Yaks Add Farm Diversification

Project Overview

OS22-157
Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2022: $19,979.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Kentucky
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler
University of Kentucky

Commodities

  • Animals: bovine, yak

Practices

  • Animal Production: livestock breeding
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    Due to the limited information available in the United States and more specifically the Appalachian region of the southeastern U.S. on raising yaks (Bos grunniens), we are proposing this on-farm project to investigate the performance of yaks within forage-based systems.

    • Develop on-farm data collection records for yaks

    Other livestock species have developed resources for measuring animal production.   To develop educational resources for yaks, production information in the Southeast and United States, in general, is needed. There is a lack of information available on breeding intervals, age at puberty, fiber yield, performance on various forage species, and other general management information.  We intend to develop on-farm data collection protocols to aid in collecting key information to help develop educational resources for sustainable forage-based yak production systems.  We will start by using resources available for other livestock species to develop the framework for a basic production record system.  Working with our collaborating farms, production information will be collected and interpreted to begin to develop a strategy for management changes to reach their production goals.

    • Evaluate seasonal growth patterns of yaks raised in the southeast

    To better understand the potential for yak production in the southeast, we need to better understand their growth potential.  We propose to evaluate the growth of yaks during the grazing and hay feeding periods to determine the growth patterns of yaks.  Knowing how forage type may impact this growth rate will provide recommendations on how to improve performance of yaks in forage-based production systems in the southeast and the United State in general.  This information will be useful in estimating length of time needed to reach harvest and developing enterprise budgets.

    • Assess potential for yak meat market development

    As meat is a key market product, we will develop a list of variables producers can work with their processors to begin collecting to establish baseline meat production information.  The majority of yaks are typically raised strictly within a forage system producing grass-fed meat.  Based on a review written in 2020, yak meat contains 26% protein and 1.6-4.7% intramuscular fat (Hao et al., 2020).  Conventional-raised beef longissimus muscle contains about 21% protein and 6-12% intramuscular fat.  As the United States continues to battle the ever-increasing obesity issue, leaner meat sources such as yak could see an increase in demand. 

    Yak meat is beginning to find its way onto menus in upscale restaurants.  The nutritional aspects of yak meat positions it as an alternative to bison.  An advantage over bison is that yaks are domesticated having better temperaments and are safer to handle.  Internet prices for ground yak ranged from ~ $9 to $18 and steaks ranging between $15 to $35 per pound.  Kroger’s currently markets grass-fed ground beef for $8.49 and conventional ribeye steaks for $17.99 per pound.  Walmart markets ground bison for $8.98 per pound while commodity beef ribeye steaks are $13.97 per pound. The entry price point doesn’t seem to be a large obstacle to overcome.  However, a lack of available production information prevents us from knowing if yak producers are marketing meat at a profit.  Additionally, gathering feedback from chefs on their experiences with yak meat may help in developing marketing opportunities for meat.

    When developing a meat market, understanding what the buyer wants in a product is key.  With limited meat production currently from yaks, restaurants may be a marketing opportunity.  Determining whether chefs would add yak entrees as a menu feature could help producers in developing meat markets.  Gathering information from chefs will help yak producers develop market plans.

    • Educational resource development

    We have previously developed educational resources for beef farmers.  These include google forms for production records, a pasture finished beef enterprise budget, and other resources.  Gathering on-farm production data from our collaborators will help in developing resources.  This information along with international literature will be used to develop educational resources for yak producers.  Essential pieces needed include a production record system, enterprise budgets, and general animal husbandry information.  We will share this information at a conference and make the resources available online.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Objective 1 – Develop on-farm production records for basic yak management

    We intend to collaborate with yak producers for this portion of the grant.  Visiting with our yak farm collaborators, we will establish relevant production characteristics to begin gathering information needed to assist in developing yak husbandry educational resources.  This information will include weights (i.e. weaning, yearling, mature), structural confirmation, fiber type, calving interval, carcass weight, meat yields, and other production information.  The Beef Improvement Federation (BIF Wiki) guidelines will be a starting point for discussion on information relevant to yak production. 

    Google forms will be used to develop record sheets.  These will include calving, weaning, meat yield, bull and cow record sheets.  Collaborators will provide input on the development, ease of use, needed changes, and general thoughts on the use of records to improve their yak operations.

    Objective 2 – Assess the season growth patterns of yaks on-farm in the Southeast

    This part of the project will expand upon on-going data collection on yak performance.  The sustainability of a forage-based yak system for the region is limited by slower growth rates extending the time in which animals must be raised before marketing.  This lengthened time increases production costs and negatively impacts the economic viability of the system.  To investigate the impact of post-weaning forage quality on growing yaks, approximately 20 growing yaks will be utilized to evaluate growth rate during the grazing season and during winter hay feeding period.  Growing yaks will be weighed on day 0 and at approximately 45-day intervals or the end of each season.  A second grazing season will be included to evaluate gains during the grazing season as weather conditions can impact forage production and animal performance. This information will be used to develop a growing yak enterprise budget in Objective 4. 

    During the grazing season, yaks will be randomly assigned to four groups providing replication necessary for statistical analyses.  Each grazing group will be assigned to a paddock that will provide sufficient forage for approximately 45 days to assess growth rates.  The grazing season will be split into three 45-day periods.  Periods will correspond to early spring, mid-summer and fall to evaluate performance during these periods.  Weather data will be collected from local weather stations to assess impact of environmental conditions on animal performance. 

    At the beginning and end of each period, a total of 15 random locations from each paddock will be assessed for composition of forages following the Penn State Equine pasture evaluation method (PSU Pasture Disc).  From 30 locations, hand-grab samples will be collected, mixed and subsampled for analyses of nutrient content by a commercial laboratory (WVU Pasture Grab).  Forage height will be measured using a grazing stick from these locations to estimate forage availability to ensure intakes are not limited.  Additionally, fescue 15 plants within the paddocks will be sampled for the presence of the (UK Fescue Testing) and alkaloid level twice during the grazing season for each paddock.  The relationship between fescue alkaloids and animal performance will be assessed to determine the impact of alkaloid on animal gain.

    During the winter hay feeding period, weights will be monitored every 45 days.  Hay bales will be weighed prior to feeding to estimate hay disappearance.  Hay will be sampled and analyzed for nutrient and mineral content by a commercial laboratory.  Winter feeding treatment will investigate the effect of forage type on animal performance.  Our preliminary data suggests that forage quality is important in maintaining positive weight gains during the winter.  Winter performance information will help with projecting the amount of time required to reach harvest weight which is needed for the development of the enterprise budget in Objective 4.

    Objective 3 – Assess the interest of chefs to add yak meat to their menu

    An online survey will be developed to gather general interest in yak meat by chefs.  The survey will be distributed through regional association of chefs and paid advertisements in popular press.  Working with our collaborators, we will identify 5-7 chefs and send yak meat samples for evaluation.  We will request they complete a questionnaire related to their experience in preparing the meat and eating experience.  We will ask them to share their opinions on the potential of yak meat as a menu item in their restaurant as well as details related to preferred cuts, fresh or frozen, portion sizes, etc.  This information will be helpful when developing markets for yak meat with restaurants.

    Objective 4 – Develop yak production resources

    Utilizing the published literature as well as findings from this on-farm research, producer educational resources on yak production will be developed.  Enterprise budgets for forage-based yak production systems will be developed.  A cow-calf system and a growing yak for meat enterprise budget will be developed.  A yak conference will be held to share the information and gather feedback on the resources.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.