By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Three of only four yaks ever trained to be ridden in North America were raised by John Hooper of rural Avon.
“I wanted to specialize in tame yak because nobody else was doing it,” he said. “I knew if I were buying yak, I’d like some who would run to me and be fun to be with.”
After trimming the hooves of dairy cows for 31 years, Hooper was looking for something else to do where he wouldn’t be hindered so much by arthritis.
When Hooper started looking for yak in 1997, he found that most yak were raised out west in large pastures and were not tame at all. The first yak he trained to ride began training at eight months old, and it took a lot of time.
“I had to catch him first,” said Hooper. “Now I just bottle feed them and they come right up to me.”
Hooper slowed down, only hoof-trimming about half time in 1997, then cut back to servicing only two farms a few years later. He quit hoof-trimming altogether in 2007, and then started processing yak meat for sale and working farmers markets.
At that point, Hooper had the largest herd of yak in the eastern half of the United States. His yak herd numbered 80 head in 2011 and is now down to 45.
Since Hooper’s wife, Becky, is retiring in two years, the herd will be reduced to about 20 head by then, which is where Hooper wants it.
“The largest sale was 25 purebred yak to a farm in Vermont in 2008. Then the economy dried up, and it was hard to move them until late 2011,” he said. Since then, 22 yak have been sold.
Hooper crossbreeds his yak with Black Angus and Pinzgaur for his family’s meat consumption. “When cross-bred, they can be butchered at age two instead of waiting until they’re three. A yak eats about one quarter of what a cow does; it has a slower metabolism and is slower to mature. Yaks are about half the weight of an average-sized Angus,” he said.
He sells composted yak manure. “Landscapers and gardeners come here to pick it up,” he said.
“What’s amazing is that I had only two quarters of college classes, then took a farrier science course at tech school,” Hooper said. “I started with horses first, then the cattle side of the business exploded. I was the first full-time cattle hoof trimmer in Minnesota.”
Hooper’s experience as a hoof-trimmer was his passport to many foreign countries. It started when a company in Java opened a huge dairy farm and imported 8,000 cattle from the United States.
“Someone was needed to train people, and through a farmer-to-farmer program, Aid for International Development, I went to Java to train hoof trimmers,” Hooper said. He travelled to Java in 1989 and 1990, for six weeks each time.
Java is the most populated place in the world, with very rich soil and a tropical climate. “Farmers there are farming the way they did 200 years ago,” he said. “Most people live in rural areas and go everywhere on foot. Most have some land and are well-fed.”
Starting in about 2001, Land O’Lakes International overhauled a milk plant in Hongyuan, Sichuan, China, on the Tibetan border. The plant uses only yak milk.
“Before they sent people to China, they were sent to my place to be introduced to yak,” said Hooper.
Then in 2003, Land O’Lakes gave Hooper the opportunity to go to Tibet to study the nomads.
He spent a month living with nomads, sleeping in a yak-hair tent and eating with them every day.
“The trip was paid for by the Chinese yak company, hoping maybe production there would improve with any suggestions I made after getting to know the people better,” he said.
Hooper went to Albania in 2004, to train hoof trimmers, and to Lebanon in 2011. His nephew, who he trained to trim hooves, is now in Egypt with the same program.
Hooper has taken yak to Tibetan festivals in the Minneapolis metro area. A brother and sister, who own a shop in Stillwater, met him in about 2006. When the sister first saw Hooper’s yak, she was stroking the yak with tears running down her face.
“She had left Tibet when she was 14 and thought she was never going to see a yak again,” Hooper said.
“What I’ve enjoyed most about the yak are the animals’ personalities,” he said, “but the notoriety has been fun, too.”
Anyone making a $40 yak meat purchase is able to tour the farm free of charge. Tours last about an hour. The regular fee is $5 per person.
For more information, contact Hooper at www.yak-man.com or (320) 685-4489.