Yak: Alaska’s New Red Meat
You’ll find it at farmers markets and on menus in some of Alaska’s finest restaurants; yak meat is fast becoming a staple in the Alaska local foods scene.
Yak ranchers Barb and Bob Fithian own Alaska Yaks at Circle F Ranch. This sprawling patchwork of lush fields interspersed with stands of poplar and aspen is wedged between the Copper and Tonsina rivers along the Edgerton Highway. Visitors stop frequently during summer for tours and to buy fresh meat as well as products Barb makes from the yaks’ thick wool.
Barb, who moved to Alaska from Pennsylvania in 1971 with her family, and Bob, a Coloradan who arrived in 1982, met, married, started a family and ran a professional hunting guide business for many years in the Upper Kuskokwim region and the Wrangells. Champions of conservation issues, they’ve always taken pride in sharing Alaska’s wilderness opportunities with clients, visitors and family. Barb homeschooled their three sons, and now their grandchildren are being raised to enjoy and carry on these ways of life. They acquired the yak ranch in 2008 and today maintain a herd of about 100 of the huge, shaggy, docile creatures.
Because of their unique heritage of thriving in high mountainous regions with temperature extremes, yaks are hardy and well suited for the Copper River Basin environment. They love the cold, dry conditions and require no special shelter or diets. They eat the brome hay that the couple grows on about 200 acres. The Fithians’ female yaks consume an average of six to seven pounds of hay per day while the larger bulls eat 12 to 15. That’s substantially less hay than beef cows, which eat about 30 to 35 pounds per day.
“We strive to produce a two-and-a-half-year-old meat animal which will weigh 1,000 pounds,” says Bob. For people who’ve never tried yak, he wants them to enjoy “the best piece of red meat they have ever tasted.”
Yak is “quite possibly the healthiest and best tasting meat on the market,” Bob says. On average, yak is 96 percent lean, is high-protein, high-iron and has a delicate beef-like flavor. Diners can try meat from the Fithians’ herd at the nearby Gilpatrick’s Hotel Chitina, Inc., at Denali Salmon Bake near the national park entrance and at the 49th State Brewery’s locations in Healy and Anchorage.
Bob and Barb know they’ll never get rich raising livestock, but they’re glad to raise happy, healthy animals, and they wouldn’t trade their quality way of life for anything.