yak-learning-center – Firebird Farms

Firebird Farms

A farm life blog featuring recipes, cooking tips, yak care advice, legendary stories & musings on this incredible journey,

What started as three yaks and a dream has become my life. The herd is a source of joy, lessons in irony and what drives me to keep learning and exploring to share these meaningful experiences with you, my human friends.

History & Uses - Firebird Farms



History & Uses

Classification & Description

Domestic yak are bovid animals in the family Bovidae. Yak belong to the genus Bos and species grunniens. They differ from the vulnerable population of wild yak, Bos mutus which currently exist in a small region above 14,000 feet in the Tibetan Plateau. Comparatively, common domestic cattle are classified as Bos taurus. Yak are also known as the “Grunting Ox” due to the low grunting sounds they make when communicating or excited. They are otherwise silent.

Yak are characterized by their large horns, shoulder hump, horse-like tail and full coat of dense fiber. Bulls with ample fiber have a “skirt" that sways as they walk. Females typically weigh between 500-800 pounds and bulls can weigh up to 1900 pounds. Their size is determined by both genetics and quality/quantity of feed. Yak have a layered coat with cashmere-like down underneath and long thicker guard hairs over the entire body.

There are multiple phenotypes of yak and they can vary in appearance. Some have longer, more “horse-like” faces and little to no hair on the forehead. Others have shorter, boxy shaped heads. Some have an immense amount of hair. These long haired animals are called hairy forehead yak in Tibet, and super woolies in the US. Breeders may have different preferences, but there are general conformation, size, and temperament standards that determine an animal’s value.

Fossil records indicate that domestic yak developed over 4,500 years ago in a large area of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, commonly known as the “Roof of the World”. It is believed that without yak, the Tibetan Plateau could not have been colonized by humans. Over the centuries, their domestication spread to regions including Mongolia, Russia, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Currently their populations are 14.2 million, with 13.3 in the Tibetan Plateau, 600,000 in Mongolia and the remaining 300,000 in other regions of the world. DOMESTICATION AND DISTRIBUTION OF YAK

Yak are still used in remote areas for packing, riding, milk, meat, shelter, clothing, tools, and accessories. Yak dairy products are a major form of sustenance for people in the Tibetan/Himalayan region. Their fiber is used to make tents, outerwear, ropes, clothing, and bags. Meat and dairy are often dried for preservation. With the rise of globalization and the increase of young people moving to urban areas, traditional lifestyles with yaks are on the decline. However, yak fiber is becoming internationally popular and increased demand may help promote the lifestyle of traditional nomadic peoples.

It has been generally thought that domestic yak evolved through breeding wild yak with Asiatic cattle breeds. This, however, may be untrue. While it is common to breed yak with cattle to create hybrids, the species was most likely developed through humans domesticating wild yak millenia ago. The offspring of yak and cattle crosses in Tibet are called “dzo” for males and “dzomo” for females. These animals serve a very specific purpose in their native regions, but hybrids are not reintroduced into the yak population for breeding purposes.

Hardiness & efficiency

In their native region they provide transportation and packing, fiber, milk and meat. They are fully equipped to deal with adverse weather using their compact size and down undercoat which grow and shed seasonally. Yak are intelligent, alert and calm, with excellent eyesight and hearing. Their only natural predator is the Tibetan Wolf. It is ingrained in their being to have a great dislike for dogs.

They have less impact on the land than cattle with smaller feet and more efficient nutrient absorption, eating about one-third of a cow’s daily consumption. Many ranchers use a 2 to 1 stocking rate to cattle. Their manure makes excellent fertilizer for crops.

Even though yak can survive on the sparse Tibetan Plateau, we like to keep them happy on organic grass/alfalfa and mountain pastures. A good feeding program makes for beautiful, healthy animals.

Yak in the US

Yak arrived in the United States via Canada in the early 1900’s. The entire population began with around 20 yak. Currently there is no importation of live animals or fluids into the United States. Therefore, focused breeding programs are of key importance to maintain genetic diversity.

Yak began to gain popularity in the 1980’s when ranchers increasingly began breeding programs. The population in the North America is currently estimated to be around 7,000 to 10,000 animals. The popularity of yak meat is on the rise, as is the demand for yak fiber. Each year new breeders begin herds on farms and ranches across the US and Canada. However, yak are less tolerant of heat and humidity and perform best in regions with seasonality.

Temperaments and characteristics of yak vary wildly, just as in a human population. Over the decades, many breeders have retained the traits that both produce well and are docile, tractable animals. The main way in which this is accomplished is “line breeding”. For those unfamiliar to the term, it is a form of controlled in-breeding, where animals are bred back to the same genetic line skipping at least one generation, maintaining and promoting certain traits.

Because the genetic base in the US is so limited, we are focusing our efforts here towards ensuring we have a wide variety of genetics to select and breed from to in order to best promote the resilience of the species. This also provides genetic outcross options for long standing, established bloodlines.

Here is a well researched article on how yak arrived in the US.

yak learning center

Calving - Firebird Farms




Please note that these are our recommendations and intended as a guide rather than an absolute rule. Use extreme caution when learning how to interact with your specific yaks during calving season. Firebird Farms and its representatives are not responsible for injury, illness or death to humans or animals. Only your own experience will dictate the optimal way to do things on your farms and ranches. However, we receive a lot of questions about calving. In an attempt to cover the basics, we have outlined the process and preparedness measures based on our experience and talking to other ranchers. Safety in the pasture is of utmost importance during labor, birth, and after calving. Each cow is different and behavior will range from proud mom showing off her calf, to direct charges at any attempt to get near.

What to expect

In general yaks calve easily and without complication, which is one of their many benefits. Calves are much smaller than beef cattle and are hardy and vigorous. Complications from calving can occur very occasionally, and usually these are post-birth. Yaks have a gestation period of an average 260 days, which is shorter than that of cattle. We generally start checking expecting moms at 240 days for signs of upcoming calving. These dates may be challenging to determine because when the yak was bred is not necessarily known when using natural service of a bull in the pasture. So, it is calculated at the day the bull was introduced for the season, understanding that it was likely at least a few days later or whenever each cow cycled after he was introduced. All cows are different in how they present signs of calving, and you’ll get to know each one over the time of having them. Unless you are watching them constantly, you may miss seeing the birth. Our cows tend to calve in the early morning before dawn, and sometimes in the late morning and afternoon. The approximate calving times we have determined to be as follows:

  • Pre-dawn
  • 10am/ mid morning
  • 3pm/ mid afternoon
  • Dusk

Especially during the last trimester, it is important to ensure your females are well fed and have plenty of access to minerals. While there are usually no problems with calving, it is good to be prepared for the worst. Here are some things to have on hand in the event that it does not go as planned. There is nothing more stressful than trying to save a baby yak with none of the necessary items, after store hours when they cannot be purchased. And conversely, quite a joy when it can all be handled with ease.

Preparedness: what to have on hand:

  • General yak first aid kit, including antibiotics, pain relief and topical wound dressing.
  • Sheep (lamb) nipple and bottle
  • Electrolytes for calves
  • Frozen colostrum from a local dairy (or dry powder if absolutely no other option, but it is not the same thing)
  • Access to fresh raw milk from a local dairy (or store bought) and heavy cream
  • Old clean towels

Third trimester: What to look for

Look at their udders (bag) while they are peeing or scratching themselves and the tail is lifted. Note their normal shape and when it starts getting bigger and they are “bagging up”. Generally first time heifers and young cows may show less sign, but older cows will develop a visible swelling of their udders. This can happen anywhere from weeks before, to the day of calving, depending on the cow. Look at the vulva and note its’ normal appearance. Not all cows will show much change, unlike dairy cattle. However, it will become more swollen and the skin will look more slack before calving.

If your cow has been handled and is tame enough to pet your cow all over, reach down and feel the bag daily to note when changes occur. When it is full, there may be dried milk plugs at the tips of their teats, indicating she is close to calving. You can watch for movement of the calf. If she is tame, you can gently press against her sides and feel the calf moving when it is active. Watch how they hold their tails. Often cows will walk with their tails raised up higher as they get closer. Watch for solitary behavior. Some cows calve right in the middle of everything, but often they will separate themselves from the group. This can start happening weeks before calving, where they will spend a portion of their day away from the herd. Note the location and duration of time alone, and see if it changes. Note at what intervals they return to feed. If they stay removed, or have a full bag and have not had this behavior prior, you may have a calf coming! Each cow can have different behavior prior to birth. Here are some things we have observed in various cows in our herd.

If you see one or more of these things and it is not normal behavior for your yak, she may be close:

  • Anxiously moving around the fence perimeter, sometimes grunting.
  • Going to a location where they do not normally rest, away from the herd.
  • Getting up and laying back down repeatedly.
  • Putting their head against their stomach and taking deep breaths while laying down. (Not scratching their necks with their horns). This is often a late pregnancy action. If followed by other signs, it can indicate labor.
  • Looking very concentrated, nose quivering, head shaking slightly, and no subsequent chewing of cud.
  • All four legs stretched out, lying on their side and breathing heavily (unlike normal sleep).
  • Walking with their hips “hunched” over at a greater angle above the tail.
  • Suddenly not looking full and pregnant as they did the day before. More hollowed out in front of the hips.
  • Increased or decreased appetite after resting for long periods of time.

What to do

If you have a tame herd, use this time to spend with your expecting moms. Let them get used to you walking among them often, so that when calves come it is completely normal. Use this time to make mental notes on appearance and enjoy them. The time spent pre-calving really pays off when the calves arrive and the cows feel completely comfortable with you walking among them, petting them and being in their world more than usual, perhaps. If your herd is not tame, walk around them enough to ensure that everyone looks healthy, and for signs of calving to plan your schedule accordingly, should anything arise needing your time. Monitor behavior and make notes if cows become more aggressive, agitated or anxious. Do not approach these cows if they show signs of distress with your presence. Make sure all pregnant cows have ample access to feed, water and minerals.


We are very lucky when we get to see a yak give birth. Often they will have their baby when no one is watching. Depending upon the personality of your yak, they may specifically wait for you to leave, or want you to be present. It just depends on how much of a bond has been created between yak and human, and how rushed they are to calve. Often actual birth can be relatively quick. Sometimes it can be difficult to determine when active labor begins. They may have a long lead-up to calving, with many visible signs, or they may be very sneaky and a calf suddenly appears with no warning.

Safety First!

Being aware, quiet and respectful is key during labor and calving. Loud or sudden movements can make a yak cease labor, move their location, or suddenly view you as a threat. Even an accidental phone call can ruin her state of mind. Because of the hormones involved in the birthing process, it may seem like your yak cow is fine with you being there near the birthing experience, only to find her lunging at you once she regains her strength after calving. Every cow is different, and if you don’t know your yaks well yet, or this is the first calving on your property, be especially cautious. It is tempting to get as close as possible during birth and afterwards. It depends on the temperament of the cow what distance is appropriate and when she will let you pet the calf. Some of our cows are happy to let me pet the baby immediately, others will keep me away for weeks. Just remember that you can still tame up the baby, even if you were unable to get close at first. Do not let that need sway your actions to be in an unsafe proximity. Yak cows will charge you and injuries may result if you are not careful, respectful and watching their behavior.

What to watch for

Watch for labor. This can be tricky to identify sometimes. If it is warm outside and they are regurgitating their cud, they can have labored breaths, groan, pant, and make small grunts or huffing noises. If you stand long enough for them to start chewing their cud, it was just a digestion challenge with the baby inside. Some cows will have contractions and false labor for short periods, even weeks before calving. This can be vexing! It may seem like they are in pain, stretching their legs while laying down and breathing heavily, at intervals. You may sit for a long time waiting for birth to take place, only to watch them get up and go eat again. However, watching for these signs will help you get to know each cow and make better predictions during the next calving. Some cows will have contractions, then they will subside for a while but the cow does not want to return to the herd. Leading up to labor, the cow may be hyper-alert and wary of noises and potential threats to the peacefulness of her process. Watch her body language and keep away if your presence disturbs her. There is usually a distance that can be determined where she will be relaxed. That distance is different for each cow.

What to do

There is usually nothing to be done by us during this time. If it looks like a challenging process, and the cow is tame and not bothered by your presence, here are a few things you can do for her, if you like. This is not necessary. This is not recommended for yaks that are not visibly comfortable in your presence during this process.

Occasionally we have some pregnant cows that are having trouble getting up, are close to calving and seem to want food or water but either don’t have the energy to walk to food, or don’t want to leave their location. In this case, you can do the following:

  • Bring a shallow bucket of water, walking very slowly toward your cow. Make sure her body language is not startled. Place the water near her head, or just nearby.
  • Bring an armful of delicious hay for her to nibble on in peace. Sometimes they just need a little more food, then they relax and go into labor a while later.
  • If your yaks like certain treats, have them on hand to remind her you are her friend during the crazy hormones that are about to happen. Place a few by her and step away.
  • If the cow shows any signs of distress, shakes her head at you or tries to move away, leave the items nearby and back away.
  • Keep as quiet as possible.


When your cow is finally in the birth process, and you are privileged to be present, here are some things to know and look out for:

  • Do not assist! Unless something is very wrong (see below) and you have veterinary training, yaks generally do not need assistance with calving. Even first time heifers can almost always get the baby delivered by themselves.
  • Keep a safe distance! During the actual birth process, most cows are very distracted with the duty at hand and it may be tempting to get very close. This is not recommended unless you have done so before with that exact cow and it went well. It may be tempting to edge forward as they are in too much pain to notice you. While that may be true for a brief time, that soon changes after the calf is delivered. Keeping a respectful distance is unique to each cow in terms of what that measured distance is. Some of our cows will not let us within 30 feet without getting up mid-birth and staggering farther away. Other tame ones will let me (one person only) very near them. Some are too distracted to care if anyone is around.
  • Keep as quiet as possible during this entire process. Unnatural noises can trigger their panic and disrupt the birth process.

Post-Birth: What to watch for

The baby should arrive front feet first. The tips of the front two feet is the first thing you should see. They are soft and white on the bottom, even with darker colored yaks. Next will come the head. This is the most difficult part, and may take some time, especially for first time heifers. Once the head is out, it is usually quick to pass the rest of the body. When the cow calves, their immediate need is to lick the calf. Some cows are busy eating their placenta first, some go straight to cleaning the calf. If the birth has been especially challenging, she may take a rest for a few minutes but that is rare.

Generally, the calf should be licked clean immediately, in between her own recovery. Watch your distance! It has been our experience that the strong hormones that take over the cow last only for a short time after birth. Sometimes a cow will seem fine with your presence being very close during the birth, but as the hormones adjust, even a tame cow can accidentally see you as a threat and make small charges in your direction, usually in between feverishly licking her baby. Check that the baby is moving and breathing. The calf should start attempting to stand within one hour or so of birth. It usually happens much sooner. It should be nursing within two hours. Be patient. If it hasn’t, but is standing and laying back down, it may just need to gain strength. Monitor that nursing does occur. Watch the status of the after birth on the cow and note what it looks like. The afterbirth is generally shed within 24 hours of calving, but it can take days.

What to do:

  • DO NOT attempt to pull the afterbirth out. This can take time, up to 5 days have been reported. Removing the afterbirth prematurely can damage the uterus for future calving. Consult your vet if you are unsure, just know that it can take longer than other species.
  • If your cow is tame, you can bring them the “birth care package” of hay, a bucket of water and treats. They are usually very grateful. Be very slow and cautious in your movements, and don’t get too close. Now that lactation is starting, it’s time to make sure mom has the best nutrition possible. This is why we have calves in the spring months, when the grass is most nutritious. It is best for both cow recovery and calf growth.

When to call the vet

You are welcome to call your vet anytime you feel you need guidance. However, here are some times to definitely call the vet.


  • The cow is not in labor, but it looks like there is a round bag coming out of her vulva when she is laying down. This is likely a (very rare) vaginal prolapse.
  • The cow has been laying on her side and not getting up all day. Their rumen must be active through movement and lying with legs stretched out of this long is very concerning.
  • The cow is in labor but it appears the calf may be in the wrong position (not feet first).


Watch for infection. The main thing that happens in those rare issues with calving is usually post-birth.

  • The cow is lackluster, having trouble moving, stiff, does not eat, or is acting very a-typical for that cow.
  • A foul smelling substance coming from the vagina
  • Tissue that has distended during the birth process (uterine prolapse)
  • Is eating but unable to put on weight, has a dull coat and low energy during the weeks after calving.
  • Is feeding her calf, but something doesn’t seem right in how she holding her body, moving, and appearance.
  • Frothing at the mouth (not cud being chewed), constipated stool, dark urine.

If something goes wrong:

Calf and mom. Sometimes it is not a veterinary situation, but rather between the cow and the calf. Occasionally a first-time mom can reject her calf, or not know what to do with it. Sometimes a cow is not mentally prepared for motherhood, and needs a little help. If the mom is not cleaning the calf, or actively not allowing the calf to nurse, here is the optimal course of action:

  • Get the cow into the chute and head catch. Clean and dry the baby. Bring the calf to the mom and attempt to put the calf on the cow to nurse. If she puts up a fight kicking, she may need to be hobbled. This method can work and avoids having to bottle raise the calf.
  • Call the vet and see if they recommend oxytocin to help with bonding to her calf.
  • This may have to be repeated multiple times to get them to bond successfully.
  • It may seem like a lot of work, but it is best for both cow and calf to have each other and is a lot less work than bottle feeding for half a year.

When to bottle feed:

Some people like to have bottle baby pets. That is not what this discussion is regarding. There are occasional times when this is the best option to save the calf. Situations such as:

  • The cow is not doing well/ got sick/ has an infection and unable to nurse her baby
  • The attempts at grafting calf to mom did not work
  • The calf is not nursing as it should, despite the mom being an excellent mother
  • The cow is aggressive and dangerous, and/or going to be butchered

yak learning center

Meat & Milk - Firebird Farms



Meat & Milk


Yak is a delicious, primitive red meat alternative to beef. It has been likened to a combination of grass fed bison and elk, but with a more delicate, sweet flavor. It consistently wins in taste tests over beef and is juicier than the meat of game animals, without the gamey flavor.



The factors that led yak to evolve in the adverse conditions of the Tibetan plateau resulted in a superior meat animal. The meat has a higher iron and moisture content than beef and a similar fat composition to that of bison or elk. However, yak steaks are juicier and more flavorful. Because of a high myoglobin level in the cells, yak meat has a darker red pigment than many other red meats.

Yak are smaller than commercial cattle breeds and bison and are more efficient grazers. Their lighter environmental footprint makes them an ideal alternative for small scale farmers and ranchers, and a more ecologically viable red meat option for consumers.


A Nutrient-Rich Choice

Highly nutritious and lean, yak is an excellent option for people who are looking to diversify their diet, have sensitivities to other red meats, or simply want a lean, nutrient-rich protein source. Yak is a different bovine species from domestic cattle. Our customers who have protein absorption difficulties find yak to be beneficial. With a high iron content and healthy essential fatty acids, yak is not only healthy but delicious! Read more about our yak meat HERE.


Yak milk has a higher nutrient density and butterfat than domestic cow milk, and has sustained life in the Himalayas for thousands of years. Typically Tibetan yak herders milk half the available amount and save the rest for the calf. We look forward to practicing traditional milking methods used by nomadic populations in Tibet and Mongolia. Western milking methods may not be suitable for yak, although farmers and rancher are experimenting with this process. The viability of milking yak commercially is a great challenge. They typically produce much less than commercial dairy cattle and can be very unwilling to be milked unless fully trained. Their teets and udders are much more compact than domestic cattle, and hand-milking yak is an acquired skill.

For home milk production, yak is an excellent alternative dairy option. Like humans, yak produce A2/A2 beta casein milk. Many believe that this is more highly digestible than the widely available A1 type milk found in cattle breeds used in major dairies, such as Holstein cows. While there are breeds of cows, such as Jerseys, who can produce A2 milk, yak provide a more nutrient-dense product. Combined with their efficiency, smaller size and multiple products of value, a strong point can be made to train yak cows for milking in the US.

yak learning center

Pets & Packing - Firebird Farms



Pets & Packing

Yak make great farm pets and packing animals. With halter and packing training, yak can traverse rugged wilderness terrain with either a rider or supplies. On the farm, yak are happiest when they have their own pasture apart from other animal species, unless given adequate space to do their own thing. We recommend having at least two yak, as they are herd animals and enjoy each other’s company.

If you want to have very tame yak, the best way is to start with calves and raise them yourself. With time and attention, they become wonderful pets. Halter training can be done at different ages, but we recommend to begin when they are small. It is a lot easier to work with an animal under 300 lbs than one double that size.

yak learning center

Phenotypes & Temperaments - Firebird Farms



Phenotypes & Temperaments

As a subsistence species, yaks come in a variety of phenotypes. In Asia, they have historically not been bred for any specific purpose like we are accustomed to in North America with domestic livestock. Beef cattle breeds, for example, have been bred to produce good carcass yields and mature quickly. Dairy cows were bred to produce large quantities of milk. There are nuances of each breed for quality and type of output, but they are all bred for specific purposes.

People in the Tibetan Plateau have used yaks for centuries to sustain life in the Himalayas. They transport goods to remote regions, provide meat, dairy and fiber. They are a true multi-purpose animal. But those who raise them did not select for certain traits, so they vary from one individual to another, and between regions. This is still true to a large degree for yaks in North America. Yaks can be a plain, low fiber animal with a more “horse-like” long face and thinner legs at greater forward angles. They can have shorter, blocky heads and be thick and round, with shorter or longer backs, and straighter rear legs. They can have more guard hair, also called “hairy forehead yak” in Asia.

Here in the US, these high exterior hair yaks can range from “wooly”, to “super wooly”, to “extreme wooly”. Fiber quality and production, milk production and meat carcass weights all vary between individuals and genetic populations. Temperaments in yaks range widely, just like people. The best results with raising yaks are attained when the right yaks are selected in the first place, and we work hard to match yaks to prospective homes for successful ongoing relationships. For meat herds and low-interaction herds, they don’t need to be tame, but level-headed and docile are still valuable traits for safety and enjoyment of raising them. Depending on your needs and goals with yaks, these are important considerations when purchasing stock.

Because yaks are not uniform and vary greatly, it is important to understand what you like, need, and are looking for in your future yaks. Optimal qualities of each of these potential outputs is not often found in one animal. If you view yaks as a herd, they produce these outputs, but each individual may not be a high fiber producer, be a large bodied meat producer, and have a high amount of milk production.

MEAT - If you are a potential meat producer, you will want large-framed animals with genetics for productivity of offspring and good carcass weights.
FIBER - If you are a future fiber producer, you will want yaks that have a designated fiber type, quality and amount of production, depending on your goals.
MILK - If you are looking for a milk yak, you will want one with good genetics for milk production and an excellent temperament for raising them to milk.
PETS & PACKING - If you want to work closely with your yaks, they must have temperaments that lend themselves well to work with humans and are enjoyable.
ALL PURPOSE - If you want everything in one yak, temperament, size, fiber and milk production, that is a very special yak and expect to invest more capital per animal.

yak learning center

Feed & Nutrition - Firebird Farms



Feed & Nutrition


Yaks require proper nutrition to perform well as both meat producers and fiber pets. While they are traditionally from sparse-forage regions of the Himalayas, the adaptations they have there are different from what we see and expect out of them in the US. For example, in Asia, yak cows calve every other year and raise their calf for around 16 months. This means they have lower nutritional demands annually and match the available nutrition on the landscape for maintaining their weight and growing a calf.

In North America, we generally raise our yak cows to calve annually, typically nursing their offspring for 6 months. While they are completely capable of doing this, it is important to have a proper nutritional program complete with good food and minerals. This ensures that the cows maintain a proper body score throughout gestation, calving, lactation and rebreeding. And the calves have a good growth trajectory, to be weaned between 6 and 7 months. It is similarly important for bulls to maintain good virility and ability to breed cows well. And for meat animals, optimal nutrition yields the best growth rates and, combined with good meat genetics, will ensure best yield and profitability of a meat program.

Fiber production is also influenced by nutrition, in addition to winter temperature. One of the first signs of deficiency is often a dull coat. Necessary supplemental winter feed depends on your location and environment. However, there are costs associated with raising yaks no matter the location. Yaks are a relatively new species in our Western world. Therefore, there is not a lot of data thus far on exactly what makes a good feed and mineral program that is scientifically verified. Scientific studies are underway, and we look forward to updating you as studies are completed and information is released.

The following is information based on our experience raising yaks and in speaking with other ranchers across the country. This should be used in conjunction with your own experience as you work with these animals in your particular area.

In the growing season, yaks are often fine grazing on summer forage. The quality of the pastures will determine if supplemental feed is necessary at this time. They need minerals available to them year-round, as discussed below. While we have seen some operations with healthy looking animals that are fed lower quality hay, it is generally regarded that high quality feed yields quality results. We feed free-choice fine stemmed organic alfalfa in the winter, interspersed with grass hay.  

 Percentages between the two can vary depending on weather, gestation period in the cows and by monitoring their performance through periodically weighing the yaks. In general, choose a good quality hay source with higher protein for optimal growth. Grass hay can generally range from 7% to 9% protein. Alfalfa can start at 15% and higher quality dairy alfalfa can be 25% or more. We like to balance their diet in the winter months to be around 13% protein. We have fed only alfalfa at around 24% protein, and it can get “hot” in the winter after months of eating such a rich diet. Most animals do fine, but some had loose stool and needed something more bland for their rumen. We have also fed 8% grass hay for a duration of time.

The results were that they were mostly able to maintain their weights, but they did not gain weight significantly while being pregnant, and some weights of meat steers actually dropped from what they had gained during summer months. For optimal productivity, quality feed saves money in the long run, by not dropping summer weight and gaining through winter, in both cows and meat animals. Particularly in the last trimester before calving, it is important to have access to quality nutrition.  


While there is no data on this yet, there are some general recommendations that most breeders share. In selenium-deficient areas of the country like here in the Pacific Northwest, a selenium salt block or loose minerals should be provided at all times, preferably near a water source. These can usually be acquired at farm and ranch supply stores.  

Yaks also have higher copper needs than other bovines. Why and how much is still in question. Most mineral blocks do not have optimal levels to offer free choice, which should be around 300ppm copper. Some ranchers use loose minerals, and others use blocks. Loose minerals can be challenging in areas with high rainfall, and they need to be under cover to stay dry.

We have tried a number of products and currently use Redmond’s Bison 90 loose minerals. They are naturally occurring, but with added molasses for taste. There is a Bison 30 with less selenium if your area is not deficient. Some ranchers have success with Vitalix tubs. There are other products on the market that have higher copper levels. Talk to your vet and see if they have any recommendations if these options do not suit your needs.

Getting yaks to eat any minerals is the hard part. It is reputed that herders in Asia have the same issue. Maybe the yaks know something we don’t. However, mineral deficiency can cause real problems in your herd and even deaths. So, finding a way for them to take their vitamins is critical. Some ranchers have reported that they will see yaks licking the salts for a while, then not for weeks. So, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see the yaks on the salt daily.

They usually know what they need and ingest the right amount. However, if serious mineral deficiencies are evident in your herd, you may want to try using something like Multimin injection. Just start slow and don’t do too much. If the yaks are emaciated, follow the warning on the label and do not use it until body weight goes up. Yaks are more sensitive than cows in certain ways, and I always err on the side of caution with medications.


Yaks can eat up to 3% of their body weight a day in colder weather. Some ranchers calculate between 2% and 3%, but to ensure enough available hay until the next growing season, I like to calculate at 3.5% and add some more in final calculations just to be safe. So, a 600 lb cow at 3% body weight would consume 18 lbs of hay a day. A 1300 lb bull would consume 39 lbs per day.

When cows are close to calving, and weanlings to yearlings are growing rapidly, I believe they can consume more than 3%. So a safe calculation across the board may be 3.5% body weight. I make sure I have or can get an additional 10% of the total winter feed requirements before the next growing season. Depending on the severity and duration of the winter, it is always good to have extra hay. It is a valuable commodity in early spring before the next season’s cutting, and if you have a large surplus it can be sold.

The manner in which hay is fed will also determine the total required amount. In rainy climates or those that do not have permanently frozen ground during winter months, up to 30% losses can occur from waste. Feed can get worked into the ground, saturated from rainfall or melting snow, and lost as a feed source. It is vital to the bottom line to determine feeding techniques that are designed to minimize waste.

yak learning center

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