GUNNISON, COLO. — Tad Puckett always wanted to be a rancher. But the challenging economics of the cattle industry kept that dream on hold. "I was a business major, and I couldn't see any profit in cattle," he says.
Then, three years ago, the solution came: Rather than raising cattle, Mr. Puckett decided to breed yaks - the shaggy-coated bovines native to Tibet, Mongolia, and China, which produce a low-fat, flavorful meat.
The financial rewards followed almost immediately. "I can feed four yaks for what it costs to feed one cow. And a yak is five times as valuable as a cow," he says. "That's how you make a profit."
Mr. Puckett represents a new "breed" of rancher who isn't content to merely survive raising livestock, but aims to prosper. At a time when beef producers are struggling with years of accumulated debt or abandoning family ranches to seek more reliable means of support, a growing wave of ranchers are choosing to diversify with niche markets - ranging from organic beef to exotic livestock. Yak breeding is the latest incarnation of the trend, and is being touted as a potential solution to the economic hardships of raising beef cattle.
These days, a cow goes to market for roughly $600 - about the same as what it cost the rancher to produce it. A yak, on the other hand, sells for $3,000 to $4,000.
"If you're going to ranch, you might as well make money," says Puckett, who today has a herd of 120 yaks on his 700-acre ranch near Gunnison, Colo. As a first-generation rancher, Puckett has a deep reverence for the history of ranching, but is not bound by its traditions.
"Most ranchers raise cattle because their fathers did it and their grandfathers did it. It's the tradition," he says. "But with exotics, it pays to ranch. It pays real well."
Puckett, who crossbreeds his yaks with cattle to produce a lean, beef-like meat, is one of fewer than 100 yak breeders in North America. Like other ranchers who have taken to yaks, he believes this niche market will grow to rival the now-thriving bison industry. And unlike bison - which are large, aggressive, and require seven-foot fencing - yaks are smaller, relatively docile, and can be raised on standard cattle operations, without modifications.
Yak ranching also has powerful advantages over cattle ranching in high-altitude and cold-climate regions of the West, proponents say. Domesticated in Tibet 4,000 years ago, yaks adapted to living at altitudes as high as 20,000 feet, and can withstand sub-arctic weather that would kill domestic cattle. Yaks thrive in such conditions, Puckett says.
That's an important consideration here in Gunnison, where wintertime temperatures frequently drop to 30 degrees below zero - making it the coldest spot in the nation many days. Puckett's 100-year-old homestead sits alongside the Continental Divide at an elevation of 8,500 feet. This morning, the mercury has yet to rise above minus 6 degrees; yet the yaks, with their woolly coats flecked with snow, seem perfectly content.
Yaks also do well on marginal grazing land and don't require costly grain or alfalfa hay. And Puckett never administers any antibiotics, hormones, or medications to his yaks.
Although yaks are not well-suited to the Southwest - with its extreme summer heat - their natural hardiness makes them an ideal choice for ranchers in the High Plains region, says Lawrence Richards, a Polson, Mont., rancher and founder of the International Yak Association.
Last year, nearly a half million cattle died in blizzards in the Dakotas and Wyoming; now some of these ranchers are buying yaks, says Mr. Richards. Cattle ranchers can get into the yak-breeding business with little investment, he says: For the price of a yak bull, they can begin cross-breeding to their heifers.
The half-yak offspring is technically considered a yak, and its ground meat sells for about $3 a pound, with steaks selling for $5 to $8 a pound. A live half-yak commands about $1,200 - twice the value of a live cow.
"With one cross, the cattle rancher can get into the lean market. Cross-bred yak is only 5 percent fat. It's 95 percent lean meat," says Richards. Yet with only half the calories of beef, it still tastes rich and juicy.
Most in the emerging yak business sell to local restaurants, as well as to specialty meat distributors. It's uncertain whether yak burgers will appear in supermarket meat cases anytime soon. Some question how much appetite mainstream America really has for exotic meats - especially when they carry such a high price tag.
"There are niche markets out there, but the product is more expensive," says Tom Compton, vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, who raises cattle near Durango, Colo. "As much as I've tried to find it, there's not an easy, fast way to make money."
Puckett, for one, is undeterred by skeptics. Here in the heart of cattle country, he manages to supply yak meat to two local restaurants and a host of area residents. In fact, he predicts it's only a matter of time until yak burgers are on American dinner tables everywhere. "Once people try it, they're hooked."