reading about yak and cattle hybrids experiments they were doing at the University of Saskatchewan. After our first winter in Alberta, and losing some calves in snowstorms, we thought we’d try to incorporate a little more hair into our calves. And so we bought a couple of yak bulls and did some cross-breeding.
“At the time, we were hoping to be able to sell them into the regular meat market, but nobody was interested them. That’s when we started finding our own markets.”
To stay in business Springridge Ranch has had to get creative with its approach to marketing. Friesen explains further.
“We sell to specialty meat stores around Alberta. We sell sides and quarters, cut, wrapped and frozen. We sell individual cuts when the occasion calls for it. Some of the smaller stores we supply just get certain cuts, but they keep it flowing. We also sell skulls and tail hair.
“The hair is very soft so people will buy it for a whole variety of things, from crafting to making costumes to making horse gear, hair ropes and those types of things.” Friesen adds, “For instance, we found out some of the costumes for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings were made of yak hair.
“A lot of people also once would get their wigs made of yak hair because it quite similar to human hair.”
The ranch has its dedicated customers, but the internet is a major driver of secondary marketing these days.
“We have had a lot of interest in our meat from across Canada. I guess people want something different. Some are looking for a healthy alternative because we raise ours naturally. We don’t use any grain in their ration; they only get grass. We finish them on hay. We don’t use any growth hormones, and we only use antibiotics when they are actually sick. People are looking for that.
“With the hair, we put it up on the internet and we get people who come out from Calgary or Lethbridge to pick some up. We had one guy come out who was in movie-making and needed some for costumes.
“We had a group of students who came out because they were going to make a mascot for their fraternity; so you get all different kinds coming.
“With the skulls, I have crafting people coming out to get skulls, and they will paint or carve into them. And some others just want a decoration for their house, or to hang on their gate.”
Friesen says the yak business is very different from the beef cattle business in some important respects as the yak blood tends to make the animals wilder by nature, requiring more careful handling. There are also relatively few yak bullbreeders in Alberta, and many of the older ones have gotten out of the business in recent years.
But even more problematic at times is there is no deep instinctive drive to mate at play between the ranch’s yak bulls and beef cows.
“You just need animals that are interested in each other, and not all of them are,” says Friesen. “Some yak bulls are real aggressive and they will breed anything, and some will only stick with their own kind. So it’s kind of a hit and miss.”
For all these notable difficulties, Friesen says there is compensatory benefits to getting into the cross-breed.
“Most of the time it pays a little more than beef cattle, and if you do it right it’s a lot less work…There was a time in the past two years when weren’t able to get quite the price they were for beef cattle, but we kept our price steady.
“And now that cattle prices are lower again, we haven’t dropped; so it’s probably a more stable market than getting into the regular market.
“They also take a lot less feed than cattle; probably a third to half of what regular cattle eat. You can probably run twice as many as the yaks as you can the regular cattle for the same amount of feed.”
Friesen is hopeful a new generation of yak and yak-cross beef-breeders are on the horizon. With good prices, Friesen expects more farmers to eventually give it a try.
“It’s probably not for an older person because those animals move quickly and you have to be more aware, but there are some younger people getting into it in Alberta now, and I hear there are some in Saskatchewan as well.
“So I think the yak business is getting more popular.”