WELLINGTON — Kentucky has more beef cattle than any state east of the Mississippi River. But there's a new bovine in the Bluegrass thanks to a Menifee County man raising yaks, those shaggy pack animals from Asia.
Greg Dike, who tends to 44 yaks on 32 acres, says they have the potential to supplement the incomes of small farmers who don't have a lot of acreage. Half the herd belongs to him; the rest belong to a joint-venture partner in Ohio who will market meat from the yaks that Dike raises. They hope to sell yak steaks directly to specialty restaurants in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
"It's very tender, juicy," Dike said. "There's no gaminess at all to it. It's got a sweetness to it. ... Everybody I know that's tasted it and who have eaten things like elk and bison and venison, they eat the yak and they say, 'That's what I want.'"
In addition, yak meat is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to reduce heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol. And the meat has a high protein-calorie ratio, Dike said, "so body builders like it."
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Ground yak meat retails for $10 a pound; yak filet mignon has sold for as much as $60 a pound. "So you can make twice as much to three times as much on yak meat as you can on regular beef, and it's a higher quality in terms of health," Dike said.
Raising yaks is a sideline for Dike, who is executive director of the Habitat for Humanity office in Morehead that serves Rowan, Menifee and Morgan counties. His wife, Linda, is a nurse practitioner who operates a yoga studio. Dike, 62, learned about yaks on a trip to northern India, and he was looking for an investment.
"I was getting toward retirement age and I didn't want to sit around," he said. "Everybody I've talked to that's worked with them said the potential is there for the meat."
There are an estimated 7,500 yaks in North America; Dike has the only registered herd in Kentucky, said Jim Watson, president of the International Yak Association. Yaks were domesticated thousands of years ago for meat, milk and fiber, and continue to serve as pack animals that carry goods in Tibet, Nepal and Afghanistan.
All the animals on Dike's place — called Zhi-ba Shing-ga, Tibetan for "Peace Farm" — were bred and born in the United States. They probably descended from animals that were brought into the United States from Canada in the early 1900s. The animals on his farm came from Montana, Nebraska, Colorado and Ohio.
With their handlebar horns, shoulder humps, horselike tails and long, shaggy skirts hanging nearly to the ground, yaks are like no cow that has grazed Menifee County pastures. They don't "moo" but utter a deep grunt (their scientific name, bos grunniens, means "grunting ox"). Dike has raised the animals since last year, but they're still a source of curiosity for passing motorists.
"Even now, people who live around here will drive by slowly and see what's going on," Dike said. "They're funny animals. When they want to play, they'll chase each other around like kids. The tails will go up in the air and they run. They can kick like a horse."
Yaks do not do as well in extremely hot and humid climates, but Dike said they handled the normal Kentucky summer temperatures.
"They'll go in the shade or in the tall grass," he said. "They'll lie down all day long, they'll be lazy and won't move. The minute night comes they'll pop up and they'll play and they'll eat. They're kind of like people: rest as much as they can when it's uncomfortable."
Yak hair or fiber is comparable to cashmere or angora wool. The downy undercoat that sheds in the spring can be combed out, collected and processed to make scarves, hats, gloves and mittens. The coarser outer hair, or "guard hair," is used to weave ropes, belts, saddle blankets and rugs.
Yak milk can be made into cheese, butter and yogurt. The hides and horns also are marketed.
Dike said he thinks yaks, which thrive in higher elevations, could be raised on reclaimed coal land in Eastern Kentucky or on smaller farms typical of the region.
Where beef and bison require 12 pounds of forage to produce one pound of weight gain, yak steers require only 6 pounds of forage to produce one pound of gain. Four yak cows can graze on the same acreage as one beef cow.
"I think it could be a real economic benefit for Kentucky," Dike said. "They calve very easily. They're incredibly low maintenance. They'll protect themselves. Give them good grass and water, and they'll take care of themselves.
"For beef breeders, it's something to look at in terms of crossing with yaks to get a higher price for their meat. Once you get a 50-50 mix, you can say it's a yak, and it will improve the beef quality."