On a recent day in Cold Spring, it's a brutal nine degrees below zero. John Hooper puts on his heavy duty jacket, gloves, and boots. He's heading to the corral in the backyard of his farm. "We'll be taking a Ranger out to do the chores," said Hooper. "It's a four-wheel, kinda like a heavy duty golf-cart. It's my utility vehicle."
When he arrives at the gate, Hooper is eagerly greeted by one of his calves. Patches is 9 months old, and he's one of about 80 yak on Hooper's farm.
"This one was bottle-fed and he lived in our backyard," said Hooper. "He thinks he's a dog."
Hooper has been raising yak for the past 12 years. Prior to that, Hooper was a cattle hoof trimmer for three decades. But The work was hard on him physically, so Hooper decided to raise his own livestock on his small farm. He was interested in alternative livestock, and he learned about yak when he bought donkeys from a yak producer.
Hooper says the big shaggy animals do well in Minnesota because they're originally from the Himalayan region of Central Asia. They naturally thrive in cold weather and high altitudes.
Now Hooper sells breeding stock to other producers around the country who are getting started with yak herds. He also sells his meat to two nearby farmers markets and five restaurants, two in the Twin Cities, and three in Stearns County. For the past few years, he's begun to cross-breed with beef cattle to keep his production strong.
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"I do the cross breeding for my meat program," Hooper said. "They get bigger quicker and I can butcher them and the meat is still the same as full-blooded yak."
Hooper said yak meat tastes similar to beef.
"It has a little individual flavor, not wild or gamey," said Hooper.
It's low in fat and cholesterol. Yak fat is located on the outer part of the carcass so it can be easily trimmed. And his loyal customers are people who have health concerns about beef. Hooper doesn't give his yak antibiotics or any hormones. They're on pasture at least six months out of the year. They never get fed corn, and in the wintertime, they get a little bit of oats.
Hooper said the meat quality doesn't change when yak are cross bred.
"It's still leaner than bison if it's cross bred," Hooper said. "It'll be more tender because the animals are younger when they're butchered."
Hooper said yak tend to be quiet animals, although he often hears his calves making noise when they are weened away from their mothers.
Hooper names many of his yak. There's Jericho, almost 1,000 pounds and according to Hooper, his horns exceed the world's record for a yak. Jericho has been blessed by a Tibetan monk, so he's considered sacred. That means he won't be butchered or sold. Then there's Snowball, who's mostly white. Hooper said that's unusual for yak. Snowball is also very tame for a calf that's never been bottle-fed.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Hooper admits he gets attached to his animals sometimes.
"I've had a couple of them that I chose not to be there when they were killed," said Hooper.
Hooper's meat sales have grown slightly over the past few years, mostly because of word of mouth. He said it's not a money-making business, but he really enjoys working with these animals. He's the president of the International Yak Association. He's also planning to start a business to let people tour the farm to learn about his animals. He's already purchased a 1960's military ambulance for his tour bus. He calls it the Yak Mobile.