ARROYO SECO — Back in 2005, Joy Robertshaw accompanied a friend to a border collie competition in Cortez, Colo., wandered over to a livestock pen and spotted her first yak.
It was love at first sight.
Now, she has three of the creatures munching alfalfa and grass hay on an acre or two next to her Taos County home, with a herd of another 75 to 80 pastured in southern Colorado while she searches out land in northern New Mexico where she can keep them herself.
“I do really love what I do,” said the native New Zealander. “I should have started this years and years ago.”
Santa Feans Christa Coggins and husband, David Franklin, had an equally serendipitous introduction to yaks, a bovine cross that originated around the Himalayan Mountains in Tibet and Nepal.
They bought “some beautiful meadow land” in Mora County 15 or 20 years ago, and when their neighbor acquired some yaks and asked if they could graze there, the couple gave their assent.
That went on for about five years when, a year and a half ago, the neighbor didn’t want the yaks anymore. “So we bought them from him,” said Coggins, who said the small herd numbers 13 on their 200 acres.
In the realm of livestock fashion, call a yak the new black.
Not that they’re entirely new to the high country of New Mexico and Colorado. Indeed, southern Colorado is probably the central area in the country for yak raising, Coggins said.
In New Mexico, Latir Mountain Ranch developed a large herd near Questa around the turn of this century with owner Tom Worrell, who also founded Taos’ El Monte Sagrado. In 2003, The New York Times called Worrell the third-largest yak rancher in North America. He has since sold the ranch, said Robertshaw, who bought some of that herd when it was being sold off.
‘Use all of the yak’
Yaks are hardy and require very little care, thriving at altitudes above 7,000 feet, their owners said.
“My husband is interested in raising them for meat,” Coggins said. “There’s a fair amount of demand.”
She called the meat “healthier than bison” and low in fat. “We eat yak at least once a week,” Coggins said. “You pretty much prepare it like beef.”
She and Franklin use the Mobile Matanza developed through the Taos Economic Development Corp. to slaughter animals — and even cut and wrap the meat, if you want — for small ranches and farms.
So far, they have just been providing the meat to themselves and friends, said Coggins, whose day job is vice president for community philanthropy at the Santa Fe Community Foundation.
Robertshaw, on the other hand, is developing her herd into a business. She has two to four animals slaughtered each month and sells the meat, which she says is high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, at the Santa Fe and Los Alamos farmers markets — she was granted an exception to the markets’ “local” requirements for a period after she moved her herd from grazing land in Tres Piedras to Colorado.
She said she also provides meat, some of which she gets processed into jerky, to The Cowgirl restaurant in Santa Fe and Coyote Diner in Albuquerque, as well as Sol Foods, La Montanita Co-op, and the Dixon Co-op.
The meat isn’t cheap — it sells from a low of $6 per pound for liver to a high of $30 per pound for filet mignon, according to Robertshaw’s price list. And she said she’s found other sellers with even higher prices.
But meat isn’t the only product Robertshaw is interested in.
“Part of my philosophy is to use ALL of the yak,” she said. Combining its softer fibers with strands from alpacas she also owns, she crochets and knits hats and similar items, including a coat for a friend’s Chihuahua.
She has networked with a whole series of artists, who create items such as rain sticks made from horns, micaceous clay pottery with embedded yak hair forming delicate patterns, pillows made out of hairy hides, skulls and bones decorated with artwork, and more.
Her booth at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market last month was lined with a number of these products, including yak fibers and woven yarns. To further lure customers, her friend Carla Oschwald dished out samples of green chile stew with yak meat and flavored cornbreads she had made.
‘Hands-off compared to cattle’
Both Coggins and Robertshaw essentially learned about raising yaks through educating themselves and talking with others in the trade.
“We learned a lot online,” Coggins said of her husband and herself. “(Yaks are) really very hands-off compared to cattle. … You don’t have to be there every day. They don’t even need running water.”
Her only other experience with non-pet critters was raising chickens and keeping beehives. “We were looking for an organic, sustainable form of ranching and farming,” she said.
Robertshaw, who moved to New Mexico in 1998 from the Pacific Northwest, has taught English as a second language and worked as a real estate agent.
“I’m not a cowgirl,” she said, wondering if yakeroo would be a good title now. “I grew up with dairy and sheep,” not at her own home, but on relatives’ New Zealand ranches she would visit over the holidays, she said.
Domesticated for thousands of years, yaks live up to 20 years, Robertshaw said. The International Yak Association website says that cows weigh 600 to 800 pounds, with a height of about 4.5 feet at the hump, while bulls average 1,200 to 1,500 pounds and stand about 6.5 feet at the hump.
“I would love to see this grow as a business special to mountainous regions,” Robertshaw said.