Now that I have two totally different types of livestock, I find myself noticing some interesting differences between them. I mean, obviously... they're different. Yak have horns and elk have antlers, for instance. They may both grow out of their head, but one is regrown yearly and one is a permanent fixture.
But one of the reasons I got the yak was because they are, in some important ways, very similar to the elk. I like that they are an ecologically sound meat choice in that they both convert feed to meat in a much more efficient manner than beef or other traditional livestock. In general, elk and yak use about one third the feed of beef to produce one pound of meat. That's pretty incredible when you think about it!
Scientists claim that matriarchy is fairly rare in the animal kingdom, describing less than a dozen species that practice it. Elk are one of those species. Except for during the rut, when the bull doesn't really lead so much as terrorize the cows into submission to keep them away from rivals, the head cow leads the herd in their day to day decisions. This last rut, Big Guy was very protective of his harem, keeping them deep in the woods out of sight. In fact, for a few weeks, he was so protective, he wouldn't even let them come and get grain from me, despite their clearly wanting to.
The rest of the year, however, the herd is clearly led by a cow. Initially, it was 604, but last summer, as she approached calving time, after a number of very impressive boxing matches, 601 took over the lead position and has held it ever since. In my day to day observations of them, her leadership is fairly clearly seen in where they go and who does what when.
I spent most of my formative years working cattle out west on fairly large ranches. In those outfits, the bulls are kept separate most of the year, and - honestly - they just seem to be interested in doing their job and then resting (it's hard work, I guess! Ha!). I suppose because most of the year it's just a bunch of female cows hanging out, it didn't seem weird at all to move onto an elk farm where the predominant social structure is one of matriarchy. So I was a bit surprised by just how patriarchal the yak are. The big bull is clearly in charge... of everything and his herd dutifully follows his every move. The video below is a perfect example of how they follow him around, strung in a line, head to tail.
Growing up, I loved watching Nature on PBS and other wildlife shows. One of the things I love about my little farm is that it almost feels like my own episode of Nature every time I go out to check on my critters. Sometimes I'll go out to feed and my husband will call me and ask me why it's taken me two hours to do a twenty minute job. Oops! They're just so fascinating to watch - I never get tired of being out there with them!