WELCH — Only a sacred yak could resist letting his first celebrity photoshoot go to his head.
The 20-year-old yak named Jericho, who for the last five years has lived at Hugh and Melodee Smith’s farm in Welch, was the inaugural winner of the Guinness Book of World Records’ new category for Longest Yak Horns.
On Wednesday, Jericho was the subject of a photo and video shoot that will be featured in the 2020 Guinness Book of World Records and on its YouTube channel.
For Chicago photographer Kevin Ramos of Kevin Scott Photography, it was his first yak assignment. Contracted for years by the Guinness Book of World Records, he's shot dozens of unique animals. But none were as accommodating as Jericho, said Ramos.
“He was so easygoing and relaxed,” Ramos said of the yak during the shoot. “He’s easier probably than most people.”
About that yak life
Melodee Smith acquired her first yaks from John Hooper, otherwise known as the "Yak Man." Hooper is the former president of the International Yak Association, and ran the biggest commercial yak operation in the state for years at his farm near Cold Spring.
The jewel of his herd was Jericho, who’d for years had the longest-known horns in the country. Hooper said a Tibetan monk once visited Jericho and blessed him. The act made Jericho sacred, and therefore free to live out his entire life on the farm.
When Hooper got out of the yak game for good in 2014, he sold his herd to the Smiths.
Smith calls herself a stay-at-home mom to her two kids but she’s also a stay-at-farm mom for a yak herd, wool and crossbred sheep, a retired horse, angora rabbits and several goats that live on their farm.
To educate the community on their niche farming operation, Smith holds yak camp each summer. Thirteen kids came this summer, she said, to learn about yaks and how to care for them.
She said she was interested in yaks because it was something unique to raise, along with being potentially profitable and sustainable.
“They aren’t going to eat me out of house and home,” said Smith. “Because they only eat 1 percent of their body weight every day.”
Right after she said this, nearby Jericho slowly turned his head and ripped a sweet potato vine out of the ground to eat. While chewing, he closed his eyes like he was appreciating the taste.
Jericho, or “Jerry”, as Smith calls him now, hangs amongst the 35-head yak herd at Clear Spring Farm.
A regular day for the animal, who weighs between 900 and 1,000 pounds, begins whenever he decides to get up. Smith said sometimes Jericho sleeps like a high-schooler on summer vacation.
“He’s so laid-back, so chill,” she said. “Life moves at a leisurely pace for Jericho.”
Smith said that in his old age, Jericho is not much of a leader to the herd, but he’s definitely the peacemaker. She also said even though he doesn’t show it, he's a huge fan of attention. His all-time favorite activity is to be brushed.
“As long as he’s got a comb on him and some grass and water, he’s thrilled,” said Smith.
Getting in the Guinness
Smith said she knew right away that Jericho’s horns deserved to be officially recognized. They were still growing then, she said, and continue to grow today.
“They are living,” she said of his horns.
In 2017, Smith entered Jericho’s horn measurements to the Guinness Book of World Records, but they didn’t have a yak category. He was put into competition with Texas Longhorns instead, but his handlebar-like horns belonged in a separate class.
The Guinness Book of World Records added a yak category the next year, and Smith entered Jericho again but the application didn’t meet the precise standards of the competition.
The entire measuring process has to be videotaped, said Smith, and each horn has to be measured three times from head-to-tip, the circumference and then tip-to-tip. A certified veterinarian (Bill Wustenberg in Jericho’s case) has to do the measurements. The process takes about three hours, said Smith.
Icon of Tibetan culture
Jericho made his first public appearance as a 2020 category winner at Boom Island Park in Minneapolis in July, at a celebration organized by the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota.
Yaks are the national animal of Tibet, and Tibetans living in Minnesota have been known to visit them on farms, said Smith.
According to National Geographic, yaks were as crucial for the survival of people of the Tibetan Plateau as bison were to American Indians. A bovine cousin of the cow with three times the lung capacity, yaks can withstand the harsh weather and terrain of Tibet, surviving on diets of grasses and sedges.