SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Until two years ago, Tom Butler, a retired aerospace engineer was prohibited from talking to even his wife about his work in the 1970s on photo reconnaissance satellites at Lockheed Martin.
But today he talks voluminously about the yaks he and his wife, Lucy, breed north of here on the high plateau from where they can see all Four Corners states.
Mesa View Yak Ranch is 4 years old.
Yaks originated on the Tibetan plateau where inhabitants have domesticated them for centuries as a source of meat, milk and fiber.
The Butlers are among the more than 40 yak breeders in Colorado listed by the International Yak Association, which stretches to Canada, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. The organization was founded in 1992.
Yak breeders in Southwest Colorado seem to have small herds. The Butlers have 14 animals; Patty McNall in Ridgway has 11; Bill and Kendra Cook in Dove Creek have 10 on the ground and four ready to calve.
By contrast, yak association president Jim Watson in Kalispell, Mont., has 100 yaks, and bison as well.
As do many yak breeders, the Butlers sell the meat, which is lean with a taste reminiscent of bison. The couple also sell the yak’s “skirt,” the long, shaggy outer coat used for belts and ropes and the downy undercoat, which is finer than any wool except for the muskox. The skulls and handlebar horns of yaks slaughtered for meat are sold for mounting and hides are also marketed.
They sell yaks for breeding and occasionally someone buys one to be a “pasture pet” that’s a little more exotic than a dog or horse.
“I was fattening steers in the summer and wanted a herd of my own, but didn’t have enough land,” Butler said. “Since yaks eat one-third of what a cow eats, I can have the herd.”
The Butlers took visitors to the back pasture recently to see the herd – three heifers each with a calf and James Bond, a 1,400-pound steer carrying the International Yak Association registry number Q007.
When Butler called out “buckets,” the heifers and calves began to assemble in anticipation of the mix of oats, barley, corn, molasses and senior-horse feed he had in several buckets.
The yaks are on pasture except from November to April when they get hay. But they get buckets every day because the senior-horse feed is strong on copper, a supplement yaks require more than other domestic livestock.
James Bond has been stand-offish since the heifers are focusing on their newborns, Butler said. But he’ll be feeling frisky soon enough when two heifers are brought for breeding, Butler said.
The Butlers have seven other yaks, two steers and four heifers, on a family ranch in Dolores. The steers are going to be trained as pack animals.
Watson, who grew up in Mississippi agriculture that included beef cattle, estimated there are 7,500 to 10,000 yaks in the United States and Canada. About 1,500 are registered with the association, he said.
“I like yaks because they’re hardy, intelligent, tractable and each one has its own personality,” Watson said. “Cattle are dumb. You go into the pasture and they barely stop eating.”
He said breeders show 60 to 100 yaks at their annual conference at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.
“They spend the winter on the range,” Watson said. “If you go out after a snowstorm, you see a yak stand up from under a mound of snow and shake it off.”
McNall, who acquired her first yaks in 2007, sells all the calves.
“I couldn’t eat my yaks because they’re like my kids,” McNall said. “I checked out alpacas, llamas and mini-horses, but yaks, for being an exotic animal, are reasonably priced and the best all-around animal.”
McNall is a fiber artist, but she uses sheep wool for tapestry and rugs because the yak’s soft undercoat is expensive – $30 to $35 an ounce when cleaned.
Bill Perkins said he and his wife chose yaks over bison, which he said are meaner. They’ve had yaks for five years.
“We’re developing the herd for breeding as part of an overall sustainable ranch,” Perkins said.
The couple, who were inside-the-Beltway television producers in Washington, D.C., have 400 acres with wells and springs near Dove Creek that they are developing as a stay-over tourist destination.