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Montana Couple Raises Arctic Musk Oxen
"We enjoy doing things that are unusual and different. This just seemed right for us," say Joel and Nancy Bender, who, as far as they know, have the only domestic herd of Arctic musk oxen in the lower 48 states.
The Benders own six of the animals and raise them for their valuable wool, called "qiviut". The rare taupe-colored fiber is as soft as down and eight times warmer than sheep's wool.
"As far as we know there's only one other ranch, in Alaska, that raises musk oxen for wool," says Joe. "Our goal is to provide an increased supply of qiviut to hand spinners and fiber artists. Musk oxen males sell for up to $1,000 and females for up to $12,000. Full-grown males can weigh up to 1,000 lbs. and stand 5 ft. at the shoulder. Females weigh about 700 lbs. and are 4 ft. tall. They can run amazingly fast for animals that otherwise saunter along at a turtle-like pace. They need little feed - they eat only about a third as much as a cow. We feed them mixed grass hay supplemented by alfalfa pellets during the winter. Because they are native to the Arctic Circle, they need no shelter even during the coldest Montana winters. They're tundra animals. I don't think they'd use a shelter even if we provided it. Last winter we had a wind-chill factor of 82 degrees below zero, and they were out running around and rolling in the snow. It was musk ox heaven. They loved it."
The Benders harvest the wool once a year. "Once you spin it you become spoiled for life," says Nancy, who has a degree in textiles. "It doesn't scratch the skin and it won't shrink even if boiled. It dyes beautifully, too. The wool can't be bought in stores, and is highly sought after for items such as caps, scarves and belts. Raw fiber sells for $15 per ounce, dehaired fiber for $25 per ounce, and spun fiber for $35 per ounce. However, it's so valuable and so warm that it should be used sparingly. Only one ounce is needed to knit a beautiful scarf or hat because you can mix qiviut with silk or fine wool to strengthen it or to stretch the supply. You wouldn't want to knit an entire sweater with it because it would be too hot."
Musk oxen have a two-part coat consisting of a shaggy outer coat which it sheds once a year and a warm undercoat. The Benders collect the fiber by combing the soft undercoat with picks. The job takes three hours per animal.
The Benders have a limited supply of qiviut available on a first come, first served basis. "If you wish to order qiviut please include a phone number so we can inform you on the status of our supply," says Nancy.
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Joel and Nancy Bender, 633 Fish Hatchery Road, Hamilton, Mont. 59840 (ph 406 363-6818). Photo courtesy Jim Gransbery, Billings, Montana Gazette

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1991 - Volume #15, Issue #1