Reindeer, Yaks, and a Ranching Revolution

Article by George Sibley

Livestock – December 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS STARTED OUT to be a story about reindeer, for the satisfaction of my own curiosity. As often happens, it turned into something else, and something more.

For the last couple of years, driving east from Gunnison on Highway 50, I’ve been noticing exotic-looking animals off to the south, just east of Doyleville. Not deer, which are common along that whole stretch of road, but what looked like … eight tiny reindeer, or maybe a dozen or so?

Recently, I stopped at the house nearest those fields, and found myself on Tad Puckett’s 700-acre White Elk Ranch — and was caught up for an afternoon in Puckett’s vision for what could be a revolution in high-country ranching.

Puckett, a tall, lean fellow with a young look, is a Colorado native who grew up on the Front Range, and began ranching near Cripple Creek on the Eastern Slope with a pretty conventional cow-calf operation. “But I was just losing money,” he said, and some of the loss was due to what he felt to be the unfitness of the evolved breeds of American cattle for the rigors of high-country ranching. He resolved to try again — but this time, to go back to the basics by trying to find animals that actually belonged in the rigorous climate of the Rocky Mountains.

The result of this resolve is the White Elk Ranch near Gunnison, where Puckett has a rich and growing variety of bovids, ungulates, and other split-hooved animals that have probably been adapting to cold climates for longer than there have been humans feeding off of them. In addition to the aforementioned reindeer, he has yaks, white elk (and one big beautiful brown bull elk that must be giving heartburn to the hunters patrolling the road), white buffalo, European buffalo (wisen) and “wood buffalo crosses.”

Puckett regards the reindeer mostly as “novelties.” Reindeer are one of the smaller members of the Rangifer genus of the family Cervidae, which includes all even-toed, split-hoofed, antlered mammals like deer, elk, moose and caribou (the reindeer’s close cousin in the Rangifers).

About the size of Rocky Mountain mule deer, although not so long of leg, they are native to northern Europe and the Arctic region. They are probably one of the oldest “domesticated” animals — a designation that probably came into being in the post-glacial population boom, when hunters had to start being herders to protect the animals they relied upon from other human groups.

Reindeer came to North America fairly recently, when they were imported for the Esquimaux peoples in Alaska. Most of the reindeer in the United States today come from Alaska, although Puckett got his from a ranch over in Snowmass.

Puckett sells the young reindeer to people who want to raise them as pets, or as living lawn ornaments for their estates, or to rent them out for Christmas displays. “They tame down well,” he said. But Puckett’s real enthusiasm is for the yak. A shaggy, short-legged animal that looks like a compact buffalo with a rug draped over it, the yak is Puckett’s nominee for revitalizing mountain ranching.

Yaks are natives of Tibet and Mongolia — a part of the world even higher, drier, and colder than the Upper Gunnison valley. Having evolved under some of the most miserable living conditions survivable by large mammals, the yak, according to Puckett, has emerged as an incredibly efficient browser and grazer — an animal that will get its greens from virtually any plant that grows (including sagebrush), and converts it to good lean meat. Being a cold-animal, the yak stores its fat toward its surface rather than marbled in the meat; and because it is a high-altitude animal, it has developed a dense network of tiny blood vessels throughout its deep-red meat. Where beef is typically 25 percent fat and around 16 percent protein, yak meat is less than five percent fat and more than 20 percent protein.

Being used to making much from next to nothing, a yak eats less than half of what a typical western beef cow eats; Puckett claims he can feed three yak females for the cost of one beef cow.

Best of all, for Puckett’s vision, the yak breeds readily with other members of the family Bovidae, including all our standard breeds of domestic cattle. North American ranchers, harassed by the climatic extremes in our so-called Temperate Zone, have long experimented with ways to genetically toughen up the cattle breeds that came from more moderate European climates.

Cross-breeding standard breeds with the American buffalo has been one relatively popular approach, and Puckett began raising buffalo seven years ago when he gave up on cattle over by Cripple Creek. But buffalo are not that easy to work with. They require strong fences eight feet high, and because they evolved in the long-grass prairie where the grass grew three feet high, they did not develop as a particularly efficient converter of grass to meat.

Yaks, on the other hand, are short-legged enough to be contained by the same fences that work for standard cattle, and they are very efficient converters of the sparse browse and graze of the high-altitude steppe. They resist diseases like brisket that plague cattle in cold high country. And it almost never gets cold enough to freeze them, the way hundreds of thousand of cattle were frozen to death in the northern plains several years ago.

A further advantage, according to Puckett, stems from their high-altitude evolution. Yaks like hilly, mountainous country. Unlike the standard cattle breeds, which tend to stay down in the riparian zone — a major problem with grazing on public lands — the yaks graze and browse up and over the hills.

Puckett’s experiences with yak-cattle crosses leads him to believe that this is the cross that can “really change how ranching is done in cold regions. A herd of half-yak animals will be more disease resistant and tolerant of extreme weather, and will produce quality meat with half the hay bill for winter feeding.” And the meat is good, based on a sample of ground yak that Puckett gave me — lean and flavorful, but moister than buffalo meat. “You’ll never go back, once you’ve had yak,” says Puckett.

Puckett raises and sells his yaks and other exotics as breeding stock, and feels he is doing better than he would have with a conventional cattle operation. But whether the ranchers in the mountain valleys, and out on the northern plains, will buy into the yak cross remains to be seen. It has been argued, after all, that if ranchers were rational beings, they would have all sold out and gone to doing something else. And they’ve certainly outlasted good ideas in the past and stuck with their poor old short-coated Herefords.

If only from an æsthetic perspective, the yak draped with its long shaggy coat, and the reindeer with its heavy coat, at least look like they belong in the Gunnison valley in the dead of winter, while the Herefords always make one feel a little sad for them.

And anything that will convert sagebrush to something edible certainly has a future here.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, teaches English and journalism at Western State College there, and is obviously no vegetarian.