This story was originally published in November 2021.
Mainers don’t have to book a trip to the Himalayas to see yaks — they’re well-suited to be raised by farmers right here in the Pine Tree State.
Filled with personality and well-acclimated to Maine’s climate, yaks have the potential to be a popular livestock in the state. Those who already own and love yaks say that the charismatic animals might not catch on, though, unless hurdles in accessibility and product popularity are surmounted first.
Adria Horn has become a “yak evangelist” over the past five years. She owns Wooly & Grunt Farm in Pittston with her husband, Lokie, and has had a number of funny experiences with yaks, from heifers hopping on hay bales to a baby yak named Oreo imprinting on her and following her around the house.
“I love them and I really think they’re just such cool animals,” Horn said. “They’re interesting. They’re curious. They’re super funny.”
Aside from having fun personalities, yaks love Maine’s cold weather and are much less demanding on the land than other ruminants, particularly cattle. They eat about a quarter of what a cow eats, according to Horn.
They’re also multipurpose. In addition to being talented draft animals, yaks can be raised for meat, milk and high-quality fiber and don’t even need to be shorn like other fiber animals.
Yaks also make great pets for hobby farmers — though Chris Devaney in New Limerick, who currently has a herd of 16 yaks, bristles at the term “hobby farm.”
“It’s not a hobby farm for me really, it’s just a way of life,” Devaney said. “I do harvest the fiber but because these guys are just pets and almost like kids to me I don’t sell it, I give it away. If I were selling the fiber, it would be like putting the kids to work and stealing their paycheck.”
Like any animal, yaks come with their quirks. They like to roam and require intensive fencing. Due to their thick hides, Horn said that sheep-level voltage electric fencing is insufficient.
“Back in the early days when the yaks were breaking out all too regularly, in order to keep community relations on the good side, I started naming new baby yaks after the neighbors and friends,” Devaney said. “It was a big hit. During a breakout, if a yak went into a neighbor’s yard, the neighbor would often come out smiling and ask, ‘Is that my yak?’”
Over the past 18 years that Devaney has owned yaks, he hasn’t seen many other yak farmers come onto the scene. A few farms have shown interest, and some have even owned yaks for a short period of time, but not many have stuck with the project.
“Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more yaks in Maine,” Devaney said.
There are a few reasons that more Mainers don’t give yaks a shot. First is the challenge of getting a yak. The Horns are among the only farmers in Maine — or America, for that matter — that have yaks.
“If you want to purchase one, you have to have interstate logistics figured out,” Horn said. “You have to pay for transportation, which is wicked expensive.”
Socializing yaks can be tough, too, as Horn found out firsthand when she and her husband first decided they wanted to get yaks. They purchased their first herd from meat processors, and the giant horned creatures didn’t let them get close enough to milk them. Eventually, they started bottle feeding baby yaks and are well on their way to developing a friendly herd that will let them near their udders.
“Socialization is time consuming and it’s definitely something that, if we have to bottle feed a yak for someone, it’s going to be a more expensive yak,” Horn said.
Between the Horns and Devaney, though, there is an opportunity for Mainers to purchase socialized yaks in-state — the question is whether farmers can profit off the animals.
Aside from having fun personalities, yaks love Maine’s cold weather and are much less demanding on the land than other ruminants, particularly cattle. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Devaney and Adria Horn
A market for yak products exists, Horn said, but it has been a challenge to make inroads in Maine. Her efforts to find markets for yak products were derailed by the pandemic, as restaurants and specialty stores stuck to their usual products rather than risky new ones.
Still, Horn has found niche markets for her yak products, including a high-end knitter looking to supplement cashmere with yak fiber, a personal trainer in New Jersey seeking yak meat for its leanness and the pet supply retailer Chewy.com wanting yak milk to turn into dog chews.
“I definitely think there’s an opportunity here but they’re slow to grow and you have to be willing to take some of the lessons learned,” Horn said.
Finally, there is the matter of veterinary care for yaks in Maine. Horn and her husband are comfortable doing a lot of the simple yak care themselves and have learned through online resources. For example, yaks have slightly different dietary requirements than cows, and the Horns had to tinker with their bottle feeding formula for baby yaks to get the right level of fat content.
For Devaney, though, the yaks are well worth it and he hopes to see more in Maine.
“It’s a beautiful environment for them and they do have a lot to offer,” Devaney said. “It’s worth it in the long run. My life is heaven with these guys here.”