We have been using yak as guard animals since 2006 with much success and many lessons learned. We believe that they can be effective even though we have not witnessed a predator/yak standoff. We live in what are now active wolf territories from the reintroduction to Yellowstone Park. The reality is that a wolf pack would decimate our flock and even the very yak we hope is helping us. For coyote and domestic dog issues, we feel confidant the sheep may have a chance because of the presence of the yaks. It should be noted that the best guard animal in our opinion is a livestock guard dog. Our off-farm grazing sites include small acreage parcells which makes guard dog use a liability to human interactions.
1) Yak are much MUCH bigger than sheep and llamas. Females can grow to 900 pounds, and the males can get over a 1000 pounds. A 2 year old yak is over half its adult size and packed with juvenile tendencies: rough housing, goring, pawing, flightiness. A sheep facility may not contain a yak if it feels the need to get out. Ours have jumped out of 3 foot pens. We usually sort the yak back out of the alleyway so it’s not crowded with the sheep for very long and get sheep to it as soon as we can. If well-bonded, escapes rarely occur.
2) HORNS. You could have your vet or a cattleman dehorn the young calf for you. We waited too long and could only cut the tips. We cut off about 5-6 inches when finally getting around to it. There is a blood vessel in the horn and we used a tourniquet and a cauterizing iron to seal the vessel. The yaks were restrained in a large animal chute. We have lost 4 sheep to goring injuries, and have a few sheep with hernias that are still in production. (death to bloat & internal parasites far exceed deaths caused by yaks) Please take care of the horns!
3) Our ewes lamb on pasture. The young yak may disrupt a ewe in labor from curiosity. As soon as possible, move the yak to ewes who have had lambs already. We have lost one lamb to trampling at feeding time when we had to combine the ewes and lambs into a large group with a yak in the crowd. This feeding situation is short-lived as we move the flock to pastures once the lambs are a week old. If you lamb before pastures are ready and are feeding hay, perhaps keep the yak with only a few family groups until the lambs are a few weeks old, and be careful at feeding times. Our opinion is that guard dogs, although the ultimate guard animal, can cause their own share of damage through rough housing and mauling lambs. Nothing is risk-free.
3) Our sheep were bothered by the first baby yak we bought. It took time for the sheep to get used to it. We had the sheep and new yak in a very small paddock at lambing time to have everyone get used to each other. Do not just get a calf and put it in an acre enclosure and expect everyone to get along. Our pen was initially a 12 x12 pen with just a few sheep and the new yak. We then graduated that group to a larger, 100 ft x 100 ft pen with more families. Still, it took the sheep a week to comfortably eat next to the rambunctious carpet of fur and hooves.
4) Our yak have been minimally handled so as to ensure the bond with sheep. This makes them a little tough to handle (ie. hoof trimming, fiber harvesting). They are big, but I never let them believe that they are bigger than I. They know to move away from us with a confidant motion of our hand, like one would do to move domestic cattle or loose horses. We command respect from them at the same time having a respect for their head gear and tenacity. Consult with your yak breeder for veterinary care. Make sure your male yak is castrated either by the breeder at purchase or by banding by 2-3 months of age.
5) One yak at a time, please. If you have a big flock and feel you need more than one, you must not let the yak see each other and keep them separate for up to two years. Only then could you feel confidant that the yak are bonded to the sheep and not go off in their own yak herd.
Yak are very unique and quite a conversation piece which can bring attention to your sheep business. We are more recognized for the yak than our sheep in many cases. Traffic stops along the highway when the flock is grazing the summer pastures due in part to the dark-coated buffalo-like creature towering above them. It’s created sales of lamb product and interest in our grazing program.