Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Feasibility study looks as farming muskoxen

The March issue of the Arctic journal included a new study by SNRE graduate student Laura Starr about the feasibility of farming muskoxen for qiviut and livestock sales.

A baby muskox rests at the Large Animal Research Station.
Starr, who will receive a master's degree in natural resources management in May, is the lead author of the study, and her co-authors are SNRE Professor Josh Greenberg and Research Assistant Professor Jan Rowell.

Starr studied the feasibility of raising muskoxen for her master's thesis. She also conducted grazing research at the Large Animal Research Station, which raises a small herd of muskoxen.

The feasibility study looked at two herd sizes, 36 and 72 muskoxen, to estimate the principal costs and to model different sales scenarios. Although several scenarios showed promise,  the study says the most profitable option for either herd size was selling all the qiviut as value-added yarn, coupled with livestock sales.

Laura Starr measures forage with a
Grass Master.
But in the absence of selling livestock, the enterprise was profitable at either scale assuming all the qiviut was sold as yarn, the study states.

Qiviut, the soft underwool from muskoxen, is combed from the animals in the spring and prized by knitters. Qiviut is known for its light weight and warmth.

The study notes that the principal competition for farmed qiviut is qiviut from wild sources. Most of the qiviut on the market is harvested from wild muskoxen, according to the study. It is naturally shed by the animals and collected on the tundra or combed from farmed muskoxen.

The price for raw wild qiviut is $220 to $290 per kilogram, depending on the condition, while the current price for raw farmed qiviut is $495 per kilogram.

An Internet search in 2015 showed that small finished goods made out of qiviut, such as hats, scarves and cowls range from $150 to $400. Large finished garments made into designer suits cost $700 to $25,000.

Qiviut yarn is luxuriously soft.
Muskoxen are indigenous to the Arctic and were reintroduced to Alaska in the 1930s. Wild populations can be found north of the Brooks Range, on the Seward Peninsula and on Nunivak Island. They also grow well as a domesticated species in the research herd at UAF and at a nonprofit farm in Palmer.

Suzanna Caldwell of the The Alaska Dispatch News wrote about the feasibility study and interviewed Starr for a story published in today's edition. Caldwell notes that hurdles to starting a muskox business include the challenge that none are for sale.

Starr was the recipient of a $25,000 Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant in 2014 to study the grazing impacts of intensely managed soil and the feasibility of raising muskox in Alaska.

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