Once you go yak, you never go back

KINGS VALLEY, Ore. — Nick Hazelton knew he wanted to raise something different at his family’s farm in Western Oregon.

Emus were an intriguing option for eggs and meat. So were alpacas, with a fleece similar to sheep’s wool. Hazelton, 20, thought about bison but even that seemed too popular.

While researching exotic animals on the internet, Hazelton stumbled upon domesticated yaks — the shaggy cousin of cattle found throughout the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. Yaks not only provide meat, fiber and milk, but are hardy and efficient for small farmers.

“They look really cool, so immediately it caught my eye,” Hazelton said. “I was just looking for something I hadn’t heard of, I guess.”

A herd of 25 yaks now grazes on 40 acres of pasture at Hazelton Farms, located in rural Kings Valley, Ore. about 20 miles west of Corvallis. The farm also has dairy goats and hogs, though it was Hazelton’s idea to get into the yak business.

It is difficult to know exactly how many yaks are in the U.S. The USDA does not keep count in its Census of Agriculture, but does tally the number of farms with “specialty” animals — not including bison, elk, deer, alpacas, llamas, mink and rabbits.

That number was 3,611 operations in 2017, with 116 in Oregon, 88 in Washington, 37 in Idaho and 166 in California.

Stephanie David, president of the International Yak Association, or IYAK, did not immediately return a call for comment, but in January she told the Denver Post there were an estimated 5,000 yaks in North America. Many of the animals, however, are not registered, she said.

Hazelton was 15 when he and his father bought their first yaks at an auction hosted by Pine Mountain Buffalo Ranch in Bend. Growing up on the farm, Hazelton thought he wanted to be a lawyer or hotelier, but realized how much he enjoyed working with animals in 4-H.

Using the money he earned from selling one of his 4-H steers, Hazelton was able to buy two pregnant yak cows and two yearling bulls to start his herd. One year later, he butchered his first animal and sold the meat at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market.

It was such a success that he convinced his parents to let him drop out of high school after his sophomore year to begin raising yaks full-time.

“While I was in school, I was just kind of getting frustrated with being kept inside and not being able to do the things I wanted to do,” Hazelton said. “I decided animal husbandry is what I wanted to get into.”

Hazelton still sells yak meat at the farmers’ market. He describes it as as leaner and darker than beef, closer in comparison to elk with a sweeter flavor.

“You can definitely taste the difference,” Hazelton said.

He charges $12 a pound or roughly double the price of grass-fed beef. He has sold out every year.

Yaks shed their woolly undercoats in spring, which Hazelton also sells to a local company. The material is soft and silky, and can be used to make clothing and fabric. Last year, Hazelton said he sold about 7 pounds of yak fiber, fetching between $3 and $4 per ounce.

Hazelton said he would eventually like to begin selling yak’s milk, which at 7-11% butterfat is ideal for making yogurt and cheese.

Without a formal agriculture education, Hazelton said he is learning best farming practices — such as rotating pastures and balancing nutrition — through trial and error. Because yaks are such a niche industry, he said he has also been able to chat with other mentors along the way.

One of those is Patricia Young, who has about 21 head of yaks at her farm, Yaks in the Cradle Farm, in Quilcene, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula. Young is also a board member for IYAK. She began raising her first yak as a pet in 2013 before getting into the business commercially.

“There’s not even enough meat to keep up with demand out here,” Young said. “In the past year, there’s been a good bit of growth on the farms that I know of.”

Yaks are smaller than regular cattle, with bulls reaching 1,500 pounds and cows ranging from 600 to 800 pound. Young said that makes them a good choice for smaller acreages. They also eat and process their food more efficiently.

As the saying goes, according to Young: “Once you go yak, you never go back.”

“They’re just so much fun to have,” she said. “In one animal, there are just so many things you can do.”