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Carbon Conserving Cattle

Animal agriculture and meat production are commonly reported to have a higher carbon footprint compared to other foods.  Many common livestock species raised on farms in Canada are dependent on indoor housing with artificial heat and ventilation in order for the animals to comfortably survive our Canadian winters. Beef cattle are able to withstand winter temperatures by increasing rumen activity through higher feed consumption.  However, the methane produced by rumen activity is reported as a large contributor of our world’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Originating in the Himalayas, yak are uniquely adapted to thrive in one of the harshest environments on earth.  Cold temperatures, low quality forage and hypoxia (low oxygen environment) are common in the yak’s natural habitat.  As a result of these conditions, yak have developed unique physiological adaptations that naturally reduce their carbon footprint.

Yak have a superior ability to conserve heat rather than a need to create it.10  A thick fleece coat is just one adaptation that allows yak to maintain a constant metabolic rate to lower temperatures than beef cattle.  Therefore, yak have less need to increase feed consumption when the temperature drops.

Good quality forage in high altitude terrain can be scarce, even during the growing season.  Therefore, yak have evolved with a slower digestive system, including a larger rumen and longer intestine, that is better able to extract nutrients from the forage that it consumes.  This capability  improves metabolic efficiency and reduces the amount of food required to carry on essential body functions. 10

These factors lower the land and feed required to raise yak relative to their body weight.

In addition, yak “have a unique rumen microbial ecosystem that is significantly different from that of cattle” which is expected to explain why yak produce less methane than cattle per unit of body weight.3

In 2017 another study reported much lower CH4 and H2 gas production from the yak’s digestive microbes than those in beef cattle.6


As a result, the researchers have described yak as having great potential as an “energy saving animal” 3 and a “low carbon animal”. 6

With greater heat conservation, superior ability to metabolise nutrients, and a unique digestive microflora, yak meat may be considered as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet.

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