A Yak’s Life

By Beacon Staff

Males can be so predictable. Give them a chance to spend some quality time with their ladies and all they want to do is posture and preen, the better to tell other dudes to back off when a female is spoken for. Such behavior spans species and continents, and it was on display the second morning of breeding season at the Spring Brook Ranch in Kalispell – a home where the Tibetan Yaks roam.

Visitors to Spring Brook can be forgiven for thinking they have mistakenly strayed from the Flathead and somehow wandered onto the Himalayan plateau. On 1,000 acres west of town, dozens of the exotic, Pleistocene-era cattle graze the hills. Native to south Central Asia, yaks resemble small bison more than cattle, with humped backs, a skirt of thick, shaggy fur and horns on males and females.

Jim Watson and his wife, Carol Bibler, have raised yaks at Spring Brook since 1999, when Carol’s father, Sam Bibler, began assembling the herd.

“He thought it would be interesting to have another interesting animal out there grazing on the ranch,” Carol said of her father’s wish to add to the bison he had already acquired. “Because Sam bought really good stock, we’ve become the premier seedstock herd in the country.”

Spring Brook sells off some of its 100 yak to others throughout the United States to breed or simply keep as an exotic pet. Because of their harsh native climate, yaks are low maintenance livestock, requiring no shelter during Montana winters and little food. Nor have yaks been subject to the intense breeding of other cattle, like Angus, Watson said, so they are relatively disease-free and smaller. Adult bulls can range in weight from 1,200 to 1,300 pounds, while male bison of the same age might weigh a ton.

“If your goal is to be a commercial meat producer, this is not your animal,” Watson cautioned. He and Bibler offer bottle-raised calves as pets, train pack steers, and deal meat to local restaurants like Red’s Wines & Blues. They also harvest the fiber from yaks in the spring to sell to hand-spinners.

At the top of the Yak pack, the aptly named “Super-Woolies” make the most desirable breeding stock. Watson manages to get one or two Super-Woolies a year out of breeding 60 cows, but said he is beginning to produce them more reliably.

In temperament, yaks resemble horses or even dogs more than cattle. When Bibler and Watson enter a pen full of steers and bulls, curious yaks herd around in search of treats, and silently follow at the ranchers’ heels.

“In general, they’re very docile,” Watson said. “Yak are domestic animals and quite tractable and really easy to be around.”

A Yak rodeo wouldn’t be very exciting either, since Yaks also lack the fiery temper of some of their North American cousins, rarely engaging in conflicts beyond the minor, occasional scuffle during breeding season. “They get in pushing contests, but I’ve never seen them in a go-for-broke, try-to-kill-you-type fight,” Watson said. “It’s over pretty fast.”

The Spring Brook yaks seemed content to sidle up to Bibler and Watson in hopes of getting a scratch above the tail between their rear hips. When Bibler finds that magic spot on a yearling named Timba, his eyes roll back in his head and his upper lip curls, completely lost in the throes of yak scratch fever.

Yak calves sell for $1,250 and cows can sell for as much as $3,000 at Spring Brook, with some show quality bulls going for $10,000.

But the way of the yak is not necessarily a path to riches, according to Bibler and Watson.

“It’s kind of a break-even operation,” Bibler said.

“You do it for the lifestyle,” Watson added. “I get to ride around on my horse and say I’m working.”

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