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Yak in Nepal based on information supplied by D.D. Joshi[11]

The kingdom of Nepal borders India to the south and the Tibetan autonomous region of China to the north. Across a south-north distance of a little more than 160 km, the land rises from 100 m altitude, with a tropical and subtropical climate, to the highest parts of the Himalayas (6 000 - 8 000 m), including Mount Everest on its border, with a mixture of temperate and arctic climate. Yak are confined to the northern districts of Nepal at the higher elevations. Many hybrids of yak with domestic cattle (Kirkho/Lulu and Nepalese hill cattle) are kept on neighbouring, somewhat lower ground and sometimes alongside the yak. Joshi (1982) considered that without yak and yak hybrids it is doubtful if people would live in much of northern Nepal. In total, according to D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 2001), there are around 20 000 yak and about 40 000 yak-cattle hybrids in the 18 alpine districts of Nepal. These numbers represent a decline from an estimated 200 000 yak and hybrids in 1961. At the least, a part of the decline in numbers is attributed to government restrictions on livestock numbers and movement in Nepal's national parks. Also, the impact of tourism and the attractions of other ways of making a living have reduced the incentive to pursue yak herding with its attendant rigours (Joshi, 2000).

From east to west across Nepal, the Himalayas have numerous valleys, glaciers, ridges, peaks and rivers that give rise, geographically, to the various alpine districts of the country and with peoples often isolated from each other and differing, in some cases, ethnically, in culture and in dialect. The villages in these districts vary in the relative importance attached to livestock in general and the different classes of stock - yak and hybrids of yak with local cattle, sheep and goats, horses and mules and poultry. Joshi (1982) provided a detailed account of this - and though the specific numbers involved have changed, the background is still largely valid.

Nepali yak, according to Joshi, are smaller than those in various parts of China (cf. Chapter 6) with the following data (Table 11.2.16) from animals in three districts in Nepal.

Table 11.2.16 Weights and linear body dimensions of yak in Nepal [Source: after Joshi, 1982]




Number of animals




Live weight (kg)




Height at withers (cm)




Length - pins to shoulder (cm)




Heart girth.(cm)




(In order to clarify a possible confusion arising in the literature on the size of yak in Nepal, it should be noted that Joshi (1982) quoted in his book some larger average values than those shown in Table 11.2.16, for what are described as "well-grown yak in Nepal. These larger average values are the same as those given by Epstein (1977) in relation to Nepal, but they, in turn, are identical to values also given by Epstein (1969) for yak in China - with the male and female figures attributed to a personal communication (Chen Lin-feng, 1963) and those for castrates to another Chinese source. According to D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 2001), more recent estimates of the size of yak differ little from those shown.

Most of the yak are black or black with some white markings. Pure white yak are rare, but highly prized. Most yak are horned, but a few polled yak are found and not as greatly valued. Polled bulls are always castrated and then used for riding.

Milk is the main commercial product from yak and from the hybrids of yak with cattle. Nepal's appreciation for yak products differs from China in one important use of the milk: In Nepal, in addition to the butter and other products made by herders from milk for their own use, large quantities of milk are sold and made into a Swiss-style hard cheese and into butter in processing factories built in the yak milk-producing areas. A very full account of these factories and an assessment of their operation is given by Joshi et al. (1999). The most recent figures, for the year 1997 - 1998, show a production of 176 tonnes of cheese and 26 tonnes of butter. The cheese in particular fetches a high price and is sold, principally to tourists in Kathmandu. According to these authors, demand for cheese still greatly exceeds supply, but notwithstanding, not all the factories operate at a profit. Although the yak cheese commands a higher price than cheese made from cattle or buffalo milk, the costs of production are also high because production is only seasonal, and the factories do not therefore work the year round. In addition, transport costs are high. Paudyal (1993) referred to a Winrock research report on cheese production in Nepal that suggested that as a consequence of the profitable sale of milk for cheese making, yak calves are being deprived of milk to the extent that calf mortality has increased.

Figure 11.2.6 Milking yak in Nepal (Photo courtesy of Dept. of Information, HMG, Nepal)

Yak meat is eaten in Nepal, although for religious reasons slaughter is usually undertaken by butchers and not by the herdsmen. The fibre and the hides of the yak are used in the same way as in other countries.

Hybrids with yak are made with the type of cattle similar to, or the same as, the humpless dwarf cattle of Tibet known there as Kirko (or Khirko), but also as zo-lang (and referred to as Goleng or glang in Bhutan, and also in some parts of Nepal). The so-called Lulu cattle, used in some districts, are almost certainly the same type (K. P. Oli, personal communication, 1994). Hybrids are also made with the Siri hill cattle, a zebu type. Hybrids arise by mating the cattle bull to yak females (Dimjo or Dim-dzo) or the other way around (Urang).

There is a staggeringly large breed terminology (listed by Joshi, 1982) dealing with no less than 124 different combinations of yak with different local types of cattle, both zebu and Bos taurus. Names really begin to multiply among the various backcrosses to different breeds in different districts.

Joshi et al. (1994) provided some average values for performance characteristics of yak and hybrids, which are shown in Table 11.2.17.

Table 11.2.17 Performance characteristics of yak and yak hybrids in Nepal [Source: adapted from Joshi et al, 1994]

Female yak



Brown Swiss cross

"Average" age at first calving (month) that is to say, calving at age:

Some at 3 years, mostly at 4 years old

Mostly at 3 years old

Some at 3 years, mostly at 4 years old

4 years

"Average" calving interval (days) that is to say, a calf:

Generally 1 every 2 years

Mostly 1 each year

Mostly each year


Gestation length (days)





Lactation milk yield (kg)

200 - 700

1 690

1 300

1 046

Main lactation length (days)





Live weights (kg)






Adult male





Adult female





Breeding season (month of year)

9 - 11

8 - 10

8 - 10

8 - 10

Calving season (month of year)

5 - 7

4 - 6

4 - 6

4 - 6

The live weights given for both the male and the female yak in Table 11.2.17 are greater than those quoted earlier, also from Nepal, in Table 11.2.16. The weights of the hybrids on the farms surveyed were greater than those of the pure yak. This may be because such hybrid males are sterile and likely to be castrated and used for work. The female hybrids were slightly less heavy than the corresponding pure yak. Of the two types of hybrid, those born to yak dams (the Dimjo) were the larger and gave more milk - reflecting perhaps a maternal effect related to the small size of the cattle dams. The hybrids were also larger and more productive than the parental cattle types. Unlike the general situation where yak, cattle and the hybrids are kept in different areas, usually differing in altitude, D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 2002) stressed that the data in Table 11.2.17 are based on yak and hybrids kept in the same places.

The difference in performance between the two reciprocal crosses of the hybrid type is also reflected in the fact that farmers prefer the Dimjo (yak dam) to the Urang (cattle dam), according to Joshi (1982). Although the cows of the cattle types are smaller than the yak females, it is unusual for the maternal effects from the dam to last to such a marked extent into the adulthood of their progeny. An explanation for the large reciprocal difference is not altogether clear. Since there are also differences in size and performance among the different types of cattle used for hybridizing with yak, it may be that females of the smaller types of cattle are mated to yak bulls, and bulls of the larger types of cattle to yak females. This is speculation, but, if true, it would fit the facts - and perhaps determining this might be reason enough to gather evidence to confirm or refute these suggestions.

It is of interest that the hybrids of yak with Brown Swiss, calving, on average, for the first time even later than the pure yak, also gave less milk than hybrids with local cattle. The poorer performance of hybrids with fathers of exotic breeds relative to local types of cattle was reinforced by D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 1994) by reference to disappointing performance of hybrids of yak with Holstein-Friesian and Jersey in Nepal. But this differs from experience in some other countries and might be related to the management accorded hybrids relative to yak in various situations. A.I. was not used for hybridization with yak in Nepal. More recently, D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 2001) stated that hybridization of yak with exotic breeds of cattle is no longer practised.

Some reproductive data were given by Paudyal (1993) based on results from the breeding records of the yak-breeding farm situated in Solukhumbu, one of the most important of the yak-producing districts of Nepal. Over a 15-year period (1974 - 1989), 544 matings of female yak were made resulting in 307 conceptions (56.4 percent) and 293 calves (53.9 percent), of which 15 were stillborn. The average calving interval was 616 days - suggesting that a majority of the animals calved only once every two years. It is of interest, however, that there was a steady improvement at this farm over that 15-year period in the annual calving rate and a sharp drop in the interval between successive calves. Thus, in successive five-year periods, the proportion of calves born (per yak female mated) increased from 0.44 to 0.58 to 0.70 and the calving interval declined from an initial 851 days, to 704 in the middle period and 514 days in the last five-year period. There has therefore been a remarkable improvement in the overall reproductive rate. There was also some increase, over that period of years, in the growth rate of the calves in the first 12 weeks of life - but no change in the birth weights. Unfortunately, the changes that must have taken place at the farm to lead to such improvements were not specified.

In general, management of yak in Nepal follows a transhumance pattern, with high altitude summer pastures, where the animals are not given feed supplements and winter grazings take place on somewhat lower ground in more sheltered valleys. In many of the valleys, crops are also grown and many of the yak and hybrids spend the winter in sheds where they have to be fed.

Joshi et al. (1994) described the "average" yak herd as having: 32 cows (of which half are dry and half are lactating), 3 breeding bulls, nearly 12 pack yak, approximately 10 females and 10 males younger than five years, 12 yearlings and a little more than 15 younger calves - a total of around 94 animals. No update on these numbers is available.

Joshi (1982) also provided some results on the economics of keeping yak and hybrids (chauries). For present purposes, D.D. Joshi (personal communication, 2001) suggested that the figures communicated previously should be multiplied by a factor of ten to account for inflation. (This has been done below.) It follows from Joshi's suggested adjustment for inflation that although gross margins have increased over the years in absolute terms, the purchasing power of the extra money has also declined in proportion, due to inflation. The herders are, therefore, unlikely to be better off. Although absolute figures are likely to change further with time, it is the comparison of the pure yak with the chauries, which engenders the most interest. Thus:

For a yak bull

The capital investment required:
(13 500 rupees of this for procuring the animal)

17 820 rupees

Recurrent costs per year (mostly feed)

4 730 rupees

Annual returns

11 090 rupees

Gross margin

6 360 rupees

For a lactating yak female

The capital investment required
(13 500 rupees of this for procuring the animal)

18 150 rupees

Recurrent costs per year (mostly feed)

6 210 rupees

Annual returns
(10 000 rupees from sale of calf, 16 000 rupees from sale of milk)

26 090 rupees

Gross margin

19 880 rupees

For a lactating chaurie (hybrid)

The capital investment required

23 100 rupees

Recurrent costs per year (mostly feed)

10 400 rupees

Annual returns
(5 000 rupees from sale of calf, 20 000 rupees from sale of milk)

25 000 rupees

Gross margin

14 600 rupees

Thus, Joshi's figures suggest that the annual gross margin from the lactating yak was more than a third higher than that from the lactating hybrid female, in spite of the lower absolute milk yield of the yak. The yak female needed a smaller capital investment than the hybrid and the yak calf had a higher value than the calf from the hybrid cow. If these figures were to apply more widely they might suggest that even under these largely pastoral conditions a relatively "high-input-high-output" strategy (the hybrids) is not necessarily the most profitable. However, the hybrid, or at least the Dimjo kind (cattle male mated with yak female), has advantages that, over a lifetime, might more than compensate for a lower annual return and higher initial investment. Thus, the Dimjo hybrids calved on average almost a year sooner than the yak and were more likely to have a calf every year. Thus, over the lifetime of a cow of say 12 years, the gross margin from the hybrids should be the greater. However, the gap between the yak and the hybrids will be narrowed by the ability of yak to produce milk - perhaps half the "normal" quantity - also in a year subsequent to a calving, even if they have not calved again in that second season. Moreover, the main end-product is not fresh milk but butter and cheese, and the gap in income between the yak and the hybrid is likely to be further narrowed as payment for milk is based on fat content (Joshi et al. 1999) - and the fat percentage of yak milk is higher than that of milk from the hybrids.

Nepal enjoys a considerable tourist trade, which in turn provides a ready market both for the cheese and some of the other value-added products from the yak - a point emphasized by Joshi et al. (1994) in discussing future developments.

However, as already referred to in relation to the overall decline in yak numbers, there are changes taking place that affect the livestock husbandry of the Northern Areas of Nepal. Joshi et al. (1994) pointed out, for example, an increasing use of yak and yak hybrids for transport in mountaineering expeditions and for trekking. This development changes the emphasis given to the different uses of the yak by people such as the Sherpas who have a tradition of yak keeping. Other writers have suggested, however, that the overall need for yak is declining in the face of other forms of transport.

Bishop (1989), in a detailed study of one village in Nepal, reported that older people there were no longer as willing as in former times to endure the hardship of high altitude life on the lonely summer pastures. They were thus changing from being milk producers to being breeders of hybrid animals. To produce the hybrids, they were using cows at the lower altitudes nearer the villages and mating them to yak bulls. The hybrid animals were then sold as replacement stock, making for an easier life for the herdsmen and their families compared with milk production from yak. Cox (1985) studied in great detail one particular area in Nepal - the relatively isolated Langtang valley area in the northeastern border region. The study looked in detail at the role of the yak on all aspects of the life of the people there, including the cultural and ritualistic side, and noted changes in social and economic attitudes, partly as a result of the opening of a cheese factory in the area. An earlier account of the husbandry and productivity of yak and its hybrids in the same valley was given by Bonnemaire and Teissier (1976). A similarly detailed account was given for another area of Nepal (the Tarap valley in the northwest) by Jest (1976), who also commented on what was then the beginning of an impact of industrial cheese making on the economy of yak production.

Joshi et al. (1994) refer to a deterioration of the yak breeding stock in Nepal and quote, by way of example, the Langtang area, which has a tradition of supplying yak-breeding stock. The deterioration was said to arise from the enforced reduction of movement of breeding stock across the border with the Tibet region. As for some other countries, there is thus an increasing risk from inbreeding in the yak population, reflected in reduced performance and poorer reproductive efficiency.


Bishop, N.H. (1989). From zomo to yak: change in a Sherpa village. Human Ecology, 17, 177-204.

Bonnemaire, J. & Teissier, J.H. (1976). [Some aspects of breeding at high altitudes in the central Himalayas: yaks, cattle, hybrids and crossbreds in the Langtang Valley (Nepal).] In: Le Yak. Son role daps la vie materielle et culturelle ties eleveurs d'Asie centrale. Ethnozootechnie No. 15, France, 91-118.

Cox, T. (1985). Herding and socio-economic change among Langtang. Tibetans. Contributions to Nepalese Studies,. 12, 63-74.

Epstein, H. (1969). Domestic Animals of China. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, Farnham Royal, England. pp. 20-25.

Epstein, H. (1977). Domestic Animals of Nepal. Holmes & Meier, New York. pp. 20-37.

Jest, C. (1976). L'6levage du yak dans 1'Himalaya du Nepal. In: Le Yak. Son r61e dans la vie materielle et culturelle des 61eveurs d'Asie centrale. Ethnozootechnie No. 15, France, 78-90.

Joshi, D.D. (1982). Yak and Chauri Husbandry in Nepal. H.M. Government Press, Singha Durbar, Kathmandu, Nepal, XVII, 145 pp.

Joshi, D.D. (2000) Impact of National Parks and tourism on yak farming system in the alpine Himalayan region of Nepal. Yak Newsletter (International Yak Information Centre [IYIC]) No. 5 (September 2000) pp. 12-13

Joshi, D.D. et al, (1994). Yak production in Nepal. Proceedings of the first International Congress on Yak. Journal of Gansu agricultural University (Special issue, June 1994). pp. 105-112. [Reprinted in Asian Livestock (FAO Bangkok), 1994, XIX (10), 132136. ]

Joshi, D.D., Awasthi, B.D. & Sharma, Minu (1999) An assessment of the yak cheese factories in Nepal. National Zoonoses and Food Research Center, Kathmandu, Nepal. 75 pp.

Paudyal, R.M. (1993). The yak and its importance in Central Asia and particularly Nepal. MSc Thesis, Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh. 67 pp.

[11] D.D. Joshi is Director of the National Zoonoses and Food Hygiene Research Center, Nepal.

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