Roughly two short hours from Denver — just outside of Cañon City — lies one of the state’s most unique places of interest. The Hey Hey Yak Ranch — a small operation run by Sean Gall and Dawn Birge — is a 73-acre agrarian paradise home to a modest herd of 12 yaks, 41 pigs, 11 chickens, one rooster, three dogs and a “mountain lion” by the name of Marley. The place is a combination of multiple pens, high-country pasture, a wading lake and a whole lot of hospitality. The couple raises animals to be sold live and processed into meat and hide, also giving tours to introduce people to the fantastic and outlandish cattle.
Cañon City sits around Denver’s elevation — the ranch resting somewhere between 5,300 – 5,5000 feet high. According to Gall, yaks thrive anywhere above 4,000 feet, and by the looks of it, the crew is quite comfortable roaming the hilly grasslands that make up the place. This is Gall’s second spot. The first is a 3,000-acre range in the San Luis Valley where the majority of his herd still roams. The 11 pasture yaks — with names like Leo, Phoebe and Babette — and one bottle-baby that occupy the residence are still a formidable sight. The other location has a whopping 120 of the burly beasts stomping the land. An old friend Jay Roybal remains on the original property doing his best to impose order.
The ranch is about a half-mile down country road 69 and is conspicuously marked by a street sign reading Yak Lover’s Lane. Just beyond the gate, the first of several packs of grunting hogs provide ample welcome. Further down the path, there are several more hog-pens — the babies and teens each get a separate domain — and an individual space for the youngest yak of the herd Vahara.
The acreage is named after Gall’s parents’ bar, the Hey Hey Bar and Grill in Columbus, Ohio. The venue has been in the family since 1981. “I grew up in the bar changing kegs,” laughed Gall regarding his agricultural background. Gall named his budding business on a whim after his first slaughter when the butcher put the rancher on the spot by asking what he would like put on the package. The title is certainly apt and inviting, with origins as amusing as the yaks themselves. The bar originally opened during prohibition and has been functioning as a watering hole under varied ownership for nearly a century. “Hey hey the beer-man is here,” was the code used to get in when hooch was harder to come by. Gall still sends yak-meat to the family-restaurant, sometimes delivering a 1,000-pound shipment himself.
The journey to becoming a yak farmer was by no means direct. Outside of Tibet the likelihood of it being something one simply falls into is slim. “It started with turntablism,” reminisced Gall. His interest in DJing led him into video, which eventually landed him a spot editing film for a Buddhist monk in Charlottesville, West Virginia. The monk held a Sangha in Crestone, Colorado and in 2006 — after being familiarized with the area — Gall relocated to a parcel of land he and a buddy purchased hoping to live off the grid. After realizing the land was good for grazing, the budding rancher “looked into buffalo, then went and found yak.”
Two years ago Gall and Birge relocated to the current location, hoping that the lower elevation would be better suited for Birge’s daughter. The three live in a comfortable house on-site. Gall’s oil paintings adorn most of the walls and the regal feline Marley seems to always find the best spot to command the greatest amount of attention. Birge, self-described as the “ranch-hand Barbie” played a substantial role in the addition of the pigs — a mix of Berkshire, Mangalista and crossbreeds that only appeared at the new location — citing a long-lasting desire to have some of the animals around. The pack is fairly mild-mannered but definitely make their presence known. Hogs meant for breeding are given names like Bonnie and Clyde, while those destined for the chopping block receive designations like Bacon and Bits.
Many of the yaks are raised for breeding, with an annual slaughter of some of the males around the start of winter. The ranch produces fur, leather and meat. All the pigs are fed a combination of local barley, wheat and sorghum with the yaks being entirely grass-fed and finished. There are no shots or hormones. The meat is delicious — lean like buffalo with a sweeter flavor that rests closer to beef. Yak is also the only bovine that provides omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Everything is locally processed at the USDA-Certified Rick’s Processing in Cañon City. Birge sold nearly 5,000 yak meatballs at the 2012 Frisco BBQ Challenge, and while they didn’t place, the volume she doled out speaks for itself. “Once you go yak you don’t go back,” joked Gall. Their yaks won at the 2013 National Western Stock Show in Denver with the now-passed bull Lito receiving the people’s choice award.
Birge and Gall are passionate, so much so that a colorful yak covers much of Gall’s midsection. They hope to eventually open a food truck, and in the meanwhile, chefs from across the state are encouraged to reach out if they want to include the splendid meat on their menu. The welcoming pair are happy to host free tours of the ranch and will gladly make home deliveries of the product during their frequent trips to Denver. Sure, ordering the stuff is fine, but there are few experiences quite as pleasantly unsettling and exhilarating as hand-feeding one of the noble creatures.
If you are interested in setting up a tour, purchasing meat or simply learning more about yaks the best way to do so is by direct message on Facebook.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.