Yak: Exotic Fare for the Local Table
There’s a spot on the Snake River Plain that might be mistaken for a Himalayan pasture. It’s not just that sea of grass rushing off to a distant, snowcapped horizon—in the right light, that’s respectably Himalayan enough—but what really transports you are the eccentric-looking yaks—those shaggy, sharp-horned Asian cousins to cattle—that dot this expansive landscape.
Cindy and Bryan Yenter of the Rockin’ Y-Bar ranch near Shoshone are responsible for turning their small chunk of Idaho into a high Himalayan pasture. Yaks—originally from Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, and Mongolia—are well suited to our Mountain West climate, and the Yenters’ animals are bred and raised right here, which kind of expands on the phrase “local Idaho food.”
“If I had to compare yak meat to anything, I’d compare it to buffalo or elk,” Cindy Yenter says, “But it’s juicier and sweeter.” She also explains that yak comes in the same cuts as beef, so it’s simple to use in place of beef. When prepared properly, yak has a wonderful, fine texture, but is significantly leaner than beef. The best way to cook yak meat, according to her, is “low and slow” and to buffer it from the heat to keep it from drying.
The Yenters first conceived of their yak farm as a retirement project. Though each still works full time, they were looking to establish an enterprise that would help them transition away from their careers. Rockin’ Y started in 2008 with seven yaks. As of the fall of 2013, the herd totaled 24—a collection of steers, cows, calves from that spring, and the stately breeding bull, Midas.
Domestic yaks, which were first brought to North American at the turn of the 20th century, are in some ways low-maintenance stock compared with beef cattle. They’re hardier than cattle (a bonus in the Idaho winters), eat less and require less water. They’re also entirely grass and hay fed, and because the meat won’t marble, there’s no reason to ever feed them grain.
On the other hand, the Yenters say that yaks do present certain challenges. Though they tend to be docile, they’re smarter than cattle, making them difficult to herd. “You have to make them think it’s their own idea,” Cindy Yenter says of working with these large and “very intelligent animals.”
The reward of any challenges of yak husbandry is the end product—a high-quality, nutritious meat that, due to the yak’s strong constitution and simple regimen of grass and hay, is sustainable and natural. Though the Yenters use some “judicious vaccination” procedures to ensure that their animals are healthy, they never use hormones or steroids.
Sustainability also extends to the retail end of the Yenter’s yak operation. Cindy Yenter explains that they only sell their meat through Idaho’s Bounty (www.idahosbounty.org). While Idaho’s Bounty makes Rockin’ Y-Bar yak meat available to Wood River Valley and Boise residents, the Yenters would like to avoid selling beyond this region, as the shipping process would negate the environmental advantages of selling locally.
Yak meat, Cindy Yenter explains, is currently a niche market, largely due to cost. Though yaks are relatively easy to raise, the meat is expensive compared with beef because yak take longer to grow to butcher size. For example, beef cattle can be butchered at 16 months, whereas yaks must be 30 months, requiring another 14 months of resources. But, thanks largely to its taste and appealing nutritional profile, yak meat seems to be catching on in North America. There are producers around the Mountain West, including a yak ranch in McCall, the Rockin’ K bar C Ranch.
As yak meat continues to gain popularity, southern Idaho residents can count ourselves lucky that we have a local source for this fine product. And if you’re fortunate enough to pass by the Rockin’ Y-Bar, you’ll likely see the Yenters’ remarkable animals in their pastures—a great reminder of the increasing scope of Idaho’s local food culture.