Yak to the land

Brandon couple finds peace raising herd in a kinder, gentler way


BRANDON — There’s a place on the Hollow Road that looks like a post card — beautifully renovated house and barns, a team of ancient maples standing guard out front, a colorful flock of chickens inspecting the yard, a herd of yaks grazing quietly across the dirt road…

Yes, yaks. Members of the bovine family, they are unique and unlike cows in many, many ways. And they are delicious.

One of the 21 domestic yaks on the 162-acre Cedar Rail Farm in Brandon. Photo by Lee Kahrs

The path to the farm

Stephen Dombrowski and Amy Menard are the husband and wife behind Cedar Rail Farm and the only herd of yaks in Brandon, possibly all of Rutland County, and likely most of Vermont.

“When I bought this place, that’s when the yaks started,” Menard said. “ We wanted to keep the farm a farm, and we needed some animal partners.”

Steve Dombrowski and Amy Menard at their Cedar Rail Farm on the Hollow Road in Brandon. Photo by Lee Kahrs

The interview began in the dooryard. Leaning up against a 1929 Ford AA pickup truck in the driveway, Dombroski, 65, is the picture of contentment. He’s a quiet man and soft-spoken, one who clearly cares for the land and the animals under his care. It’s a slower pace than what he’s used to. Dombrowski spent 35 years working in Alaska as a construction materials specialist in heavy civil construction i.e. building airports, bridges and roads in the bush. His specialty? Asphalt paving. Dombrowski spent a decade commuting to Anchorage, Alaska and being gone for months at a time. He stopped commuting in 2017 thinking he would retire to the farm with his wife, but a job materialized with Wilk Paving and he found himself only commuting the half hour to Rutland. That said, Alaska runs deep in Dombrowski’s blood.

“I consider myself an Alaskan living in Vermont,” he said.

They met in the Last Frontier in 2007. Menard, 52, had gotten her law degree from Northeastern University School of Law and participated in the school’s cooperative legal education program. It affords law students the chance to work right out of law school and gain valuable experience. Menard took a co-op opportunity in Anchorage in 1993 and spent the next 14 years there. Originally from Charlotte, Vt., Menard was looking for a farm in Vermont of her own and bought Cedar Rail Farm in 2003. Menard started her own firm in Middlebury last year, Putnam and Menard, with Benjamin Putnam,

“When I was looking for property, Chittenden County isn’t what I wanted anymore,” she said. “Brandon is a lot like the Charlotte I grew up in,” she said.

Amy Menard in front of her 19th Century farmhouse on the Hollow Road.

The house dates back to 1803, Menard said. One barn was built in 1914, but the oldest one is a beauty that dates back to 1790. The couple got a Historic Preservation grant to rehabilitate that barn. In fact, most of the buildings on the162-acre farm were rehabilitated after Menard bought the place. It is a far cry from what the farm looked like then, having lay fallow for 25 years, but that didn’t phase the attorney.

“I need stuff to do,” she said matter of factly, “but none of what you see would be here without Steve.”

What are yaks like?

Dombrowksi first encountered yaks outside of Delta, Alaska when he was working on a project. There, on 2,700 acres east of Fairbanks, 130 of the beasts thrived. So when it came time to add animals at Cedar Rail Farm, they decided on yaks.

“We wanted some animals, and we’re pretty committed to not depending on a store,” Menard said. “So the yaks are partnering with us to keep the farm tended, and they’re delicious.”

Yak meat is a lot like bison meat, Dombrowski said, but much leaner and very high in protein and Omega 3 oils.

The Cedar Rail herd gazing peacefully on recent summer day in Brandon.

About the size of a cow, that is where the similarities end. Yaks have larger horns like beef cows, and like muskox, yak have two coats, making them hardy cold weather animals. Yak originated in Tibet in the Himalayas of East Asia, and can easily thrive in well below zero temperatures. They are also one of the highest-elevation living animals on the planet, and live comfortably above 20,000 feet.

“There is no known low temperature for a yak,” Dombrowski said, adding that the herd lives in the woods during the winter. They don’t need a barn or even a run-in shed.

Their long outer coat sheds in the spring, and the long, soft hair is prized by fiber artists for knitting and weaving.

“But you have to comb them for that,” Menard said. “We don’t comb them.”

Yak milk is also prized, containing higher nutrient density and butterfat than cow’s milk.

They are also used as pack animals in the Himalayas and make good farm pets.

Besides its coat and its horns, the other defining characteristic of the yak is its tail. While cows have a hairless tail except for a tuft at the end, yaks have tails like horses, long and straight and full.

“They run like a herd of horses too,” Dombrowski said

Yaks don’t sexually mature until three or four years of age, much slower than cows, so that’s the yardstick used for harvesting. Menard and Dombrowski only butcher two to three of the animals each year to feed themselves and give away some of the meat to friends and family. But how the animals are killed is very important to the couple. Monty Winship in Clarendon comes to the farm and does the deed.

“He’s very gentle and quiet,” Menard said. “He’s exactly who I’d want. It has to be instantaneous, and no pain. Animals deserve respect right up to and through their deaths.”

Steve Dombrowski gazes out over his herd of yak. Photo by Margaret Kahrs

Dombrowski describes the personality of the domesticated yak as “somewhere between an elk and a beef cow.” In other words, fairly calm, intelligent, but not to be underestimated.

“They’re wary,” Dombrowski said. “Anything canine, they do not like dogs at all. They chase off coyotes. You just don’t turn your back on them.”

And each yak has its own personality, some more pleasant than others. The more ill tempered animals see Monty Winship first.

“A woman in Alaska once told me, ‘You can find my meanest yaks in the finest restaurants.’ The mean ones who are not nice guys, they are harvested first. We’ve had some that turn into hamburger quicker,” Dombrowski said.

Menard added that that means it’s usually a bull that goes first.

“We kind of have a feminist utopia here,” she said with a laugh.

Yaks arrived in the U.S. in the early 1900s via Canada but didn’t gain popularity here until the 1980s when ranchers started breeding programs. According to the International Yak Association, there are roughly 7,000 yak in the U.S. now.

Quality of life, not quantity

So how does one acquire a herd of yak? Craigslist, of course. It was 2011 when Dombrowksi said an ad from a guy in Pennsylvania selling his yak herd. At first, he was thrilled because they had given up looking for yak east of the Mississippi. Most sellers were out west. The man was selling a herd of 18 yak.

“They were in terrible shape,” Dombrowski said. “They were malnourished and emaciated, covered in burdocks. I was used to seeing magnificent yaks in Alaska and these were in really bad shape.”

The couple currently has a herd of 21 yaks, including three from original herd, and are happy with that number. They are not interested in making money with their herd, not are they interested in having a larger operation. It’s a quality of life issue.

“It’s really important to me that they have a good life, good pasture,” Menard said. “It’s not about volume. I chose yaks because I wanted to be able to harvest them here. They’re never scared, they’re never transported. I really just wanted them to have a good life.”

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