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Grazing Yaks (Bos mutus)

Grazing Yaks ( Bos mutus )

without rank: Forehead weapon bearer (Pecora)
Family : Horned Bearers (Bovidae)
Subfamily : Bovinae
Tribe : Cattle (bovini)
Genre : Real cattle ( Bos )
Type : yak
Scientific name
Bos mutus
( Przewalski , 1883)

The yak ( Bos mutus ), also written Jak , is a species of cattle that is widespread in Central Asia . It is one of the five species of cattle that have been domesticated (see domestic cattle ). As a result of a decision by the ICZN , since 2003 the younger species name, based on a specimen of the wild yak, mutus (Latin for “dumb”) has priority over the grunniens (“grunts”) based on the domestic animal form .

The yak is also called the (Tibetan) grunt because of its grunt-like sound . The term “yak” comes from the Tibetan language . In Tibetan, however, only the male animal is called གཡག་ g.yag (pronunciation: [ jáʔ ]), while the female animal is called འབྲི 'bri (pronunciation: [ ɖì ]).

While the house yak is common in large numbers in the Himalayas, Mongolia and even in the south of Siberia, the wild yak is threatened with extinction. Because of its adaptation to the extreme climatic conditions of its habitat, the yak is still the livelihood of a large part of the people living there in the Central Asian highlands and the neighboring countries. It provides milk, meat, leather, hair and wool. Its droppings are used as fuel. The yak is still used as a pack animal and mount. In an area of ​​over 1.4 million square kilometers, rural lifestyles are predominantly only possible through yaks.



Yak bull

A yak bull can reach a head-torso length of 3.25 meters, a height at the withers of 200 centimeters and a weight of over a ton. The cows are much smaller and lighter. They reach a maximum height of 150 centimeters at the withers and weigh between 400 and 500 kilograms. Compared to domestic cattle, the yak's body is relatively long. Unlike domestic cattle, which has 13 pairs of ribs , the yak has 14 or 15 pairs of ribs. As a result, the chest is wide and deep, which gives the well-developed lungs and heart sufficient space. Thanks to the well-developed chest, the yak appears compact despite its relatively elongated physique.

Due to the elongated spinous processes of the cervical and thoracic vertebrae, the yak has a hump. This is a little more pronounced in males. The necks of males are also more muscular. The back line is slightly sloping in both sexes. The hindquarters are more flexible, which contributes to the yaks' surefootedness.

In adaptation to the climate, the yak's mouth is very small. The upper lip in particular is very mobile, so that yaks can use much poorer pastures with lower vegetation than cattle. The horns arise on the sides of the head and lead upwards in an even curve. They are up to a meter long. The cows udder, which has two pairs of teats, is very small and set on high. The teats are only two to three centimeters long. The bull's scrotum is also close to the lower abdomen and is significantly smaller than that of domestic cattle.


Domestic yak bull, which shows many characteristics of the wild yak in appearance.

The fur color of the wild yak varies from dark brown to black. The back and the muzzle are usually a little lightened. The yak is the only type of cattle that has a layered coat of hair. A distinction is made between a firmer outer or long hair, a coarser wool and a fine, spinnable under hair or fine wool.

With the exception of the muzzle and the teats embedded in the hair , all parts of the body are covered with thick hair. The foreskin of the penis is also covered with hair to protect against the cold. While the lower abdomen, the udder and the scrotum are only briefly hairy, the hair on the lower side of the body is very long and falls down like a saddlecloth like a so-called abdominal mane. This makes the yak look extremely short-legged. The tail is long-haired from the root. The long outer hairs on the chest, tail and belly are also called horsehair in the yak, as they are similar to the hair on the tail and mane of horses. However, they are much softer than horses.

Coarse wool hair with a length of five to thirteen centimeters is distributed over the whole body. As a third type of hair, fine wool is found in all body regions and makes up over 80 percent of the hair. In the abdominal region, for example, yaks have 220 coarse hairs and 800 fine wool hairs per square centimeter. When changing hair, the yak mainly loses its wool hair. The failure begins in the neck and continues to the back and abdominal region.


House yak bull

The yak hooves are relatively small and compact. They have sharp hoof tips and hard hoof edges. Because of the small hooves they sink in relatively deeply, which helps them to slow down the forward swing when moving downhill. When moving slowly, you are generally very sure-footed and you can also cross marshy areas safely. If you sink too much into damp ground, spread your legs and use the underside of your body to avoid sinking deeper. They then move on with swimming-like movements and thus show a different behavior than, for example, horses that panic in a comparable position.

Basically, yaks are very easy to move. Grazing yaks repeatedly take breaks in which they playfully chase each other with their tails raised. Their galloping movements resemble those of horses. Sudden danger can lead to panic escapes in yak herds. If they escape downhill, deaths from falls occasionally occur.


Adaptation to heat and cold

Yaks vary their breathing rate, among other things, depending on the outside temperature. At high temperatures, breathing and heart rate are high to remove excess heat and can be three to four times that of cattle. The breathing rate increases at an ambient temperature of over 13 degrees. From an ambient temperature of 16 degrees, the heartbeat and body temperature increase. If the ambient temperature reaches 20 degrees, yaks stay near water or in the shade. As a rule, they then no longer eat, drink or ruminate and they remain motionless in one place.

When the outside temperature is low, the breathing rate of yaks drops to seven to fifteen breaths per minute. As a result, the heat loss is relatively low. They can withstand ambient temperatures from −30 ° C to −40 ° C without any problems. Sweat glands can be found all over the body, but their functionality is considerably restricted. In various experiments, sweat secretion could only be determined in the area of ​​the snout. This feature also contributes to increasing the cold tolerance.

Adaptation to the height

The low air pressure at high altitudes is not a limitation for yaks. Because yak hemoglobin has a higher oxygen affinity than cattle , they can absorb sufficient oxygen.

Diseases and life expectancy

Yaks are susceptible to all diseases that other cattle get sick from. These include anthrax , foot-and-mouth disease and tuberculosis, as well as rinderpest . In exceptional cases, yaks can reach an age of over 20 years.


Yaks find ideal living conditions in regions where the average temperature is below five degrees and does not exceed an average of 13 degrees in the warmest months of the year.

Original distribution of the wild yak

House yak in Ladakh

In the younger ice age, wild yaks were found in a wide belt from the Aral Sea to Alaska. The historical distribution area included the Himalayas and large parts of the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang , Tibet and Qinghai and parts of southern Siberia . Wild yaks still lived in Tuva in the 14th century . In 1720 there were reports of wildyaks near Kuznetsk , and in 1739 of those in the Altai and Dauria .

Today's existence and threat

Maximum range of the wild yak

Today, wild yaks have disappeared in large areas of their former area, as they migrated to the inhospitable high mountain areas with increasing settlement in their area of ​​distribution. They only live in a few parts of western China and Tibet. In 1994 there were around 20,000 to 40,000 wild yaks in China. Outside of China, there are probably no more wild yaks. They are extinct in Nepal , and occurrences in Kashmir are apparently extinct. There may still be some wild yaks in Ladakh, India . Except in Chinese zoos, wild yaks are currently not kept, only a single male animal is said to have lived in the Rostov-on-Don zoo in the 1970s.

Wild yaks have been classified as endangered ( vulnerable ) by the IUCN since 1996 ; they had previously been considered threatened, until it was realized that there were many more wild yaks, especially in the vastness of western China, than had previously been assumed. The numbers were then estimated at 15,000 (8500 wild yaks in Tibet, 3700 in Qinghai and 2500 in Xinjiang), but have probably decreased somewhat since then.

In China, the species is now one of the protected, non-huntable animal species of category 1. Despite this complete protection, wild yaks are still hunted. Other reasons for the population decline are the intermingling of wild and domesticated yaks as well as infection with cattle diseases.



Yaks are ruminants who have a lot in common with domestic cattle in terms of their digestive physiology. Unlike domestic cattle, however, they are able to quickly adapt to changing feed conditions. They also form a body reserve for the winter when they adapt to their habitat. The daily amount of feed required is less than with so-called robust cattle such as the Scottish highland cattle . They are also able to survive several days without food and water during snowstorms.

House yak in winter

The amount of feed consumed varies depending on the quality of the feed and thus on the season. From July to October, yaks ingest around 5.6 kilograms of dry matter per day . The amount of feed decreases during the winter months and is lowest in March and April when they only eat an average of 1.9 kilograms of dry matter per day. Accordingly, seasonal changes in weight are typical for yaks. During the winter months, bulls lose an average of 5.5 percent and yak cows 6.7 percent of their body weight. In extreme cases, you can lose up to 20 percent of your body weight over the winter months. They can only survive this weight loss if they have gnawed at an appropriate body reserve in the warm season. If there is a lack of food, young cattle can withstand months of stagnation in size without suffering any lasting physiological damage.

The alpine grass mats grazed by yaks are predominantly made up of Kobresia , a genus of the sour grass family . These grasses tolerate and use high groundwater levels and short-term flooding with spring or surface water from the higher-lying zones with perpetual snow. Cobresia grasses are difficult for cattle to digest and because of their short stature, difficult to ingest. The adaptation of the yaks to these fiber-rich grasses is another reason why yaks dominate as domestic animals on the plateaus of Central Asia. Yaks can also pick up rough, prickly and woody plant parts.

Yaks use shrub willows and Artemisia shrubs as winter pasture in lower elevations . Until well into winter, the yaks have cobresia grasses and sedges at their disposal, which do not die off as quickly as sweet grasses when the frost starts.

Social behavior

Yaks are social animals that stay close together while grazing. Outside of the breeding season, these herds consist of yak cows and not yet sexually mature bulls. Bulls join the herd only during the breeding season.

Behavior towards predators

They are extremely vigilant towards predators such as wolves. It is known from herds of domestic yaks that in herds of 100 animals and more, individual animals are only very rarely killed by predatory mammals, as they defend themselves as one against the predators. From Sichuan cases are regularly reported in which kill Yakbullen wolves. Predatory mammals usually only kill individual animals if they are separated from the herd during a panic escape.


Different information is available about the point in time at which yaks reach sexual maturity. For bulls, the information about the age at which they are sexually mature varies between one and a half to four years. It is very likely that a number of external factors play a role, with the yaks' nutritional status being of particular importance. Bulls show the highest willingness to reproduce when they are five to six years old. Bulls that are eight years and older are usually defeated by younger bulls in rankings, which is why they have little or no share in the coverage of cows.

Yak cows show rutting symptoms for the first time from the age of 12 months . However, most do not become pregnant until they are three years old. Yak cows reach their highest reproductive rate between the ages of five and nine years. As a rule, a yak cow gives birth to four to five calves in her lifetime. Cows older than 15 or 16 years rarely give birth to calves.

Good feeding conditions are crucial for triggering the rut in the cows. The rut usually falls between June and September. However, a plentiful supply of food can also trigger the rut outside of this time. The pairing is preceded by fierce rank fights between the bulls. Usually bulls dominate between six and seven years of age and cover the largest number of cows in a herd. Cows are usually only in rut for 16 to 56 hours. They signal their willingness to mate by looking for bulls and lifting their tails. A bull in rutting season is constantly accompanied by the bull and covered several times.

In Styria drawn domestic yak calf

The gestation period is an average of 257 days, which is around 30 days shorter than domestic cattle. The calving season falls from March to August and peaks in April and May. Shortly before birth, the yak cows separate from the herd. Yaks will often lie down at the onset of labor, but will typically stand during labor. Newborn calves weigh between 9 and 16 kilograms, with cow calves generally being lighter than bull calves. The newborns can already stand after five to fifteen minutes and then look for the mother cow's udder.

Several reproductive characteristics of the yaks are considered to be adaptations to their specific habitat. The short gestation period compared to other cattle species and the relatively low weight of the calves, mean that yak cows are very agile until just before giving birth and that the birth proceeds relatively quickly. This is believed to be an advantage in a habitat where wolves could kill an animal isolated from the herd. However, the low birth weight reduces the chances of survival of the young in their first winter. Chinese scientists have also found that the higher the region in which the cows live, the later the rut starts. The calves are therefore usually born in the season that is relatively warm and in which the short growth period of the grass has already started. In addition, numerous yak cows only have one oestrus cycle per year. If they are not mated during this cycle, they cannot become pregnant again until the next year. This prevents calves from being born very late in the year and thus from not reaching the weight necessary for survival in winter.


Domestic yaks as pack animals, Nepal

As a ruminant and hornbearer, the yak is part of the cattle subfamily and within this subfamily traditionally belongs to the genus of actual cattle . This genus is divided into the four subgenus Bos , Bibos , Poephagus and Novibos . While today's livestock cattle go back to the aurochs and thus belong to the subgenus Bos , the yak is usually seen as a representative of the subgenus Poephagus . The discussion about the taxonomic classification is not yet over. According to recent research, the actual cattle could be paraphyletic with respect to the bison , which means that the yak is possibly more closely related to the two bison species bison and wisent than to the other actual cattle. An indication of this assignment is the fact that the dorsal margin of the upper jaw lies between the nasal bones of the yak and the intermediate jaw . This is usually the morphological indication that a species does not belong to the real cattle, since the nasal bone touches the intermaxillary jaw. The yak is therefore occasionally placed in its own genus Poephagus .

Fossil finds show that yak ancestors were found in the late Tertiary in northeastern Eurasia. From the Pleistocene there are fossil finds for northern China, inner Mongolia, eastern Siberia and northern central Asia. It was not until the late Pleistocene that the Central Asian plateau rose to an altitude of over 4,500 meters above sea level. As a result, the original forests disappeared here and the alpine pastures developed, where wild yaks survived until modern times.

House yak


Decorated domesticated yak in front of the Yamzhog Yumco lake in Tibet

The timing of domestication is disputed. Various theories place him on dates between 5000 BC. BC and 1000 BC There are archaeological finds that indicate that a first domestication occurred in Tibet around 2,500 BC. Took place. This would roughly correspond to the period at which the water buffalo was domesticated and would have taken place around 4,000 years after the domestication of the cattle . Prehistoric finds indicate that the Qiang of the Nuomuhong culture kept yaks 3,000 years ago and made fabrics, sacks and ropes from the hair of this type. Almost all ethnic groups for whom the yak keeping is important to this day are closely related to the Qiang. The use of house yaks is also attested in ancient Chinese written sources. These describe, among other things, that individual Qiang groups and their yak herds moved to other areas of the Central Asian high plateau. It is also certain that the yak was born in the period 221 BC. Was already a major supplier of meat, milk and wool in northwestern China to 220 AD. There are a few regions where yak keeping only gained importance in modern times. This applies, among other things, to the region of the Tian Shan and Altai Mountains. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that around 100 yaks were imported from Tibet into the Hejing area in the Tian shan mountains. The yak keeping spread from there to the Altai Mountains.

Domestic yaks are at the same time aggressive, wild, shy and timid as well as distinct herd animals. People who handle house yaks must take these characteristics into account. In Gen District, Xinjiang, 312 yaks died in four unrelated incidents from falling on mountain slopes. Three of the four incidents were caused by careless driving of the herd, causing the animals to panic and attempt to escape down the slope. In most cases the shepherds keep a greater distance from the grazing herds so as not to disturb them, and only intervene when wolves get near the herds or when the herds move to grazing areas reserved for other herds.

Slingshots made from yak wool are mostly used to steer the herds. Experienced shepherds are able to hit the yaks from a distance of more than 100 meters and thus steer them. House yaks are relatively easy to train to return to camp on calls. Yak cows are trained as calves to have a collar put on. This will hold them in place when they are later milked. However, there are always cows that are too wild and defend their calf too vigorously so that they do not allow themselves to be milked. Although individual yaks can be trained as pack animals, riding animals or draft animals, they are considered easier to lead when this happens in groups of ten or more animals.

Features of domesticated yaks

Domesticated yaks do not reach the proportions of wild yaks. Bulls of the domestic yaks have a height at the withers of 112 to 180 centimeters, cows are slightly smaller with 107 to 112 centimeters. Bulls reach a weight of 700 kilograms; Cows weigh 250 to 350 kilograms. House yaks can look very similar to wild yaks. However, they often have a fur color that differs from that of the wild yaks. In addition to brown and black, there are also red, white or piebald yaks. Many house yaks do not have horns.

The discrepancies between domestic and wild yaks are an indication of domestication that has been going on for a long time, as targeted breeding is not assumed. The characteristics of domestic yaks, which in addition to their smaller size also include the shortened facial skull compared to the wild yak, as well as the partially polled and lightened fur, have not been deliberately bred out, but rather arose over time. Overall, the domestication of the domestic yak is not as advanced as that of domestic cattle. House yaks are often shy of humans and tend to be aggressive. Yak cows with newborn calves, in particular, show aggressive behavior towards humans and attack very quickly.

Regions of today's yak husbandry

Woman with house yak in Qinghai

The house yak is only of economic importance in Central Asia. The centers of yak keeping are predominantly at altitudes above the tree line and in climates in which frost days occur all year round. The country with the most yaks is China: In 1994, around 13.3 million domesticated yaks were kept there. The focus of yak husbandry is in the provinces of Qinghai , Tibet and Sichuan . About half a million yaks are kept in Mongolia. Yak farming is concentrated in the region of the Changai , Altai and Chöwsgöl Mountains. Because of the smaller population and the number of pets kept, the economic importance of yaks in Mongolia is greater than in China. In 1989 just under 76 percent of the yak population was owned by state cooperatives. The largest herd, which comprised around 20,000 animals, belonged to the Yalalt cooperative in the Tariat district of Arkhangai province. These cooperatives have been dissolved since 1989 and all herds are now privately owned.

In India, yaks are only kept in a relatively small area. The focus is on the states of Jammu and Kashmir . The number of animals is estimated at around 30,000. Since the previously common exchange of animals with Tibet has largely come to a standstill, inbreeding is an increasing problem, as in Nepal and Bhutan. In India, attempts are being made to solve this problem by importing frozen yak seeds from China and helping yak owners to trade male animals among themselves.

In Bhutan , yaks are mainly kept by the Bhotias people who immigrated to Bhutan from Tibet several hundred years ago. Most of them still live in a subsistence economy as mountain nomads. According to a cattle count in 1992, around 30,000 yaks were kept in Bhutan. About 90,000 yak and yak domestic cattle crossbreeds live on Nepalese soil. Its owners are predominantly Sherpas , who also immigrated to this region from Tibet. No current figures are available from Pakistan . For 1984, the number of pure-blooded yaks was estimated at 25,000. However , it is unknown whether yaks are still kept in Afghanistan . Around 131,000 yaks were kept on the territory of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Suitable stopping areas can be found in Tajikistan , Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan .

Occasionally, domesticated yaks go wild again. There are small herds of feral domestic yaks in Inner Mongolia , where there are no longer any real wild yaks . In regions where wild yaks occur, such house yaks are a threat to wild yak populations, as they cross with them and produce offspring that no longer have the characteristics of wild yaks.

Attitude outside Asia

House yaks on the Koralpe, Styria

House yaks were first held in Europe in 1785. Mostly this was limited to keeping in zoological gardens. One of those with a long tradition of keeping yaks is the English Whipsnade Wild Animal Park near Dunstables , which is at an altitude of 150 above sea level. The park has been keeping and breeding yaks since 1944. During the warmer summer months, the animals are mostly in the shade of trees. The only recurring health problem is copper deficiency, which other cattle kept in the park do not.

Attempts to harness the special properties of this cattle in regions outside of Central Asia were first made in the second half of the 19th century. In 1854, 12 yaks were introduced into France to improve cattle farming in French mountain areas. The attempts ended in 1862. In Canada attempts were made between 1916 and 1921 to raise new breeds of cattle through yak crossbreeding that would be suitable for keeping in northern Canada. Crossbreeding attempts were also made with bison and bison-domestic cattle hybrids. All experiments were stopped in 1928 because the hybrids did not prove to be sufficiently cold-resistant.

The attempts to settle the yak in the North Caucasus are considered to be more promising. There is an area of ​​260,000 hectares of high mountain pastures that are currently not in use. The first attempts to introduce the yak here were made in 1971 and 1972. These attempts went relatively well. The best-known yak herd in Europe is probably that of Reinhold Messner , who keeps a small herd of house yaks in Sulden am Ortler .

Yak breeds

A yak is loaded (Tibet 1939).

The domestication of the yak is not very advanced. Targeted breeding was not common in the original nomadic economy and is limited, among other things, by the high level of aggressiveness of the bulls, which react immediately to disturbances with attacks during the mating season. Usually between five to eight bulls are kept in a herd of around 100 cows. The rank fights between the bulls decide how many cows a single bull can cover. Surplus bulls are castrated between 1 and 2.5 years of age. Artificial insemination and the targeted mating of a specific bull with a cow has only gained importance in recent years.

Despite the lack of targeted breeding, there are phenotypic differences between individual populations. These differences are almost entirely due to the geographical separation of widely spaced locations. For example, the domestic yaks widespread in Mongolia are largely polled. This makes it easier to deal with the animals and reduces the risk of injury in rank fights. However, it is by no means a desirable characteristic in terms of breeding, since polled animals have reduced possibilities of defense against predatory game.

There was targeted breeding in the region of the former Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century. In China, too, efforts are being made to breed domestic yaks. The yak breeds that have been distinguished so far are geographical breeds whose breed-typical characteristics are less manifested than with European land cattle breeds in the middle of the 19th century. Geographical yak races are only distinguished for China. In the other countries one cannot speak of definable yak races. In Mongolia, for example, the cattle trade has a long tradition, so that characteristic differences could not develop due to the increased gene flow .

Crossbreeds with cattle

Yak-cow hybrid

Mating between free-range cattle and yaks is very rare, as their sexual behavior is somewhat different. On the other hand, if yaks and domestic cattle are kept in a herd, mating is more common because the animals are used to each other. If there are yak bulls in the herd, yak cows can only be mounted by them. For yak cows to be shod by domestic cattle bulls, the yak bulls must be removed from the herd. 1st and 2nd generation male hybrids are sterile, while the female offspring remain fertile. The crossing of yaks and various local cattle breeds has a long tradition in the yak holding areas, even if there are individual regions in which such hybridization is rejected for religious reasons.

The performance of the hybrids, which are usually referred to as Dzo in the western world , are usually above the average of the original species. The heterosis effect of such crosses is difficult to measure, however, as the conditions for keeping the parent species and the crosses are usually not the same. In China, the offspring of domestic beef bulls and yak cows are traditionally used for cart pulling and plowing. They tolerate heat better than pure-bred yaks and can therefore also be used in lower-lying areas. They are heavier and more capable of fattening, their milk yield is significantly higher than that of yaks and they are also easier to steer than domestic yaks. However, this effect is already lost in the second hybrid generation. There have been several attempts to create a hybrid breed through combination crosses that combines the milk yield of domestic cattle with the resistance of the yak to adverse weather conditions and its ability as a pack animal. However, these attempts have so far been largely unsuccessful and have been discontinued.

Use of the house yak


Yaks give around 400 liters of milk a year. This is a small amount compared to domestic cattle or water buffalo. However, the fat content of milk is high; it fluctuates between 5 and 8.6 percent over the course of a lactation period . Raw cow's milk, on the other hand, has a maximum fat content of five percent. Yak milk therefore has an energy content of approx. 3,650 kJ (871 kcal ) per kilogram , while the comparable value for cow's milk is approx. 2,680 kJ (640 kcal). For the yak-keeping population of Central Asia, it is of great importance in the diet.

The milking process is labor-intensive, as the milk delivery in the yak is usually only triggered by the calf. Therefore, it takes two people to milk a yak cow. First of all, the cow's front or rear legs are tied together with a rope to immobilize them. The calf is left to sit on the udder so that the milk comes in. As soon as this happens, one person leads the calf away while the second person starts milking. During a milking process, this procedure must be repeated three or four times. Overall, the cow is not milked much more than a liter of milk, and because of the short teats, only strip milking is possible. The lactation period of the yak is short due to the extreme climatic conditions and the often inadequate nutrition of the cows. In some areas of Nepal it only lasts on average from June to October.

Dairy products

Tibetan monk making butter tea

Central Asian peoples have found several ways to preserve yak milk so that it is available for their diet all year round. The Mongolian Öröm is made in a similar way to the clotted cream of the English counties Devon and Cornwall , by heating the milk for a long time while stirring constantly. After several hours of rest, a centimeter thick layer of fat has settled on the surface. Unlike clotted cream, Öröm is not only consumed fresh, but also dried.

Öröm is also the starting product of the so-called yellow butter , which is similar to Indian ghee . For this purpose, Öröm is often collected in special containers over the entire lactation period and undergoes a fermentation process during storage. For the production of the yellow butter, this fermented oil is heated with constant stirring and the fat and protein are separated from each other with the help of flour or similar clarifying agents. The yellow butter obtained is usually stored in leather sacks and can be kept for several years. It is drunk in traditional butter tea and is also used in religious ceremonies.

In Nepal, a slightly different process is used to make yak butter . Here, the milk is boiled before buttering and usually curdled using a starter culture such as yoghurt. The next day the solid mass is buttered in a butter churn. The butter obtained is mostly sewn into yak or goat leather and can thus also be kept for a long time. The buttermilk is the starting product of Biaslag and Churbi or Sherkam , which are similar to cheese. Choormog is a slightly alcoholic drink made from a yogurt-like precursor.

Until a few decades ago, no soft or hard cheese was produced in Central Asia that corresponded to the types of cheese common in the western world. As part of development aid projects, 9 cheese dairies have been set up in Nepal over the past decades, which in the 1990s produced 990 tons of hard cheese and 30 tons of butter annually. The products are mainly sold to tourists in Kathmandu. The retail price was around four US dollars per kilo of cheese in the 1990s. The suppliers of the milk were paid about $ 0.2 a liter of milk.

Yak meat

Yak meat on offer in Yunnan

Yak meat is similar in appearance to beef. One kilogram of muscle meat has an average energy content of 1450 kcal, while comparable beef has an average energy content of 1850 kcal. Yak meat is rich in iron and zinc . The meat is coarse-grained and has a small amount of intracellularly stored fat. It is deep red because it is high in myoglobin .

Yak fat contains an average of 19 mg carotene per kilogram . This is significantly higher than with beef fat, which only contains 7 mg. Yak fat is therefore significantly more yellow than beef fat.

The meat is regionally important. Fifty percent of the meat consumed in the highlands of Tibet and Qinghai comes from the yak. However, marketing opportunities are limited due to the long distances and the slaughter of yaks is subject to religious restrictions. For religious reasons, Nepalese Sherpas do not kill their animals themselves, but commission members of other population groups to do so.

As a rule, neutered bulls and cows are slaughtered at the end of their reproductive cycle. From the point of view of modern, western agriculture, meat production is inefficient, since yaks are only slaughtered after they have suffered multiple weight losses during the winter months and the ratio of meat obtained to the amount of food consumed is unfavorable compared to domestic cattle. However, this view neglects the fact that yaks are kept at high altitudes where other domestic animals play little or no role. In the case of animals imported into the Caucasus, this was included in the assessment of meat production. There they came to the conclusion that at altitudes between 3000 and 4000 meters the cost of one kilogram of live weight for domestic cattle is ten times higher than for yaks and the annual effort for keeping yaks is only slightly higher than for keeping sheep.


Yak leather shoes

The hides of slaughtered yaks are slightly smaller than those of cattle. Because of the yaks' hump-like back muscles, the hides are usually not processed as a whole. They are divided before tanning .

The individual peoples have developed different approaches to produce yak leather from the fresh hides . For most of them, processing consists of just a few steps. The fresh skin is placed in either buttermilk or water for a long time and then tumbled. To do this, some peoples wrap their skin in a tight roll and then walk it over and over with their feet over a period of three to four days. Between the individual flexing processes, the skin is repeatedly rolled out, stretched and dried.

Yak leather is hard-wearing and the Central Asian peoples use it to make saddles, saddlebags, straps, suspension lines, belts, shoe soles and various containers. Since mostly older animals are slaughtered, the leather is relatively thick and has long had a reputation for being of inferior quality than cowhide . In the meantime, the manufacturing processes in industrial leather processing are so mature that yak leather can also be processed satisfactorily. The Chinese region of Qinghai is the center of leather production . Up to 650,000 yak hides were processed there annually in the 1980s. In Tibet, the Lhasa Leather Factory is a leader in the processing of yak leather.

Use of fur and feces

After winter, the yaks' fine undercoat is combed out and spun into yarn for garments. The amount of undercoat obtained varies greatly and is only three kilograms in domestic yaks that have not been improved by breeding. In China there is now a Jiulong yak breeding line in which individual animals produce up to 12 kilograms of fine undercoat. Blankets, ropes, bags and tents are made from the coarse wool and the cut off belly hair.

The yak droppings are also used; at high altitudes it is sometimes the only available fuel.

Use as a workhorse

Loaded Yaks in Tibet (1939)
Yaks as pack animals, Tibet

Yaks found and are used as pack animals on most Tibet expeditions and mountain climbs in the Himalayas, so that their importance as pack animals is known in the western world. Regions with yak keeping are seldom at altitudes above 5500 meters. Since yaks can also survive at high altitudes with a very low oxygen content, they are still used at altitudes of 7200 meters above sea level. Yaks that weigh 60 to 80 kilograms can travel between 20 and 30 kilometers per day. You can carry significantly higher weights, but then cover shorter distances. Maiwa yaks with a body weight of 480 kilograms have already carried a pack weight of 390 kilograms for a short time. Mostly castrated bulls are used.

Yaks are also used as riding and draft animals. They are said to be safer to mount than horses in difficult terrain. They are able to swim through fast flowing water, are sure-footed and show panic reactions when crossing swampy terrain much less often than horses. Some of the populations who use yaks as mounts organize yak races on a regular basis. Bulls are mainly used as draft animals.


  • Ronald M. Nowak: Walker's Mammals of the World . 6th edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1999, ISBN 0-8018-5789-9 (English).
  • Jürgen Lensch, Peter Schley and Rong-Chang Zhang (eds.): The Yak (Bos grunniens) in Central Asia , Gießener Abhandlungen zur Agrar- und Wirtschaftsforschung der European East, Volume 205, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-428-08443-8
  • Cai Li and Gerald Wiener: The Yak , Bangkok, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 1995, ISBN 974-89351-0-8
  • Hans Hinrich Sambraus: Exotic cattle - water buffalo, bison, wisent, dwarf zebu, yak , Eugen Ulmer KG, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 978-3-8001-4835-6
  • Gerald Wiener, Han Jianlin, Long Ruijun (eds.): The Yak . FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2003; Second Edition 2006 ( online )


  • Over the highest passes in the world. With a yak caravan through Dolpo . (Alternative title: In the mountains of the Himalaya - Yak! ) Documentary, Germany, 2009, 44:10 min., Script and director: Jan Kerckhoff, production: Bayerischer Rundfunk , first broadcast: February 4, 2009 on BR , summary by arte .

Web links

Wild yak

Commons : Bos mutus  - collection of images, videos and audio files

House yak

Commons : Bos grunniens  - album with pictures, videos and audio files
Commons : Yakzucht Pongratz  - Album with pictures, videos and audio files
  • Yak breeding: practical experience (husbandry conditions, precautionary measures) on an Austrian alpine farm


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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on October 2, 2011 .