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Yak husbandry in India by R.N. Pal[9]

The yak-rearing states of India are Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The first three of these, bordering the southern slopes of the Himalayas, have a cold, humid climate, while the two northerly states are cold and arid. Numbers of yak are shown in Table 11.2.10. The total of about 51 000 yak in 1997 represents a marked decline from the 132 000 yak reported for the year 1977 (Pal, 1993a). Gupta and Gupta (2000) and Nivsarkar et al. (1997) published even lower numbers of around 40 000 for recent years - largely because they suggested a lower number for Jammu and Kashmir. However, changes in numbers of yak over the years seem to differ among states - some having remained static in numbers.

Reasons suggested for the decline in size of the yak population include socio-economic causes, one of which is a desire for an easier and more comfortable lifestyle on the part of the younger generations (Pal, 1993a). The closure of the border with Tibet to the former traffic in yak may also be a contributory factor and has affected the availability of new sources of breeding stock. Nivsarkar et al. (1997) suggested that hybridization on a large-scale of yak with local Tibetan cattle was another factor leading to this sharp decline in the pure yak population.

Yak types

There are a number of different phenotypic types among Indian yak. The "common" yak resemble medium size hill cattle in conformation; "Bisonian" yak are bigger animals; "Bare-back" yak have a long body and little hair on their backs. Yak with a particularly hairy forehead, long-haired yak and white yak represent the fourth type described in more detail by Pal et al. (1994). It is not suggested that these types represent different breeds as such as they occur within the same districts or even within herds.

Among the ten colour patterns noted for yak in India, the majority are black (29 percent) or black with white patches (40 percent). Some 15 percent are grey in colour and the remainder of the population is made up of small proportions of brown with white patches, pure white and various mixtures, including piebald and skewbald animals.

Table 11.2.10 Pure yak population in the Indian states (from 1997 census)





M: F*

Arunachal Pradesh

West Kamang

1 379

8 480*



6 853

West Subansiri




4 865

5 346






Uttar Pradesh









Himachal Pradesh


2 365

5 690



1 321

Lahul Spiti

1 997



Jammu & Kashmir

Kashmir Div


31 379


Laddak Div

25 662

Jammu Div

5 526

* Ratio of males to females.

Breeding and hybridization

The Indian yak population is thought to suffer from inbreeding due to the nonavailability of new yak germ-plasm from Tibet for the past five decades (as referred to earlier) and because of the practice of prolonged use of the same bull within herds. Exchange of breeding bulls among herds and selection schemes have not become established as regular practices, although the intentions appear to exist as part of the yak projects of the National Research Council.

Hybridization with local cattle is practised only randomly, although the F1 hybrid is generally more productive than either parental species. It has to be stressed, however, that yak and the F1 rarely run together on the same grazing, except in winter. During the growing season, the F1 are at mid-altitudes and the yak at the highest altitudes. Claims for higher growth and milk output from the F1 relative to the yak must therefore take account of a possible nutritional advantage enjoyed by the F1. In terms of milk output, though the quantity from the F1 is higher than from the yak, the fat content is less and total fat production may be similar for yak and F1. The F1 provides a lower income from hair and the fine undercoat than the pure yak, but both types are good pack animals. The performance of animals from successive stages of mating yak with cattle (beyond the F1 stage) was found to be inferior to the F1 (Pal, 1992) - and producing animals beyond the F1 is discouraged because the different types are also difficult to differentiate visually. Nivsarkar et al. (1997) also shared the concern, expressed in Chapter 3, that even when there was a case for hybridizing to increase milk output from the herd, the extent of this should be restricted so as not to threaten the replacement of the pure yak population.

As in neighbouring countries, different names are attached to each of the various types of hybrid offspring from any such matings.

Management and nutrition

Traditional yak management in the Indian states is similar to that practised in countries like Bhutan, Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. An open seasonal migratory system is, however, confined to particular areas due to restrictions placed on movement by the different tribal clans. A considerable part of the high hills in the alpine region is stony and difficult terrain for grazing, with only small pockets of green meadow and the availability of water (Pal, 1993b). The social structure of the clans influences yak keeping. In Arunachal Pradesh, for example, a yak herder pays a royalty for the grazing right in the alpine area if he is not a member of the clan that has the rights to the area. Any numbers of herders are permitted to graze their animals, irrespective of the carrying capacity of the area, provided this is not opposed by the other occupants. The extra animals thus brought on to the grazing lead to over grazing and this has, in turn, resulted in the deterioration of the grazing land. The concept of stocking rate appears to be irrelevant to the village heads so long as they receive their royalty. A tenant system of yak rearing was once very popular. Affluent people owning a number of yak used to give away the right to their animals to small herders in return for a pre-arranged quantity of produce, such as churpi (wet cheese) or butter. This tenant system is gradually declining in popularity.

In the traditional seasonal migratory system, the alpine pastures (4 500 m and above) are grazed for the four months of June to September. The middle hills (3 500 - 4 500 m) are grazed from March to May as the animals migrate up to the high pastures and again on their return during October and November. The winter (December to the end of February) is then spent on grazing below 3 000 m.

This scheme is common to most yak herders in India. During the three peak-winter months the herders and their families stay in the village, and their yak graze adjoining pastures alongside other cattle, sheep and ponies. This concentration of stock during the winter has also led to a marked deterioration of the pastures and a consequent increase in the weed population. Occasionally, these weed components have been found to be toxic to yak (as recorded by Winter et al., 1994; Mondal et al., 1998).

Evaluation of alpine pastures at four sites (4 000 - 4 300 m) in the summer identified about 25 plant species of which only four were grasses (Carex sp, Cyperus vesiculosa and Festuca rubra) and the rest were herbaceous. Plant density varied from 1 742 per sq m to 3 988 per sq m with height varying from 9 - 10 cm (Pal et al., 1993).

As elsewhere, lack of winter feed leads to heavy weight loss (25 - 30 percent) of yak over that period, requiring recovery and new weight gain during the summer months. Efforts to improve the supply of winter feed by the introduction of different varieties of exotic, cold-temperate grasses has not been successful; new efforts may be directed at improving local grasses and other edible species.

The most likely cost-effective strategy for reducing winter weight loss of yak, apart from improved grazing management, may come from providing locally available roughages treated with urea, as a supplement to grazing. Preliminary trials with yak in India suggest an improvement in crude protein digestibility but, perhaps due to the small scale of the trials, have not yet shown significant effects in dry matter intake or on body weight changes (Pal et al., 2002; see Chapters 8 and 14).

Yak diseases

Disease among yak is most prevalent when the animals are on the mid-range and lower-range pastures from October to May. The diseases reported are similar to those in Chapter 9 but with a particular prevalence of ticks and lice. Helminth infections are especially common in calves where these can cause heavy mortality. Among viral diseases, Foot and Mouth disease is the most serious but seasonal, with highest incidences recorded in February and March. As already noted as a consequence of overgrazing, the intake of toxic weeds - pyrrolizidone alkaloid in Senecio in particular - has created problems (Mondal et al. 1998).

Reproduction and production

Under Indian conditions, the reproductive performance of yak is similar to that recorded in other yak-rearing countries. Typically, puberty in females first appears around 36 - 40 months of age when body weight is on average 184 ± 8 kg (79 percent of mature size). Oestrus cycle length is 20.1 ± 1.3 days and oestrus length 6 - 31 hours with an average of 15 ± 6. Most yak cows calve only once in every two years.

Males appear to be sexually mature at five years old when they have attained their final body weight and a scrotal circumference of around 27 cm (26.3 ± 1.3) - an increase in that circumference from the age of three years of 9 cm (Mohanty et al., 1999).

Milk yields of the yak vary but average from 1-2 kg per day while that from hybrids is fractionally higher (Jain, 1986). Total solids, solids-not-fat, fat, and ash are reported as 15.6 percent, 7.1 percent, 8.6 percent and 0.42 percent, respectively (Mondal and Pal, 1996). Churpi, a wet soft cheese, and butter, both made from fermented milk, are the principal milk products.

Yak meat is popular among the local hill people but has not found other outlets, possibly due to the poor conditions of slaughter and marketing. The meat is preserved by salting and drying.

As elsewhere, the hair and fine wool from yak are utilized (see Chapter 10) but provide little income. The yak in India are also valued as pack animals.

A number of studies have been conducted at the National Research Centre for Yak in India on aspects of adaptation of yak to high altitude and some of the parameters involved. References to some of this work is found in Chapter 4.

Yak in the cultural and religious life of the highland peoples

Animals in different forms and shapes are widely depicted in oriental cultures. The highland people in the Indian Himalayan states, as in neighbouring countries, profess Buddhism and consider the yak of celestial origin. The yak appears symbolically in the Buddhist scriptures in different forms and is extant in the mythology. Yak also feature in dances, festivities and pantomime.

Yak in the Indian development plans

The number of yak in India is insignificantly small compared to the number of cattle and buffalo, and the people depending on the yak for their livelihood are few, relative to the large population of the country. Still, the yak is of vital importance to a section of the people in the mountainous regions adjacent to the Himalayas. Government recognition and support for yak keeping did not appear in any of the Indian five-year plans until Plan 6, which saw the establishment of the National Research Centre for Yak in 1989. Characterization of yak genetic resources was also considered, and a pilot study was done by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (Karnal, Haryana) in the yak-raising areas.

The work of the National Research Centre is helping yak herders with investigations to improve husbandry services and to investigate some of the underlying scientific and practical problems that limit output. Many of the problems need long-term consideration, but most of the herders are more interested in short-term solutions and this divergence of view creates tensions. A second and perhaps more serious problem for the future of yak production in India is that the younger generation appear unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities and relative hardships of yak rearing. Some yak herds are disposed of or slaughtered for want of a willing family member prepared to take over from the present elderly owner. The future for yak in India is therefore uncertain, but an improved economic structure for the industry assisted by improved husbandry practices may create a more willing new generation of herders.


Gupta, N. & Gupta, S.C. (2000). Yak - status and conservation. In: Sahai, R. and Vijh, R.K (eds.), Domestic animal diversity - conservation & sustainable development. SI Publications, Karnal, India, pp. 179-187.

Jain, Y.C. (1986). Milk potential of yaks. Indian Farming, 35 (12): 25-37.

Mohanty, T.K. et al. (1999). Andrological evaluation of yak bull. 1. Correlation between age, body weight, scrotal and body measurements. Indian Journal of Animal Reproduction, 20: 130-133.

Mondal, D. & Pal, R.N. (1996). Chemical composition of yak milk. Indian Journal of Dairy Science, XLIX: 12.

Mondal, D. et al. (1998). Pyrrolizidone alkaloid poisoning in yak. Veterinary Record, 144: 508-509

Nivsarkar, A.N., Gupta, S.C. & Gupta, N. (1997). Yak production. Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, 394 pp.

Pal, R.N. (1992). Yak hybrids. Asian Livestock, XVII (8): 85-88.

Pal, R.N. (1993a). Halting the decline of the yak population in India, World Animal Review, 76: 56-57.

Pal, R.N. (1993b). Yak (Poephagus grunniens L.) of India. Animal Genetic Resources Information, 12: 63-71.

Pal, R.N., Basu, A. & Barari, S.K. (1993). High altitude pastures for yak. VI. Animal Nutrition Research Workers' Conference in Bhubaneshwar, 13-16 September 1993.

Pal, R.N., Barari, S.K. & Basu, A. (1994). Yak (Poephagus grunniens L.), its type - a field study. Indian Journal of Animal Sciences, 64: 853-856.

Pal, R.N., Pattanayak, S. & Mohanty, T.K. (2002). Urea enriched finger millet straw (Elensine coracana): Effect of feeding on yak. Proceedings of the third international congress on yak, in Lhasa, China, 4-9 September 2000. International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Nairobi, pp. 251-258.

Winter, H. et al. (1994). Pyrrolizidine alkaloid poisoning of yaks: identification of the plants involved. Veterinary Record, 134: 135-139.

[9] R. N. Pal was formerly the Director of the National Research Centre on Yak (at Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh) of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research.

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