The Musk Ox
A living Prehistoric Animal

Palmer, AK

July 28th, 2002

Our next outing was to the Musk ox farm down the street from the wolves. This is a carryover from the last ice age. A large furry herbivore, the name is misleading. The musk ox does not produce musk, and it is not an ox. It is actually in the goat and sheep group. Once a common face on the northern plains, by 1830, this quite easygoing creature was hunted to extinction, in North America. They were reintroduced when President Roosevelt brought a stock of 33 animals from Greenland. Although over 100 thousand musk oxen now run wild in Alaska, the animals on the farm are domestic. They are trained from birth to be around humans, and to like it. Each animal has its own personality and attitude, and is evaluated carefully. Such qualities as docility, and sociability are considered along with the amount of qiviut they produce and their parenting skills. They are bred and raised for their undercoat hair called qiviut. There are just under 50 animals on the farm. "Qiviut" is the under wool that keeps the animals warm during winter. As the days get longer and the temperatures rise, the musk ox begins to shed. Collection of qiviut begins after it has loosened from the animal's skin, but before it works its way between the guard hairs and gets lost to the wind. They comb the animals while the qiviut is still soft. It takes about 1 to 3 hours of combing during several sessions per animal to collect all the qiviut. We met a lovely young lady named Alex who took us around the fields for a visit with many of the creatures. She explained that the animals live a placid life of ease on the farm. They are combed once a year, which lasts about 3 hours and then turned back to pasture. In the winter, food is supplied through farming. The animals want for nothing. The qiviut is bagged for shipping to the processing plant that spins it into yarn. This is the end of the raw qiviut journey at the farm. Now the qiviut is handled by the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers Cooperative. Finally, the First Nations people receive the yarn at no cost and spin it in cottage industries into an assortment of garments. The hair is 4 times as warm as sheep's wool. Early in the spring, most of the cows will deliver a single calf. The average weight for a newborn calf is between 18 and 25 lbs. A newborn calf may be on its feet within thirty minutes and nursing soon after. That first drink of milk from the calf's mom contains colostrums, which is full of all sorts of healthy and essential antibodies (this is the same as a human mother's milk when a baby is first born). At about 12 hours old the calf is weighed and are given vaccinations against bacterial scours, rota corna virus. It also gets an ear tag. After this initial handing, the calf and her mother are put into a separate maternity pen. It is a clean and quiet pen where mothers can spend lots of peaceful time with the calves. Calves stay with their mothers throughout the summer. A musk ox cow is not a producer of great quantities of milk. They have small udders hidden deep under the folds of a lot of hair. The milk is very concentrated with four times the fat and protein content of cow's milk. Calves gain about 1 lb. per day on this rich milk. To get the calf readily acquainted with solid foods they build a creep feeder. Here the calf can experiment with eating pellets without having to compete with its voracious mother. Taming a musk ox is a process that begins while they are calves. While a calf is still suckling, great effort is made to make sure that their exposure to humans is positive; sitting with the calves, coaxing them with treats such as browse or pellets, slowly getting them accustomed to people and the farm routine. One bull will have up to 15 selected cows for his harem. It is believed that the photoperiod, or length of light versus darkness determines when the bull goes into rut. Many times bulls will have a false rut in the spring because the photoperiod is similar to that of fall, and their system responds accordingly. Cows come into heat throughout much of late summer autumn and early winter. The gestation period is 8 months, so breeding can be planned to result in calving at a convenient time. A cow bred in August will have her baby in April. This was quite fun. There were about a dozen people in the groups and conversation flowed freely. The sun was bright and the day warm. It was quite enjoyable. 

*** THE END ***