Upper Valley Agriculture: Yaks at Sunny Hill Ranch

(KTNA Photo)
(KTNA Photo)

There is growing emphasis in Alaska on locally produced food, including meat. Some cattle are being raised in the Upper Susitna Valley but many species of cow are not adapted to the severe cold of an Alaska winter. There is another animal that is suited for the conditions, though- yaks.

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Anita Hill is the “Yak Lady.”  It says so right on her custom license plate.  She and her husband Steve Hill have operated Sunny Hill Ranch for about four years.  After I arrived, they took me to a large pen, where I could already discern dark, furry shapes moving around.

For those who have never seen a domestic yak in person, they resemble something of a cross between a

bison and a cow, but considerably lighter, and with much shorter legs.  Steve Hill says a large yak bull might get up to 1500 pounds.  Compare that to a brahma bull, which can weigh upward of a ton.  As the more tame members of the herd approached the fence to greet me, the Hills explained why people raise yaks.

STEVE: “Meat and Fiber.”
ANITA: “Some People ask me about milking.  I only milk them when I have to.”

The fiber gets brushed off of the animals and washed so it can be spun into yarn.  As for the meat, Anita and Steve Hill say that the market is growing.

“There’s a good market for it, because it’s very lean.  There’s no fat on it; it’s not marbled like beef.”

Anita Hill says the meat can largely be used as a substitute for beef in recipes, although it does cook somewhat differently.  Right now, the Hills sell their meat primarily at farmers markets, but that may change in the future.  Steve says that one day they would like to:

“…get some restaurants in Talkeetna serving yak burgers…If you’re going to get them doing that, you have to have the supply to meet the demand.  You can’t say, ‘Here’s one, and I’ll have the next one six months from now.’”

Steve says that it would take a herd of about fifty animals in order to consider selling on that scale, which he estimates will take another two or three years.  That plan almost got yanked out from under the Hills with a recent, sudden change from the USDA, however.

“About two weeks ago, the USDA, all of a sudden…out of the blue, said ‘Yak’s not an amenable species.  We’re not going to inspect it any more,’ which would have taken this herd…and all of a sudden now it’s worthless.  I can’t sell it to the public.”

That’s because a USDA stamp is required for commercial sale of meat.  Fortunately for the Hills and other yak ranchers, there was help to be had.  Jim Watson is board president for the International Yak Association, or IYAK.  He spoke to me from his ranch in Montana about the potential impact of the unexpected change.

“It resulted in the almost immediate cessation of interstate commerce in yak meat and yak products, which disrupted the business models of yak ranchers throughout the country, because they had standing orders to go to grocery stores, restaurants, and distributors which were suddenly not valid any more.”

Watson says IYAK rallied its members through email and social media, and encouraged them to write to members of Congress, specifically those on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“…Apparently, that worked very well, because the USDA contacted me a few days later and provided us with the alternative we requested.”

While a final decision is still pending, Watson says it’s looking good for yak ranchers.

Back at the Sunny Hill Ranch, my yak education continues.  One of the reasons that yaks are an attractive species to raise in Alaska is their resilience to cold.  Many types of yak originate in the Himalayas, and Anita Hill says they are a major asset to the people of the area.

“In Tibet, they use them for everything.  They are the family animal.  They use them for packing; they use them for meat.  They use them like oxen.  They’re actually called ‘the grunting ox.’”

Tibet can get pretty cold, so yaks adapted over time to tough out frigid winters with their thick coats of fur.  Anita Hill says yaks as young as a week old can survive

temperatures well below zero because the herd will work to keep them warm.

That strong herd mentality also comes in handy with one of the other hazards to raising livestock in the Last Frontier.

“The yaks will attack a bear.  They’ll attack anything that comes in harm’s way…even the dogs.  Annie [the yak] was up–I had just her and two younger ones–and a coyote came and harassed them.  She bent the fence trying to get to that coyote, so they’ll attack a bear.”

Steve Hill says, between the yaks and the family’s three large dogs, he hasn’t seen a bear on the property in the four years he and Anita have lived in the Susitna Valley.

For Steve and Anita Hill, their yaks are like an extension of their family.  Every one has a name and a personality.  Twice during my tour, yaks would come to the fence and poke their heads through, hoping I would scratch them behind the ears.  While many of them are destined for a dinner plate eventually, it’s clear that they’re happy with the life they live at Sunny Hill Ranch.