Saturday, August 11, 2007
Spying three intruders inside their grassy sanctuary, a herd of horned bovines immediately went on the defensive. They grouped together and charged full speed across the field to within 10 feet, dropped their front shoulders and dared anyone to take another step.
"That's the yak in them," farmer Pete Mentzer explained.
"They're 50-50 yak and beef animal," he said of the creatures, which have long faces, low-set ears, thick coats and tails, and oddly angled horns.
Mentzer, who grew up farming in Loudoun County, and his partner, Jim Dumbrell, a retired British oil and gas pipeline consultant, are breeding yattle -- a cross between cows and yaks. "We laughingly call it Frankensteer," Dumbrell said of the crossbreed.
The odd pairings of farmer and oilman, cow and yak are indicative of the changing nature of farming in Loudoun, where operations that once raised corn, wheat and beef cattle across hundreds of acres have been sold off and broken up for development.
In their place have come nontraditional hobby farms -- organic vegetables, wine grapes, alpacas, llamas and now yattle -- often run by newcomers looking as much for a taste of country life as for the next big thing.
"After farms were sold off here, people had five or 10 or 20 acres, and they could not raise commodities profitably on those places," said Warren Howell, agricultural development officer with the county's Department of Economic Development. "They had to go into niche [products], and many of them have found that profitable."
Right now, yattle are the next big nothing. But Mentzer and Dumbrell hope they become the rage of a health-conscious society looking for a low-fat alternative to traditional beef.
Because yaks, with their horns and long coats, are cold-weather animals native to such places as Tibet, their fat is concentrated on the outside of their bodies, not riddled throughout, resulting in a low-cholesterol but slightly tough meat, Dumbrell said. By breeding the animals with beef cattle, the pair hopes to meld the best traits of both species.
A far cry from the days when the success or failure of the year's harvest governed family fortunes, ventures such as Dumbrell's are often pursued more out of whimsy than necessity.
"I get a lot of pleasure out of it," said Dumbrell, 65, who came to Loudoun 18 years ago and describes himself as a novice farmer. "I love working with animals."