Yak (Bos grunniens)
The yak is a ruminant from the Himalayas, where he lives at altitudes between 3000-5000m. Wild yaks climb up to 6000m and live in regions where the average temperature is under 0°C for eight months a year. Since vegetation is rare in these high mountains, yaks walk long distances in between pastures and climb to the most remote places.
The yak has always been very closely associated with the life, culture, and religion of the pastoral people of the Himalayas. Yaks provide them with milk, meat, wool for garments or tents, fibre for ropes, leather, bones and horns for making tools or craftworks, dung for heating and cooking fuel, as well as draught power for packing, riding and ploughing. The yak used to be called “the boat of the plateau” - for millennia they were the only means of transportation in the high mountains, carrying goods from North to South over Himalayan passes of over 6000m, walking during months over long distances with very little food.
The domestic yak cow has a height at withers of 100-115cm and weighs about 200-300kg; the bull is around 130-155cm in height and weighs 400-600kg. Yaks have pronounced withers and a hairy tail like a horse, which they lift straight up in the air when they are excited or galloping. They have a long “skirt” of coarse hair on the lower part of the body, which protects them from the cold, a mane and a mostly curly fringe down to their eyes. The down hair can be combed out in spring; it has a beautiful lustre, is very warm, and it can be spun into yarn or worked into felt.
There are yaks of all colours. In Switzerland you can find black yaks with grey muzzles (the original colour of the wild yak), black yaks with black muzzles (called “imperial” in the US), black yaks with white marks on their forehead (called “trim” in the US), silver-grey animals, white animals, black-spotted white animals and dark brown animals with a white crest, white feet, white tail and white marks on the head. The horns are quite long and slightly turned backwards. Genetically hornless yaks exist and are found mainly in Mongolia.
Yaks are mountain animals adapted to extreme cold, high altitude and difficult terrain. They can live outside year round - a simple shelter is enough. Yaks are very enduring, have strong limbs, small solid hooves with hard edges that give them hold on icy slopes and move freely in difficult and precipitous terrain that cannot be reached by horses.
In the cold of winter, yaks manage their energy and can stay motionless for hours in the snow protected from the cold by their thick down coat. They analyse the situation before engaging in any energy consuming action. But when spring comes, you can see them with their tails in the air jumping, playing and galloping in the steep slopes, fighting for play or hierarchy. Even though they seem very calm, when something worries them they can react very quickly and have a ferocious temper. They can jump very well.
Yak breeding in Switzerland
and the establishment of a herd register
Rosula Blanc, La Giette, 1984 Les Haudères, Switzerland
Historical review : Yaks in Europe
It is estimated that around 3000 yaks are living in Europe, mainly in zoological gardens. Their ancestors arrived in Europe between fifty and one hundred years ago. The countries of origin are not documented. The only existing documents confirm an import of 15 yaks from Mongolia to the zoo of East Berlin (former GDR) in 1956 and 2 yaks from the Pamir range (Kyrgyzstan) to the zoo of Erfurt (GDR) in 1958. Since zoological gardens frequently exchange animals between each other it can be supposed that most European yaks are related in one way or the other.
History of yaks in Switzerland
The first yaks arrived in Switzerland in 1895 in the zoological garden of Basel. In 1973, a first experiment with yaks as productive livestock outside zoological gardens was conducted in the Swiss Alps, but abandoned about ten years later. The ancestors of the actual Swiss breeding stock arrived in Switzerland from 1995 onwards mainly from dealers and zoos in Germany. To diversify the stock Daniel Wismer, the most engaged breeder in Switzerland, imported 2006 a bull from the Berlin Zoo (genetically hornless line from Mongolia), 2009 a bull from the zoo of Tallinn, Estonia (imperial trim line from the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan) and 2012 a bull from Northern Germany (the only existing European brown line from Sweden probably originating from the SU). In 2014 we keep about 650 yaks in Switzerland.
Interest of yaks in Switzerland
The first reason to keep yaks is always a fascination for this mountain bovine and its exotic and majestic beauty. Besides this the main interest for yaks in Switzerland is for landscape conservation: to maintain utilization of agricultural land in mountainous regions, which are too steep for the actual large cattle breeds or in places where grass is too poor for cattle. Yaks are an interesting alternative on poor steep land, which would otherwise be used for sheep. While the prize for lamb is very low, the tasty and healthy yak meat can be sold at a high prize on a gourmet market. Furthermore yaks are easy to care, they very rarely need a treatment of a veterinarian, calving takes place easily without help and they own very good abilities in difficult mountainous terrain. They only need an open stable and are modest in feed, living exclusively on grass and hay. Yaks are perfect animals for “Low Energy Farming” in mountainous regions. Swiss agricultural regulations promote extensive grazing in the mountains for which yaks are ideally suited.
In Switzerland yaks are kept at altitudes between 400 and 2000 - 3000 m above sea level (a. s. l.). Problems are not observed housing yaks at low altitudes, but they prefer the summer pastures at 2000 – 3000 m a. s. l. where they gain more weight.
Yak meat is an interesting niche product in the slow food market, while the beautiful and unusual animals attract many visitors to the breeding farms. In Swiss agriculture today yaks are considered as an extensive bovine breed like e.g. Scottish Highland cattle or Galloway, which are kept for meat production as suckle cows. The income is generated by selling breeding stock and meat. Wool and hides are insignificant and nobody milks yaks in Switzerland or Europe. (Prize for a one year old heifer is about € 1500.- ; for an adult yak cow about € 3000.-. Meat: filet € 100.-/kg, dried meat € 80.-/kg)
Characteristics of yaks in Switzerland
Yaks have very well adapted to Switzerland, especially to the mountainous regions where winter lasts 4 – 6 months and where snow can be up to two meters high. Yaks are fed quality hay during the winter months, so they don’t loose weight and usually calf every year. Bulls start mating at an age of 1 ½ years. Females generally deliver their first calf at age of three years, sometimes even with two years (average age at first calving: 1205 days). Male yaks are slaughtered at an age of three years with about 280 – 350 kg body weight. General health is very good, calving is no problem. One of the few health problems, which we noticed in Swiss yaks, are urinary stones which can lead to death mainly in castrated males. The Swiss yak breeders association is researching the cause of this problem. One hypothesis is that the Swiss grass might be too rich (too much calcium?) for the metabolism of the yaks. But to understand the problem better it would be very interesting to know if this disease is also observed in the countries of origin of the yaks. We also observed different skin problems, which might be related to the warmer climate, but don’t affect the vitality of the stock.
The Swiss Yak Breeders Association and the herd-book
As outlined above yak breeding in Switzerland is very recent, the stock is very small and coming mostly from the same European gene pool. Very certainly inbreeding has been common in the zoos in the past. To keep a healthy stock and control inbreeding a group of passionate Swiss yak breeders founded the Swiss yak breeders association in 2003 and started to register their stock in a federally recognized herd-book from 2005 onwards. The herd-book lists the genealogy of the yaks through which new bulls can be chosen precisely for any given herd to avoid inbreeding. Renewal of blood is guarantied through importation of bulls from Eastern Europe, from countries, which only recently joined the EU and got their yaks through the relations of the Eastern Bloc. To be recognized as a breeding association the standard of the breed had to be defined as well as the breeding goal (attachment 1 & 2).
Reasons for expulsion of a yak of the herd-book: cross-breeding; inbreeding coefficient higher than 6.5%; hereditary defect or malformation, polled yak; Swiss yak of whom the filiation cannot be proved; linear description sufficient.
Structure of herd-book
In the herd-book is registered:
1) Official number (Every bovine in Switzerland is registered with a unique number in a federal data base, which records also every change of owner of the animal).
2) Date of birth
6) Filiation: In every herd where is more than one bull the accuracy of filiation is controlled by DNA profile.
9) Inbreeding coefficient: Because it was supposed that all European yaks already have a certain amount of inbreeding, it was decided to keep the inbreeding coefficient low: no more than 6.5% are allowed for herd-book animals.
10) Genetic presence: The genetic presence indicates the number of living blood-related yaks registered in the herd-book balanced against the closeness of the relationship. It is assessed over 6 generations. It allows defining rare blood-lines and purposefully promoting them.
11) Inter-calving period. In Switzerland we aim 360 days. (That means one calf per year.)
12) Linear description
Linear Description is compulsory in Switzerland for any recognized herd-book stock. Since no reference on linear descriptions of yaks could be found, we had to figure out the procedure based on the linear description of cattle. We set up the racial characteristics describing color types, overall harmony, horn shape, wool and hair coat. The exterior format is measured in the same way it is done in cattle. We suppose it normal for a yak that the back line is slightly more curved than that of cattle due to the high withers. Fundament (legs) is also assessed in the same way as for cattle with exception that a slight toe-out seems to be normal in yaks. With very rare exceptions Swiss yaks have a good healthy body build. We have no major problems in relation to our breeding objectives. (Linear description form: attachment 3)
Switzerland with its small stock of 650 yaks is a pioneering country for its detailed herd-book, rigorous DNA filiation control and precise mating planning to avoid inbreeding. The health of the Swiss stock is good and no improvement of yaks is needed at the moment, except probably more attention to docile animals. Small, light yaks are appreciated for steep slopes, since in flatter land there are other cattle breeds, which are anyhow more productive. The robust configuration and low costs in buildings, feeding and veterinary care are appreciated. The only health issues we face are urinary stones, a problem which is researched at the moment.