Food

The Survivalist’s Case For Yak Burgers

Up against an $88 million beef industry and a warming globe, a rancher bets it all on a shaggy Himalayan underdog by Zachary Slobig

September 17, 2014

Somewhere on the road between Montrose and Fruita, Colorado, rancher Bob Hasse and I pass a Burger King, and I ask if he fantasizes about getting yak on the fast-food chain’s menu. “Nope,” he says quickly. “Not even in 50 years.” We’ve just collected eight meat-ready yak from one of his pastures—with the help of a few aluminum baseball bats for insurance—and 8,000 pounds of the shaggy Himalayan animals are bumping up against each other in Hasse’s trailer as we head north to the slaughterhouse. 

Yak simply has no place in fast food’s system of optimized convenience and immediacy. Yet at the same time, the conscious American meat eater is eager for an alternative to the gigantic footprint that cattle produces—and Hasse can’t keep up with demand.

The high desert of the Uncompahgre Valley in western Colorado has been a hot spot for experimental exotic ranching for at least two decades. The slaughterhouse that Hasse is headed to processed whole flocks of ostrich in the ‘90s. Llamas and alpacas were next. Most were raised as pets for personal zoos, but some market for meat developed. So far, bison is the only exotic that has surpassed the fad threshold and won a place—even if a very small one—on the American plate. “It will take a little while to retrain the American palate, but it’s happening,” says Ben Del Coro of Fossil Farms, a purveyor of organic, exotic, and game meats. “You’re seeing far more game meats and pasture-raised meats on American menus.”

Hasse says that he could easily sell all the high-end cuts from these eight fully grass-fed animals to a single Denver restaurant—The Buckhorn Exchange—where he’s been dealing with the same chef for close to 20 years. “I don’t like to do business with just one guy, though,” he says as we pass several defunct barn-sized root cellars looking like a row of overgrown anthills. “I like to have a variety, and from a marketing standpoint that makes sense. It also helps just to get your name out there, get the yak-meat concept out there.”

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The “yak-meat concept” is up against the $88 billion per-year red-blooded American cow-meat concept. Some 30 million cattle are out there grazing—or grain gorging—right now in anticipation of cellophane-wrapped presentation in American supermarkets.

Americans now consume roughly 53 pounds of beef per capita annually, a precipitous drop from the peak in the late disco years when our habit topped 90 pounds annually. Instead, we’re opting for leaner meats and less of them. And with the rise in popularity of local, organic, and grass-fed, beef retails for nearly 60 percent more than it did in 2002. We’re also looking for alternatives: Earlier this year, chicken became the premier American animal protein, topping beef for the first time in a century. Beef, in fact, is no longer “what’s for dinner.”

Hasse estimates there are a mere 10,000 yak in North America—so few that they remain off the radar for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. “Unfortunately, we do not track yak data and have no one who knows anything about it,” says Kenneth Matthews, a USDA agricultural economist.

Hasse counts just 175 animals in his herd at the moment, minus the eight he’s about to harvest. Yet with those numbers, he’s one of the biggest operators in the yak-meat game. His customers range from Wall Street brokers who like to give choice yak cuts to clients as gifts to a New Jersey mom whose daughter has severe food allergies. (Yak is the only animal protein she can keep down.) Plenty of Tibetan restaurants also use the meat in their momo dumplings and a handful of chefs who take it on as a novelty. Then there’s the fringe yak-product clients: Dog-treat makers who transform yak milk into canine snacks that can be chewed for hours and fishermen who prize yak belly hair to tie their own flies. There’s a market for most of it, down to the bones and the balls. In Colorado, local crafty artists and interior decorators like to buy the skulls. “Also, the fanciest clown wigs are all yak,” Hasse tells me.

Yak may be languishing in the sideshow of our national menu, but Hasse is convinced that more yak is soon headed to the tip of your fork. “If people actually saw those cattle-feeding operations, they’d never eat beef again,” he says. He stumbled onto yak for the first time some 20 years ago at Denver’s annual National Western Stock Show where a pair of ranchers were raising them as hobby animals. They also had yak-burger samples. “The taste was really the bottom line,” says Hasse. “I tasted that meat, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is it. This is the one I want.’”

Yak meat may be a long way off from the value-meal menu at your local drive-thru, but that hairy, horned ungulate is quietly making inroads. Halfway between Philadelphia and New York City, 33-year-old Brent Walker keeps a herd of about 80 yak and supplies more than a dozen farmers markets and restaurants, as well as two food trucks, one of which is called the Dark Side of the Moo. “I know at least 10 people keeping yak in their backyards nearby,” Walker tells me.

And there are signs that the animal may be primed for a higher profile. Renowned chef Eric Ripert’s just began to feature artisanal yak cheese in his private dining room at New York City’s famed 4-star restaurant, Le Bernardin.

“The consumer mindset is shifting,” says Del Coro of Fossil Farms. “Whether you attribute it to natural living or sustainability, consumers are looking beyond beef, pork, and chicken... The challenge for producers is to realize the demand and invest those years it takes for yak and hope that it’s going to sell. It’s a pretty big gamble.” So far, Fossil Farms contracts with three yak ranches and is overwhelmed by demand.

“We’re seeing more demand on the East and West coasts,” says Jim Watson, president of the International Yak Association. “The yak market for both meat and live animals is going up—$40 a pound for tenderloin is a nice nickel.” But Watson is nevertheless wary of overestimating the meat’s growth potential. 

“We’re tiny by any yardstick. The beef guys will kill more cows in a single shift in one plant than there are yaks in the whole country,” he says.

And where does he see the yak market 10 years from now? “It will be even larger, but still farm-based and local,” Watson says. “We can’t possibly expand rapidly enough to get into a really heavy commercial market. Even if we stopped killing animals right now, it would take 10 years to get any kind of numbers built up.”

Relative to cattle, yak farming is far more sustainable and efficient. Yak are exceedingly disease-resistant and calve easily. Both male and female yak have horns and are far better equipped than cattle to defend themselves against coyote and mountain lion. The yak clears brush like a goat, mowing down just about anything in the Colorado high desert except milkweed.

The beef guys will kill more cows in a single shift in one plant than there are yaks in the whole country.

Then there’s the feed efficiency: A rancher can keep four yak on the acreage needed to raise one beef cow. Though a single pound of processed beef requires up to 10 pounds of feed, a pound of yak meat requires no more than six pounds of hay. In a state nearly as drought-prone as California, Hasse says yak require just a fourth the water that a beef cow would use.

Add up the yak stats and a picture emerges of an animal product far more environmentally palatable than beef. And don’t get Hasse started on bison—those animals require up to 12 pounds of feed for every pound of meat produced. Then there’s the nutritional superiority of yak: Beef is anywhere between 15 and 20 percent fat, but yak is just 3 percent fat. In a 2011 study, Oregon State University food scientist Christina Mireles DeWitt found that yak is lower in cholesterol and higher in Omega 3 and 6 oils.

So when will yak have its ostrich moment? “Part of the problem is the nomenclature,” says Del Coro of Fossil Farms. “The word ‘yak’ isn’t that appealing.”

The other area of resistance is from farmers themselves.“Farmers have their heels set firmly in the dirt. They just want to do what their fathers did,” says Del Coro. “They don’t want to deal with horns, and they want that fast turnaround where they can get their money back in a year, year and a half, and it’s just not the case with yaks.”

Then there’s the disincentive of inspection costs. Unlike with cattle or poultry, ranchers slaughtering exotics for commercial use are required to pay the USDA inspector stationed in the slaughterhouse. For the eight animals here in Hasse’s trailer, that price tag will come to about $2,000. 

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The Himalayan people have relied on yak for food, fuel, shelter, clothing, and transportation for close to 5,000 years, and the animal has long enjoyed a near-mystical status. In fact, Chinese historians argue that without the yak's capacity to live in such a hostile environment, human civilization might not have established and flourished in these remote areas.

Hasse slaps a couple of yak burgers on the grill and pries open a couple of bottles of Coors Light. With his half dozen backyard yaks looking on from a hilly field studded with Russian olive and cottonwood trees, the animal’s incredible resilience does not escape him.

“So you really want to know what all this yak business is about?” he asks, taking a long gulp of beer. “It’s all about spirituality.”

For the first time in the days we’ve spent together, Hasse explains his deep belief in the Rapture, or what he calls “The Great Tribulation”—that scorched time of fire, brimstone, locusts, and plagues that the Bible’s Book of Revelation says will precede the second coming of Jesus Christ. Hasse believes this will happen before 2028.

“My goal was to find an animal ideally suited for harsh conditions, bad climate, unstable economic conditions—an animal that can defend itself, doesn’t need much care, and would be a secure food source in times of trouble,” he tells me as the fan in his fridge began to whir. “It’s the outstanding animal for that situation.”

Hasse is no foaming-at-the-mouth doomsday cliché. He’s a thoughtful businessman whose faith has directed his decisions. It may seem easy to dismiss him outright as some end-of-days rube. But is it not possible that our meat-eating habits are, in fact, driving us down a road that could only have a dead end? Our beef consumption may have peaked in the United States, but China’s beef imports quadrupled last year. Are Hasse’s notions of a clock ticking down the moments until our world suddenly becomes uninhabitable really that alien to the environmentalists’ admonitions to alter our habits before it’s too late?

“From an end-times standpoint, this animal makes a lot of sense,” says Hasse. “It makes sense under any and all conditions.”

Photos by Kristín Wright

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