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Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (including the Russian Federation and a special contribution on Buryatia)

Section 1 - CIS countires in general by Gerald Wiener[7]

Yak are bred in many parts of the territories of the former USSR, now known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but in what can best be described as isolated, generally mountainous, areas within this vast region. In particular, yak have been kept for a long time in Kyrgyzstan, with perhaps the largest population of yak among the republics, Tadjikistan, Mountain Altai (adjacent to the yak population of Mongolia), West Sayan (Tuva) and East Sayan (Buryatia).

In addition, yak have been established since the 1970s in the northern Caucasus and re-established in central and south Yakutia. Yak keeping in Tajikistan is included in an article by H. Kreutzmann on yak in Western High Asia and a separate account of yak in Buryatia and Yakutia is provided by E.V. Katzina later in the next section.

Unfortunately, it was not possible to obtain a comprehensive update on numbers of yak and advances in the practices of yak keeping for the Russian Federation as such, possibly because no one was willing to speak for the whole territory since the establishment of the independent republics. Undoubtedly, the interest in yak in various parts of the former Soviet Union was second only to that in China, and the research publications from these areas represent a major contribution to academic knowledge on yak. For this reason the section on the Russian Federation from the first edition of this book still provides a valid introduction to these important contributions to knowledge.

Sarbagishev et al. (1989), writing about yak as one of the animal genetic resources (of the former USSR) refers to a total yak population in 1984 of 136 000. The consensus of opinion is that these numbers are now significantly lower. Among the more recent estimates of numbers of yak, the largest yak population is in Kyrgyzstan at around 20 000 animals (D. Miller personal communication), Tajikistan was said to have between 14 000 and 15 000 (see article on Western High Asia by H. Kreutzmann) and 2 900 in Buryatia (see next section). All of these represent reduced numbers relative to those previously published. Estimates given in the first edition of this book, based on a 1984 census, provided the following numbers for other areas or countries within the Federation: Tuva - 32 000, Altai - 16 000 and the northern Caucasus - 3 700.

Judging by the decline in numbers in areas where relatively recent estimates are available and from the views of visiting researchers, it seems likely that there has been a general decline in the yak population in all these countries over the past 20 - 30 years, but especially since the political and social re-organization in these countries.

Nonetheless, areas such as the northern Caucasus and Yakutia, where yak were introduced (or re-introduced) in relatively recent times, appear to have maintained yak production.

In general terms, the yak in these northern regions are kept at somewhat lower altitudes than the yak on the summer pastures of Tibet and Qinghai. Altitudes at which yak are kept vary between the various areas of the CIS countries. The most commonly quoted elevations are between 2 500 m and 3 500 m, but both lower and higher altitudes are also involved. As in other yak territories, different pastures are used in summer and in winter, but the use of the same pastures year round is also reported. The ability of yak to survive even in deep snow, avoiding the need to move them to more sheltered areas is referred to as a particular advantage of yak keeping, right from the time when yak first attracted considerable scientific attention (e.g. Denisov, 1935). Mochalovskii and Abdusalamov (1973) referred to this point again in relation to the introduction of yak from Pamir to the northern Caucasus (altitude 2 500 - 3 700 m). They reported that even in two exceptionally hard winters following the importation, the yak did not have to be brought to the lower slopes in the winter as they had no difficulty in pawing through the snow to find feed - and in so doing created a pathway for sheep.

Yak in the various countries of the CIS differ to some extent in size and performance. Sarbagishev et al. (1989) stated that the yak of Kyrgyzstan were substantially larger than those of Tajikistan. But this is on account of the fact that those of Kyrgyzstan were not milked and bred only for meat. Average dimensions were given as follows for adult males and females respectively: height at withers 123 cm and 109 cm; body length 137 cm and 125 cm; and heart girth 178 cm and 165 cm. Denisov (1935) stated that the yak of Kyrgyzstan were identical to those of China, but since there is also much variability among the yak in China itself, this statement is not as informative as it appears at first sight. Denisov also referred to the yak of the Altai region as being inferior, at that time, and similar to those then prevalent in Mongolia. Kozlovskii (1960) offered the view that yak in the Gorno-Altai region were becoming closely inbred, which could explain Denisov's poor opinion of its yak population (see Chapter 3, section on inbreeding). Koslovskii advocated the introduction of unrelated males or crossbreeding with other cattle.

Sarbagishev et al. (1989) referred only to the use of yak for meat and milk. There is little doubt that on the former state and cooperative farms, then predominant, this was the prime purpose. It is apparent from other sources that in some of the more remote areas of the Russian Federation yak are also used as pack animals and for riding.

In their article on yak in the former USSR, Sarbagishev et al. (1989) gave the mating season for yak in Kyrgyzstan as varying with altitude. In the Tyan Shan, at elevations of 2 400 - 2 500 m, mating started in late June (sometimes earlier) and continued to late October (but occasionally into January). In the Altai valley with more severe conditions, and an altitude of 3 000 - 4 000 m, mating did not begin until mid-July and ended in mid-October. The yak were said to be poly-oestrous and oestrous periods were reported to last for one to two days (with a range of 10 - 118 hours). Cows that calved later than August did not generally breed again in that year. Conception rates were reported to improve at higher altitudes - from 83 percent in Tyan Shan (2 600 - 3 400 m) to 98 percent in the Pamir mountains (3 900 - 4 200 m). As also noted in Chapter 4, Sarbagishev et al. quoted other investigators of yak in the then USSR to show that the rearing of the yak calf and its subsequent condition are major factors in determining the age at which the females reach puberty and are mated for the first time. In areas where the yak cows were not milked, this age was usually 16 - 18 months. In general, the heifers calved for the first time at the age of three years, which is a year earlier than typical for many of the yak-producing areas in China (see Chapter 4) or in other countries to the south, adjacent to the Himalayas.

With the extension of yak to other areas within these territories, attention was being given to work on the adaptation of young yak males to lowland environments and to the problems associated with synchronization of oestrus in the females, so that A.I. could be the more successfully used. This was applied particularly in the move of yak to parts of the Caucasus and Yakutia. It seems that the yak was, and still is, judged to be a more economical producer of meat than other species. This point was made by Smirnov et al. (1990) in relation to the yak from the Tuva region that were introduced to a part of the northern Caucasus. From figures given by the authors, the cost of keeping a yak was marginally less than that of keeping a sheep; a unit gain in live weight from a yak cost only one sixth of a similar gain by beef cattle on the same farm. (Data on meat production from the yak given by these authors are referred to in Chapter 6.) A similar point is made in the section on Buryatia based on a report from V. N. Davydov and E. V. Katzina (personal communication, 1994)

There is a wealth of publications from experiments and investigations on yak and yak hybrids, emanating from the former Soviet Union and now continuing in several of the independent republics of this region. The book by Denisov (1958), Domestic yak and their hybrids, is an important reference and widely quoted. Another important source of information on yak in the former Soviet Union is a book by Schley (1967). A significant proportion of the early literature on yak from the then Soviet Union is concerned with a detailed characterization of the yak, including some of its physiological and biochemical attributes.

The production-orientated studies are, however, dominated by the role of hybridization of the yak with Bos taurus cattle - both local breeds and breeds that had originated elsewhere, but some of which had been in those parts of the world for a long time.

The concern with hybridization continues to the present. A paper by Katzina et al. (1994) dealt with a scheme designed specifically for meat production from hybrids with the yak. This was investigated in two parts of Buryatia at elevations of 1 200 m and 2 500 m, respectively, but as noted later, in the section on Buryatia, less than 10 percent of the yak population there is represented by hybrids. The essence of the scheme was to exploit the fact that successful meat production from relatively young animals is a two-stage process: to combine good maternal qualities with good intrinsic growth and meat qualities of the calf itself. To produce the maternal line, hybrids were made using yak females with a dual-purpose (milk-meat) type of the Schwyz breed (referred to in earlier years as Brown Swiss) and a second variety of hybrid was produced by using a milk-type Jersey from Denmark on the yak. The former of these breeds recurs frequently in the earlier literature on hybridization with the yak, while the Jersey was chosen to exploit, it was said, its relatively small size (hence small feed requirements), high-milk yield and fat percentage, ease of calving and early maturity. The hybrid (F1) females (of each variety) were, in turn, mated to bulls of "local" breeds of cattle - the Kalmyk and the Kazakh Whitehead, both regarded predominantly as meat breeds; or they were inseminated (by A.I.) with frozen semen from the Galloway, a British beef breed, also accustomed in Scotland to relatively harsh winter conditions. Katzina et al. (1994) pointed out that though the level of heterosis expected in the backcrosses is lower than that in the F1 (half or less), the backcross calves benefit from having F1 mothers. These F1 dams combine the characteristics of the breeds chosen but also express heterosis in their maternal qualities. The early results of these trials showed that the success rate of obtaining hybrid calves from the yak was only of the order of 25 percent (cf. Chapter 5). However, weaning weights were achieved of 120 kg for hybrids with the Galloway and 111 kg for those with the local cattle, as against 92 kg for yak. The Galloway hybrids also over-wintered more successfully, having the better coat insulation.

As already referred to, the interest in hybridization with yak goes back many years in what was then the Soviet Union. Denisov (1935) referred to the use of the Swiss Brown (later named Schwyz) as well as local Kyrgyzstan (Kazakh) cattle in hybrids with yak on a number of state farms, and gave some early results on body weights and body dimensions. He noted that in some respects the hybrids were closer to the yak and in other respects closer to the cattle breed. Denisov (1938) provided data from Kazakhstan on lactation milk yield as follows: yak 608 kg milk (6.8 percent fat), hybrids with the Kyrgyzstan cattle 1 124 kg (5.7 percent), the Kyrgyzstan cattle 1 155 kg (4.4 percent) and hybrids of yak with Schwyz 2 022 kg (5.3 percent). Denisov stated specifically that the local cattle, the yak and the hybrids were all herded together.

These results, therefore, meet most of the criteria for estimating heterosis (only the reciprocal hybrids appear to be missing), unlike many of the other results referred to in this book where this point is in doubt. Denisov's results suggest strongly the importance of heterosis in the milk yield of the hybrids.

An even earlier report of hybridization occurs in a paper by Vlasov et al. (1932) that is based on observations in the Oirat district (Altai) where much of the subsequent work continued. At that time, the authors reported a yak stock of 6 800 and 570 hybrids, again with the cattle, the yak and the hybrids grazing together. Ivanova and Ljubimov (1951) recorded work at the Gorno-Altai agricultural experimental station, giving milk yields of local Siberian cattle as 700 - 800 kg (4.3 percent fat), yak as 300 - 350 kg (5.5 - 6.7 percent), and hybrids of these two as 900 - 1 100 kg (4.9 - 5.1 percent). They also reported on the use of the Simmental in such hybridization and significantly noted that cows of this breed, as well as Siberian cows, had also been mated to yak bulls since 1929.

Backcrossing of the hybrids to Simmental produced, in the second and third generation cows giving 2 362 kg milk (4.9 percent fat) in a single lactation. By 1950, there were 300 progeny of inter-se matings, because an aim of the breeding work was to produce a more productive (synthetic) breed suited to the conditions. (More recent publications do not refer to this "synthetic" breed, suggesting that it might not have been successful in the long run. It may be also, although this is speculation, that the males of the backcross generation had not yet achieved full fertility - which is usually expected only after four or five generations of backcrossing). Later work in Gorno-Altai also involved the use of the Shorthorn breed of cattle (Gaidyseva, 1963).

Other areas of the Russian Federation from which investigations on yak and yak hybrids are reported include the Tuva region where Katzina and Maturova (1989) reported on the reproductive function in the yak, living there at an altitude of 1 500 - 2 500 m. Because of the northerly latitude of this region it is very cold with less than seven frost-free days per year. The yak were outdoors throughout the year but received some supplementary feeding when the ground was frozen. Nevertheless, the yak were breeding, on average, a year sooner than typical for most parts of China. Some results on the reproduction of these yak are given in Chapter 4. Trials involving meat production from yak and local breeds of cattle were also reported from Tajikistan (Norov and Dorotyuk, 1988) and other parts of the Pamir mountain range, bordering on Afghanistan.

Only a very small proportion of the many possible references to work with yak and their hybrids have been included here, selected in part to provide a historical perspective on the status and development of yak production in these countries. The impression that comes across is that the general approach to yak keeping has been to encourage the use of the yak, for meat production especially, as a genotype with particular merits in particular situations. Thus, the yak is acknowledged for its ability to exploit pastures and environments where cattle or sheep are also kept but where the use of the yak helps to extend the use of the natural resources. It does so by virtue of its great resistance to cold and to hardship and its adaptability to a low-quality diet. In addition it is also claimed that the yak produces meat more economically from a given resource than do other cattle. Yak are therefore useful both in their own right and as a component of the genotype in hybrids with Bos taurus. This is an unsentimental and business-like approach to the role of the yak in animal production in countries where state farms and cooperatives were the norm for many years. This approach to the utilization of the yak also provided the incentive for the later introduction of the yak to some countries that were formerly without them. This makes use of the animals for their special qualities in harsh environments. Yak are thus kept in these areas on their own merits, uninhibited by the traditions that surround yak in their native territories.


Denisov, V.F. (1935). [Some data on the yak and its hybrids in Kyrgyzstan.] Trud. Kirghiz. Kompl. Eksp., 4, 115-171. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 4, 298-300.]

Denisov, VF. (1958). Domestic yak and their hybrids. Selkhozgiz: Moscow. 116 pp.

Ivanova, V.V. & Ljubimov, I.M. (1951). [The introduction of a breed with high butterfat yield into farms in Gomo Altai.] Sovetsk. Zootch. 1951, (3), 26-37. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 20, 456-4.57. ]

Katzina, EX, Davydov, V.N. & Baldanov, N.D. (1994). Elaboration of the scheme of production and usage of industrial hybrids of yak and meat cattle. Proceedings of first International Congress on Yak. Journal of Gansu agricultural University (Special issue, June 1994). pp. 44-48. (Reprinted in Asian Livestock (FAO Bangkok) 1994, XIX(10), 137-139.)

Katzina, E.X. & Maturova, E.T. (1989). [The reproductive function of yak cows.] Doklady Vsesoyuznoi Ordena Lenina Akademii Sel'skokhozyaistvennykh Naukim VI. Lenina, 1989, No. 4, 26-29. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 58, No. 352.]

Kozlovskii, B. (1960). [The greater use of commercial crossing in yak breeding.] Molochnoe i Myasnoe Skotovodstvo, 5(11), 32-36. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 29, 270.]

Mochalovskii, A. & Abdusalamov, Sh. (1973). [The Pamir yak in the Caucasus.] Molochnoe i Myasnoe Skotovodstvo, 1973, No. 8, 21. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 42, No. 163.]

Norov, A. & Dorotyuk, E. (1988). [Meat production of bulls of different genotypes in Tadzhikistan.] Molochnoe i Myasnoe Skotovodstvo, 1988, No. 1, 43-44. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 57, No. 1472.]

Sarbagishev, B.S., Rabochev, V.K. & Terebaev, A.I. (1989). 9. Yaks. In: Animal Genetic Resources of the USSR. FAO Animal Production and Health Paper No. 65, Rome, pp. 357-364.

Schley, P. (1967). Der Yak and seine Kreuzung mit dem Rind in der Sowjetunion. Giessener Abhandlungen zur Agrar and Wirtschaftsforschung des Europaischen Ostins, 44. 131 pp. Wiesbaden.

Smirnov, D.A. et al. (1990). Meat yield and meat quality of yaks. Sel'skokhozyaistvennykh Nauk Im. V I. Lenina. (Soviet Agricultural Sciences) No. 1, 46-49.

Vlasov, P, Gershenzon, S. & Poliakov, A. (1932). [Hybrids of yak and cattle.] Probl. Zhivotn. no. I, 48-57. [CAB Animal Breeding Abstracts, 1, 95-96.]

Section 2 - Buryatia - with some notes on Yakutia account based on information from E.V. Katzina[8]


The Republic of Buryatia lies in the southern part of eastern Siberia between Mongolia and Lake Baikal. (Lake Baikal is the world's largest fresh-water lake - 636 km long and between 25 km and 79 km wide). Yakutia lies to the north of Buryatia, in the central part of eastern Siberia. Yak in Buryatia are kept on farms on the Okinsky plateau of the East Sayan mountains at altitudes of 1 400 m - 2 500 m and at 1 200 m - 1 800 m in the Zakamensky district of the Lake Baikal watershed (50o - 54oN and 100o - 104oE). The yak in these two districts were formerly isolated from each other and thought of as sub-populations of the Buryat type. However, exchange of males takes place nowadays between the two areas, and they are regarded as genetically close and similar in other respects. Breeding females constitute 40 - 45 percent of the total number of yak. Yak formerly in the Tunkinskyi district are no longer present. Overall, the number of yak in Buryatia have declined dramatically from 169 000 in 1924 to a total of less than 3 000 in the year 2000. Figures for the main districts are shown in Table 11.2.4.

Table 11.2.4 Yak numbers in Buryatia in different years








3 954

4 215

9 090

2 560

2 720


1 032


1 500










5 208

5 161

10 590

2 680

2 900

Reasons for the decline in numbers are partly organizational and partly due to displacement by other cattle. Former collective farms (kolchoz) and former State farms (sowchos) have undergone organizational change following the break up of the former Soviet Union into independent republics. Alongside these changes, there has been a displacement of the yak by meat and milk cattle breeds such as the Kalmyk, Kazakh white-headed, Simmental-Buryat hybrids, Galloway and Simmental. These have found favour at the relatively low altitudes of the mountain-taiga belt (1 000 - 2 000 m) to which yak in Buryatia had become acclimatized.

Now only small peasant farms keep yak; however, the Okinsky yak gene pool is preserved in a herd at the "Tuyaya" pedigree farm.

According to E.V. Katzina, the Buryat population of yak was regarded historically as the same as the yak of the adjacent territories of Mongolia and Tuva. However, the Buryat yak have been isolated from these populations for a considerable time and analyses of antigenic factors in blood now suggest a relatively low degree of relationship between Buryatia and Mongolian yak (Mashurov and Davydov, 1998) (cf. Chapter 15).

In the mid-1980s, 32 yak of the Zakamenskaya population were taken to the Kizhinginsky district of Buryatia where they acclimatized and where they are breeding on the plain territory of the taiga zone with year-round grazing. Losses from predation have been negligible, and among diseases only foot rot is relatively widespread.

Figure 11.2.2 Yak female of the East Sayan (the Okinskaya subpopulation), six years old, 289 kg (2 300 m a.s.l. altitude) (Photo courtesy of E.V. Katzina)

Figure 11.2.3 Yak female and male of the East Sayan (the Sanaginskaya subpopulation), female is seven years old, 262 kg; male is five years old, 420 kg (1 200 m a.s.l. altitude) (Photo courtesy of E.V. Katzina)

The climate of Buryatia is one of extremes, with large variations in temperature across the seasons. Temperature in winter can fall to -50oC. In the summer, temperatures can occasionally reach +60oC (at ground level), but even in July it is not uncommon for the temperature at night to drop to -2oC from the heat of the day. Day length is seven to eight hours in winter and 17 - 18 hours in summer. Frost-free days number only between 41 and 79 per year. Precipitation varies between 275 mm and 410 mm per year, with two thirds of the annual rainfall in the three months from June to August - with July generally being the wettest month. Snow can fall in August, and snow cover in winter is to a depth of 6 - 15 cm. In general, the winter in Buryatia is severe, windy and very cold and the summer short and, on average, cold. The average annual temperature is 5o - 6oC.

Yak are not normally milked in Buryatia - all production being geared to meat. The yield of milk from yak is estimated to vary between 360 kg and 450 kg per lactation for yak calving in April (lactation length six to seven months) and 150 - 160 kg for those calving in June (four to five months of lactation).


The following results are given by E.V. Katzina in relation to the yak reproduction:

Age at first mating:

4 - 28 months (depending on development of the calf before the onset of winter in the year of birth)

Calving interval:

one year for between 40 percent and 87 percent of the females (two years for the remainder)

Gestation length:

mean 258.8 days (SD 30.9 days)

No. of calves (annually): per 100 females

variable from 40 to 87

Breeding season

late July to mid-September

Calving season

April to May (rarely March to early July)

Survival of adult yak

100 percent in a favourable winter, 60 - 70 percent in a winter with deep snow.

Calf survival

80 - 100 percent

Table 11.2.5 Daily milk yield, protein content and fat content of Buryat yak cows calving in March to May - according to month of lactation [Source: Maturova and Katzina, 1990]

Calving March-May

Calving June-August

Milk (kg)

Protein (%)

Fat (%)

Milk (kg)

Protein (%)

Fat (%)




















































M. = Mean

The results on daily milk yield reinforce the findings of several other studies in different countries, that peak yield coincides with the month of highest herbage production - in or around July - when herbage quality is also still good.

A report by V.N. Davydov and E.V. Katzina (personal communication, 1994) shows that F1 hybrids of yak with other cattle yielded about 100 kg more milk than the yak in the 1940s but that the yields from hybrids in the 1990s were much higher. It has to be assumed that this may be due to the use of different breeds of cattle to produce the hybrid.

Table 11.2.6 provides some information on the milk composition of yak, local cattle, Simmental cattle and hybrid cows from yak dams mated to Simmental bulls.

Table 11.2.6 Composition (mean ± s.e.) of the milk of yak, cattle and hybrids





Number of animals





Content of:

Dry matter, g (%)

18.5 ± 0.75

13.9 ± 0.54*

13.6 ± 0.62*

15.3 ± 0.61*

Fat, g (%)

7.7 ± 0.44

4.7 ± 0.23*

4.4 ± 0.35*

5.5 ± 0.28*

Protein, g (%)

5.5 ± 0.41

3.9 ± 0.18*

3.7 ± 0.17*

4.9 ± 0.27

* Significance (P<0.001) of difference relative to yak milk.
** Local cattle
*** (Simmental male mated with yak female)

Interestingly, the percentages of dry matter and of fat in the milk of the hybrids were slightly below the average of those in the yak and the Simmental. In situations where butter or cheese production was the aim (as in several of the other yak-keeping countries) this effect on milk composition - if universal - would tend to counterbalance any advantage of the hybrid in terms of milk yield alone. (It is not clear from the information received whether the yak, the cattle and the hybrids shown in Table 11.2.6 were kept together and managed and fed alike).

The protein of the yak milk contains proportionately more casein than present in the protein of milk from cattle and the albumin fraction is also proportionately higher in yak milk.

The results in Table 11.2.7 show that the management of young animals (see section, Management) prevents weight losses over winter, although slowing the rate of gain. This is contrast to a number of studies reported in Chapter 6 showing large weight losses, even in calves, over the winter period. Results on growth reported by Maturova and Katzina (1990) show that weights at birth and up to two months of age were greater for calves born in July and August of the year than those born earlier. However, by six months old, the early-born calves were almost 40 kg heavier than those born late in the season.

This reflects clearly the effect of milk and feed availability on calf growth over the season. It also shows that being born late in the year is a disadvantage for a calf because its condition is poorer at the onset of the first winter of its life, and this, in turn, retards its subsequent development to puberty.

As referred to above, the main purpose of yak keeping in Buryatia is meat production. Table 11.2.8 provides some slaughter data.

Table 11.2.7 Body weight (kg) of male and female yak at different ages in Buryatia - calves born in March-May [Source: Maturova and Katzina, 1990]

Age (month)

























































































































The weights of hybrids at 30 months of age averaged 345 ± 1.6 kg for males and 308 ± 1.3 kg for females; weights of three- to four-year-old males were 459 (417 - 512) kg and 387 (310 - 425) kg for females at the fifth calving. The hybrids represent only between 8 percent and 10 percent of the animals in commercial yak herds. All hybrids are produced by natural mating. The hair and down fibre is not collected from yak in Buryatia.


According to E.V. Katzina, the yak in Buryatia are managed extensively to simulate as closely as possible the natural conditions dictated by the availability of suitable pastures. During the summer, the yak graze freely on alpine and subalpine pastures.

From October to May, yak are allowed on winter pastures on lower slopes. Supplementary feed in the form of hay is provided only in extremely harsh winters - except for young animals, which receive daily supplements. Most of the calving takes place on the winter pastures. The calves have access to all the milk of their dams. Although yak are not given veterinary treatments, they appear to have fewer illnesses than other types of cattle.

The summer pastures contain 45 - 50 percent Carex sp., 32 - 37 percent grasses, 10 - 13 percent legumes and 5 - 8 percent cereals. The herbage grows densely to a height of about 18 - 25 cm. Leaves and branches of trees and shrubs are quite insignificant in the diet of Sayan yak.

Table 11.2.8 Carcass data for three yak slaughtered at each of two different ages [Source: Maturova and Katzina, 1990]

18 - 19 months

30-31 months





Live weight (kg)





Carcass weight (kg)





Dressing (%) Weight (kg) of:











Subcutaneous fat





Investigational work

Research with yak has been active in Buryatia and neighbouring regions since the 1930s (several of the studies are referred to in this book). Earlier studies were largely descriptive of the economics and productivity of the yak and of its characteristics - particularly in relation to meat production. E.V. Katzina reported already in 1995 (first edition of this book) that the scale of research had then declined and become more fragmentary than formerly. Emphasis was given in the Buryat Institute of Biology of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences to research on conservation and the rational use of yak - including the hybridization scheme already referred to. The introduction of yak to parts of the northern Caucasus and central Yakutia was part of that rationalization. Attention was also given to grazing technology and management. As part of the conservation strategy, consideration was given to re-introducing yak into the wild. Many studies were being undertaken into more fundamental aspects of the biology of the yak and its hybrids. E.V. Katzina provided a list of the 50 most important studies published over recent years, which was lodged for ready access with the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok and with the International Yak Information Centre.

More recently, E.V. Katzina has reported on a substantial amount of research work on the amino acid composition of meat from yak of various types and with comparative data for cattle (Mkrtchyan et al. 1993). There is also work on yak immunology that forms the basis of the studies on genetic distancing, referred to earlier (Mashurov and Davydov, 1998). Work on the biological properties of yak milk has been extended (Katzina, 1993). Extensive anatomical investigations on the development of the yak in different periods, from the embryonic stage through to skeletal ossification in later life, have also been carried out at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy (Vasilyev, 1991). E.V. Katzina (2002) has also provided evidence, rare for the yak, of heritabilities of body weight at various ages from birth to two years old in the range 0.25 - 0.38, remarkably similar to the plentiful estimates in cattle.


Yak were first introduced to this sparsely populated region of eastern Siberia in 1842, before the establishment of the area as an independent republic. Several further importations followed. The yak acclimatized well (Solomonov et al. 1980) and became a profitable enterprise. The second successful importation of yak occurred in the early 1920s, following the eradication during the Russian civil war of the yak previously there. Yak sent to the Magadan Oblast region (far northeast of Russia) in 1935 - 1936 did not do well because of helminth infection of the yak in what turned out to be an unsuitable, wet and windy seaside climate. Further yak were sent from Buryatia to central and southern Yakutia (both Buryat type and Altaic type yak) in 1971, 1973 and 1974 - a total of 167 head - and acclimatized well.

The severe climatic conditions of Yakutia required that scientists work out a new strategy for keeping yak in these conditions. During the summer, the yak graze on pastures for about 170 days (about six to seven weeks longer than cattle). For the first 10 - 30 days of the grazing period, the yak receive supplementary feed in the form of 1.5 - 2 kg hay and 1 kg mixed fodder per head per day. Subsequently, the pastures in summer provide sufficient green forage for the requirements and fattening of yak. From October to May, yak are given winter rations of hay (4 - 5 kg) and mixed fodder (1 kg) in two feeds per day (in the coldest weather the amount of hay is increased because the concentrate feed freezes to the lips and mouth cavity of the animals and cannot be given). In late autumn, the yak are still allowed out to pasture after their morning feed, provided the temperature is not below -30oC. Shelter is available to the animals in winter in the form of three-sided sheds, allowing 2 sq m per yak, and "warm" ice holes provide water.

Weaned calves, mothers with suckling calves, weakened animals and pregnant females 10 - 15 days prior to calving before calving are kept in separate groups. Newborn calves are wiped dry with hay before the dam is allowed access to her calf.

Growth rates of calves, comparing 60 yak with an equal number of cattle, were found to be higher in percentage terms in yak (probably because of their relatively low birth weight) than in cattle over the first three months of life, but not in absolute weight gains (yak weight increased by 42.5 kg [29 percent] over that period and cattle around 61 kg [25 percent]). Weight gains of yak calves during the first three months of life were found to average 487 g per day for females and 529 for males. The three-month period in the second summer (age 12 - 15 months) saw average daily gains of 443 g and 537 g for females and males, respectively. Over winter, the young stock still gained weight but at a slower rate (177 g per day for females and 194 g for males in the period from 6 to 12 months, and 152 g and 219 g per day, respectively, during a three-month period - age 15 - 18 months - during the second winter of life. The management system developed for yak in Yakutia seems to have produced somewhat different results from those in more traditional yak rearing regions.


The forage costs and the general expenses of keeping animals were found to be significantly lower for yak than for cattle, as shown in Table 11.2.9

Table 11.2.9 Forage costs and general expenses (roubles) per animal per year in Yakutia


Forage costs

General expenses










From such evidence and the report by Davydov and Katzina referred to earlier, the point is made that the cost of producing milk and meat from yak and yak hybrids is less than the cost of production from cattle. The reason given is that the yak (and hybrids) use mountain pasture almost exclusively and that they consume only very little hay and make virtually no use of forage from arable land. Thus, the cost of producing 50 kg of yak meat is approximately a third of the cost of producing such meat from cattle in Buryatia. (The cost of 50 kg of weight gain was 98 - 111 roubles for yak and 304 - 345 roubles for cattle kept under the same conditions - and a final 30-day period of fattening at the end of the grazing period was highly cost effective in yak).


Katzina, E.V. (1993). Lactation, biologic properties of milk of yaks. J. Sel'skokhozyaistvennaya Biologiya, 2: 108-115.

Katzina, E.V. (2002). Some genetic parameters of body weight in yaks of the Buryat ecotype. Proceedings of the third international congress on yak, in Lhasa, China, 4-9 September 2000. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Nairobi, pp. 313-315.

Mashurov, A.M. and Davydov, V.N. (1998). Revealing characteristics of immunogenic resemblance and distance between Buryat yaks and other bovine populations. Siberian Vestnic of Agriculture Science, 3-4: 89-92.

Maturova, E.T. and. Katzina, E.V. (1990). The yak of Sayan. The Buryatia Scientific Centre of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Ulan Ude, 1990. 168 pp. (in Russian)

Mkrtchyan, Sh.A., Umansky, M.S. and Kmet, A.M.. 1993. Meat amino acid composition of yak different ecotypes. J. of the Report of Russian Academy Agricultural Science, 4: 57-63.

Solomonov, H.G., Kyselev, U.A and Slepzov, M.K. (1980). Acclimatization of the yak in Yakutia. Novosibirsk: Nauka, 102 pp.

Vasilyev, K.A. (1991). Morpho-functional characteristics of the yak ontogenesis by development periods. Ulan-Ude: Buryatskoye knizhnoye izdatel'stvo (Buryat Publishing House), 224 pp.

[7] Gerald Wiener is an Honorary Professor, Gansu Agricultural University, China and is attached to the Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh and the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, UK. He was also Deputy director of the former AFRC Animal Breeding Research Organization in the UK.
[8] E.V. Katzina is a senior scientist of the Institute of General and Experimental Biology, Siberian Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences, Ulan-Ude, 670047, Russia.

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