I was introduced to a herd of yaks recently - something you don't see every day.
But maybe not as rare as you might think, either.
"Colorado has a bunch of yak ranches," says Carl Koop, who raises yaks with his wife, Eileen, on their Bijou Basin Ranch outside Elbert.
Still, you're more likely to find yaks in, say, Tibet than Colorado. Domestic yaks are part of the bovine family, which includes cattle. According to the "Yak History" page on Bijou Basin Ranch's website, today's domestic yaks "are descended from wild yak that were crossbred with domestic cattle and tamed by ancient people of the Himalaya mountains of Asia." Yaks were imported to North America in the late 1920s, according to the site.
The yak business was not something the Koops had in mind when they moved from New Jersey, just outside New York City, to Colorado in 1982. Carl worked in computer software design and his job brought him to the Centennial State; Eileen is a chemist who worked in consumer product development for major companies. They settled first in the Denver area, then in Elizabeth for 12 years. Meanwhile, Carl embarked on a different career path after 30 years. "I just one day woke up and said, 'I can't do this anymore.' "
His new direction: working with animals as a veterinary technician. He was in training at the same time that a longing for more land led the Koops to buy the roughly 70 acres in Bijou Basin.
It was while on a ranch call with a vet that Carl first encountered yaks. After talking with the owner, he started researching the animals. With their new land, he was looking to start an agricultural business - "something that would be fun and different for us" - in order to keep an agricultural tax status.
Eileen was in China on business when Carl told her of his discovery.
"She called one night and I said, 'Oh, by the way, I know what we're doing for our retirement business. We're going to get yaks.' She said, 'I'm sorry, it must be a bad connection. I would swear I heard the word yak.' "
After stumbling across a yak herd in Elizabeth, they had a source for their starter herd. While some ranchers raise yaks for meat - it "tastes exactly like beef," Carl says - the Koops decided to focus on the fiber business.
Yaks produce what is called "a short staple fiber," Eileen says. "It's a down undercoat that they grow to keep warm in the winter and shed in the spring." The down is harvested not by shearing, as with sheep and alpacas, but by combing.
Yak fiber, Eileen says, "rates as soft as cashmere. It's a little warmer than wool, but it's about three times more breathable than wool, so it's a very comfortable fiber to wear."
The fiber goes through several stages of processing; that work is done at mills. The Koops have their own yarn brand, Bijou Spun, and use not only their yaks' fiber but also buy fiber from other yak producers in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, Eileen has developed a general fiber wash, Allure. They sell their yarn online at bijoubasin ranch.com and at some retailers; they also attend fiber festivals and trade shows.
The Koops have nine yaks, down from 35 or so a few years ago. During the drought, with the pasture stressed and hay prices soaring, they sold off most of the animals.
I rode with the Koops to the pasture to see the herd; with the Koops bearing hay and treats, the yaks seemed happy to see us.
"They're a little smarter than cows, which isn't saying a whole lot," Carl says. "Half of ours know their names and will come when we call them."
The couple regularly touch, pet and interact with the animals, he says. It's important for the yaks to feel comfortable with them so that in the spring the Koops can wander among them and collect the fiber.
"It's very easy to go out and deal with them," Carl says. "It's very much like having a herd of very large dogs around."