Aspen Times, September 21, 2004
Brook LeVan couldn’t believe it Sept. 14 when a gal he was caring for gave birth. He didn’t even know Thelma was pregnant.
Such is life when you’re trying to start a yak herd.
Thelma and the heifer she hangs with, named Louise, naturally, came to LeVan’s Sustainable Settings Ranch six miles south of Carbondale with a bull named Jefe in March. The nonprofit organization purchased the three yaks from a rancher in Crested Butte.
But Thelma had already done the deed by the time she was shipped over McClure Pass. Gestation for yaks is nine months. So Sustainable Settings got a bargain – buy three, get a fourth for free.
"We think it’s the first yak calf born in the Roaring Fork," said LeVan, executive director of Sustainable Settings.
And why not? The shaggy beasts that look like a cross between a buffalo and cow are native to the Himalayas, not Colorado’s Elk Mountains. A recent article by The New York Times estimated there were only 2,000 yaks in North America.
And now there are four in the Crystal River Valley. LeVan couldn’t see that Thelma was pregnant due to her shaggy coat of black wool. She’s the size of a small heifer, and still growing.
After the birth, he and his family recalled that something excited other animals on the night of Sept. 13, including the giant white Pyrenees dogs that help guard the ranch’s livestock from predators.
"The dog’s went off," LeVan said. "The coyotes were crazy, more than normal."
He figures the placenta and fluids released by Thelma during birth created the frenzy.
Because yaks haven’t been extensively crossbred, they can give birth without human intervention, LeVan said. His attention was first drawn to the little black fur-ball calf by a photographer and reporter from the Glenwood Post Independent who visited the ranch Sept. 14. When the photographer commented on the calf, LeVan said they didn’t have a calf. When she insisted, he spotted it laying beside Thelma in the tall grass.
The doting mother gets a little anxious whenever visitors wander too close. Thelma scrambled to her feet one recent day when visitors circled behind her using the safety of a fence. Eventually the calf got out of the tall grass and started nursing.
LeVan hasn’t checked the calf’s sex yet. By all appearances, it’s healthy. Yaks thrive above 6,000 feet. Ideally it will be a cow that will help start the ranch’s efforts to build a herd. If it’s a bull, it will either be castrated or used for breeding, depending on whether it was sired by a top bull at the Crested Butte ranch, according to LeVan.
The yaks were purchased to be the large ruminants in the grazing scheme at Sustainable Setting’s ranch. The organization is running an agricultural operation patterned after lessons taught by nature. Mountain buffalo were the large ruminants that grazed and cultivated the meadows and natural parks before man took control.
Sustainable Settings wants to mimic that activity by using yaks as the large ruminants. Sheep and a variety of fowl will also graze in fields for a short duration on a rotating basis. The practice is meant to allow grazing in a way that nourishes rather than depletes the grass.
LeVan hopes the yak herd will eventually yield milk, wool and meat. Yak meat, he said, has a flavor somewhere between beef and buffalo.
"Some people say ‘Yak? Yuk!’ said LeVan. "I’ve had it. I love it."
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org