Under the touch of petite scientist Yan Ping, a tall and powerful black yak, weighing more than 400 kilograms, becomes as obedient as a lamb.
Unlike other yaks, this one has no horns. It is a new breed cultivated by Yan and her team from the Lanzhou Institute of Husbandry and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. It is expected to help herdsmen on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the "roof of the world", out of poverty.
Yaks without horns
It took more than 20 years for Yan's team, working with Datong Yak Breeding Farm in Northwest China's Qinghai province, to breed the Ashidan yak, which is named after the 4,380-meter Ashidan Mountain that looms over the farm.
"The Ashidan yak has no horns and a mild temperament, so it is easier to keep and feed in the stalls," Yan said.
"It is better suited for large-scale intensive breeding in the cold and arid alpine areas of China. We can make full use of feed resources in the alpine, semi-agricultural and semi-pastoral areas of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau."
Traditionally, yaks grazed seasonally on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Yan said that grazing, supplementary feeding and whole-house feeding can be combined to increase yak breeding for all seasons.
Naturally, about 6 or 7 percent of the yaks in Qinghai are born without horns and these were selected for the breeding program. Scientists identified the genes related to horns and cultivated the Ashidan yak using molecular breeding technology. Each Ashidan yak has a similar physique and appearance, and is genetically stable.
Under the same feeding conditions, the average reproductive rate of the Ashidan yak is 59.98 percent, which is 11.72 percentage points higher than that of local yaks, and the mortality rate is at 1.24 percent, 4.32 percentage points lower than that of local yaks, according to the research team.
The Ashidan yak was also bred to improve meat production. Close to 4,000 male Ashidan yaks have been introduced to Qinghai farms to improve livestock.
Statistics show that the average weight of the Ashisan yak at 18 months old is 92.77 kg, heavier than a local yak by 24.71 percent.
Yan, who has spent 35 years on the plateau studying yak breeding, is like a mother to the Ashidan yak. She also finds the animal pretty. "When the yaks walk, their long furs sway in the wind like a skirt," Yan said.
When Yan entered the Lanzhou institute in 1984, she was assigned to the yak research team. Since then, her first research subject has become her lifelong career.
At the Qinghai breeding farm, Yan saw yaks for the first time. Conditions on the farm were hard during the 1980s, with no electricity or running water.
Yan would spend more than half a year at a time on the farm, domesticating wild yaks, and making observations and measurements.
She stayed with herding families, and recorded the yaks' growth. She often trekked with the yaks for hours at altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 meters.
She has lost count of the number of times the yaks had injured her, but she has never given up.
Over the past 35 years, Yan has left her footprints all over grazing areas in the Tibet autonomous region and the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan and Gansu.
Yan has also taught herders new techniques in building barns and replacing stud yaks, and explained the risks of overgrazing and overmilking.
In 2005, Yan led her team to cultivate the Datong yak breed, which has the genes of wild yaks.
"Yaks lived on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau before humans did, and Tibetans domesticated yaks 8,000 years ago. Yaks are the means of production and the totem of people on the plateau," Yan said.
"I study and love yaks because of their toughness, bravery and hard work, which are precious qualities. Yak breeding on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a long cycle of time-and energy-consuming research. We need the spirit of the yak to respond to the difficulties and challenges in our research."
The Datong yaks have been introduced to many pastoral areas in Qinghai, Gansu, Tibet and the Xinjiang Uygur and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions, covering about 75 percent of all yak breeding areas in China. It also played an important role in improving husbandry on the plateau.
The Ashidan yaks will be introduced to more pastoral areas to provide another alternative for herders, increase their incomes and help alleviate poverty.
Long Chunhua, a herder of the Tu ethnic group in Qinghai, is raising more than 200 Ashidan yaks.
"My parents were herders. Most of the yaks they raised had long and hard horns. Those yaks were mainly raised free range, and were difficult to keep in stalls," Long said.
"But the Ashidan yaks are docile, grow faster and are easier to raise. Every year, they can bring us an income of 120,000 to 130,000 yuan ($17,440 to $18,900)."
At present, the number of Ashidan yaks cannot meet the demand. "We need to use molecular breeding and new reproduction technologies, extract potential functional genes of yaks, and improve propagation efficiency," Yan said.
The breeding of new varieties can prevent yak degeneration, improve production, promote scientific husbandry, and help herders shake off poverty, she added.
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