Beef: From Field to Freezer, a How-to-Buy-a-Cow Guide

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This is a guest post from Renee Harris of MadeOn Hard Lotion.

Beef: From Field to Freezer :: via Kitchen Stewardship

If you want to play a really mean trick on your kids, tell ‘em you bought them a cow. When they head to the backyard to check it out, open the freezer and say, “Sorry guys, he’s in here.”

Maybe that sense of humor won’t fly at your house, but a smart and informed shopper can bring home the best possible, high-quality beef from the field to her freezer, at a cost savings. You’ll need to know a few terms, have a few hundred bucks saved up, and be armed with questions, both to ask and to answer.

The benefits: You’ll have your freezer stocked with an animal that grazed in lush, green pastures and gained weight naturally on grass. Compare that to the cattle who was prematurely separated from his mother, lived in cattle-lined stock pens, fed corn, protein supplements and growth hormones, sold at the auction and slaughtered at a young age.

Now that you know why you want to buy a happy cow, let’s discover how to do it. By the way, a distinction you should be aware of: although I’ve been referring to cows (female), you’ll likely be buying a steer (male).

How to Find Beef for Purchase

  • Local online connections: we’re part of a local homeschool Yahoo! group of over 400 families. We’ve purchased lamb and beef several times from a few local families this way, as members will post when they have an animal for sale, or when they know of others who do.

  • Ask a rancher friend to raise it for you: when our friends with a large piece of ranch property were thinking of adding farm animals, we went in on it and they raised two hogs, one for them and one for us. Our kids got to feed the hog acorns.

  • Ask a local butcher: I don’t mean the guy at the grocery store, but look for a free-standing butcher shop. He’ll know who the farmers are and put you in touch. We’ve purchased our pork this way.

  • 4-H : when the county fair rolls around, this could be a good time to keep your ear out for animals who may not have qualified for the fair. The 4-H student who raised the animal would still like to make money on the animal (the qualified animals are usually sold at a high cost at the fair, where businesses pay top dollar to reward the student for his or her work).

  • Craigslist: maybe a risky venture, but we’ve had success buying animals this way because often you’ll find a rancher who does this for a living, or at least a hobby. If you’re unable to find an agreed-upon way of handling payment, pass on this route. What works for us is to wait until the animal is at our butcher, and then mail the owner a check. He can keep the meat from being released to us until the check clears.

  • Local CSA: we’ve purchased chickens, turkeys and beef from our local CSA, who had extra farm animals on hand for purchase. (Note: chickens and turkeys will not be cheaper than the regular prices of non-free-range poultry at your store).

  • Online Ranch or Farmer’s Market: This is a more expensive route because the store or ranch is selling you meat, not a live animal, but you could still benefit by buying in bulk. Check

  • Get Creative: after our first successful experience with buying a full steer, we asked the rancher (a fellow homeschool mom) if she’d be willing to raise another steer for us. She bought two calves, sold us one at a price lower than if he was full-grown, and then she raised our steer on grass. The lower, up-front cost allowed us a huge savings in the end (and we accepted the risk that something could have happened to the calf growing up) and it benefited both families, as cattle prefer to live in groups rather than alone.

Terms to Know and Questions to Ask When Shopping Around

  • Size of Steer: It’s tempting to get hung up on the age of the steer but it comes to the size when it’s time to slaughter. Expect a weight of a minimum of 900 lbs and the age around 1-2.5 years old. What is the size and weight of your steer?

  • Hanging weight: the weight after the animal has been slaughtered, insides removed, and blood drained. This is versus the actual, or live, weight .The cut weight is the amount of beef you actually take home in packages. Are you charging by hanging weight or live weight?

  • Grass Fed vs Grain Fed: Try for an animal that has been primarily raised on grass but don’t shy away from the animal with some grain-feeding. Grass fed meat is naturally leaner, and if you’re new to fresh, naturally fed and non-hormone-fed beef, you may prefer the taste of some grain-feeding beef. Many ranchers will “finish off” the steer by feeding it grain at the end, either for the marbling effect on the meat, to beef it up a little more, or because there was no grass left to graze on. Has the steer been raised on grass and if you fed him grains, for how long?

  • Aging Beef (hang time): Most butchers will hang the carcass after slaughtering, from 7 to 14 days. If you have a choice, ask for at least 10 days, 20 if you can. This longer aging gives a better flavor and increased tenderness. Butchers sometimes prefer a shorter hang time to free up freezer space and keep the hang weight higher. How long will the carcass be hung?

  • Bragging points: These ranchers have raised their animals with great care, and are happy to tell you all about it. You may hear “Angus,” “fed on spring grass,” and “antibiotic-free.” You don’t have to understand it all; just take notes. Tell me about the steer you’re selling.

  • Fees: Whether or not you pay the slaughter fee or the rancher does, find out. It could cost $100-$200 dollars. What’s the cost? Are you charging by hang weight or live weight? Are there any other fees involved? What’s the best arrangement for payment?

  • Side/Whole: Ranchers prefer to sell the entire steer but will occasionally break it up to sell a side (half) or quarter. I recommend finding a friend who will commit to a part of the steer. If the steer is not yet ready for slaughter, they may ask for a deposit. Are you selling a whole, side or quarter?

From Field to Butcher

Anybody selling you an animal will likely allow you to visit it before it heads to the butcher. By our choice, we’ve only seen one of the many animals we’ve purchased over the years and that was the hog our friends raised for us. In fact, we’ve only met about half of the ranchers in person – everything else was taken care of online or by phone.

Here’s how it works:

  • The rancher will know when the animal has gained enough weight to send to the butcher. He will give you the timeline for that. (Be flexible: we had one lamb we thought we’d have for Christmas that became our Easter lamb instead. That type of patience usually isn’t required, but don’t plan your Fourth of July BBQ until your steaks are safely in the freezer.)

  • The rancher will communicate with the butcher on the slaughtering. You might be expected to pay the slaughter fee, but you won’t be expected to bring the slaughtered animal to the butcher. They handle all that.

  • The rancher may decide to grain feed the animal before butchering, even though you’re buying a grass-fed steer. As long as the steer has fed predominately on grass, our family prefers some graining at the end as it does give it some beautiful marbling (extra fat).

  • Once the steer has been slaughtered, it is “hung” to age.

  • Some of the savings come in from bypassing the USDA inspector guy. You are buying the animal before it goes to butcher, so there’s no “grading” on whether he’d get the USDA grade of choice or prime. If that’s a critical part of the process to you, choose to purchase your meat from a company that sells the beef cut and ready for the freezer.

Questions the Butcher will ask

  • Paper wrapped or vacuum packed? Paper wrapped is the old-fashioned butcher paper wrap. Vacuum packaging cuts down on juices running (pro) but uses plastic (con).

  • What types of cuts would you like? Do a little research ahead of time, basically thinking through what your family likes to eat: more steaks or more roasts? More ribs or more hamburger? More hamburger or more stew meat? London broil or tenderized steak?

  • How many steaks to a package and how thick do you like your steaks?

  • How much hamburger and stew meat to a package, 1 lb, 1.5 lbs or 2 lb packages?

  • Visa or Mastercard? Winking smile

How Much Will I Expect to Pay?

There’s usually a “market rate” for buying a steer. Ranchers will almost always give you an estimate of what the hang weight will be so you can figure out the cost.

Here’s an example of a steer we purchased last year. This was for a side of beef:

  • Hang weight: 300 lbs
  • Price/weight (payment to the rancher): $3.00/lb (could be up to $4.00/lb)
  • Half of Slaughter Fee: $45
  • Butcher Fees (payment to the butcher): $.80/lb cut and wrap
  • Final amount of take-home/cut weight (70% of hang weight*): 210 lbs
  • Total: $1185 for 210 lbs of beef

*this depends on how lean/fat the steer was. It varies from 55% to 85% (

You just want to know cost per pound, right?


Not bad for ground beef, top sirloin steaks, brisket, short ribs, rib eye, chuck steak, New York, and Tri Tip.

But wait, there’s more!

Got a dog? Ask for the bones. You’ll get both soup bones and dog bones.

And more!

Ask for the heart, liver, tongue, and oxtail. (Remember, it’s just one animal, so if you’re splitting a whole steer with someone, it’s a cat fight on who gets what.)

Not done yet… if you or someone you know makes soap, ask for the suet (tell them it’s for soap so they’ll clean and grate it for you). Katie has to jump in! As a french fry aficionado, you actually want the suet to render your own delicious tallow. Holy cow yummy fries

Don’t forget the cowhide (just kidding… )

All that for just $5.64/lb.

Ready to shop? Let’s check out this listing I found recently on Craiglist:


Pretty straight-forward, eh? And this one is an even better deal than the prices I outlined above (though it wouldn’t hurt to ask if that $4.50/lb is for hang weight or cut weight. Simply ask, “So the estimate for this would be around $1000 total for the side?”). Either way, it’s a great deal for some quality meat… I’d check it out if I lived in Central California.

Now, for what to do with an oxtail, I’ll hand this back over to Katie.


Um, Katie’s mom thinks Katie knows what to do with an oxtail, too. I believe you’re supposed to make soup out of it, yes? Katie has never used an oxtail.

You can ask me how to cook liver or what to do with beef tongue though, and someday I’ll remember to post on what I do with the beef heart…

Here are a few other resources on buying good beef:

Mexican beef fajitas with greens (2) (475x356)

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Disclosure: I earn gift certificates from Tropical Traditions, and TX Bar Organics and US Wellness Meats did send me free samples for my review, but they didn’t pay for my opinion (naturally). See my full disclosure statement here.

Click here for my disclaimer and advertising disclosure - affiliate links in this post will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price.

31 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Mary P says

    Very helpful but I feel like we are missing something here. How much space does this take up? Can you only do it if you have an extra freezer? In this household we don’t have room for one nor the extra money to buy one and keep it running all the time. So while this is helpful I think it would be good to mention to folks how much space it takes up and the cost to keep an extra freezer running, right?

    • says

      Pretty accurate article based on our experience selling beef! Mary is right, though, it takes up a lot of freezer space. I like to freeze much of our garden produce, so that takes up a lot of space, too. Depending on circumstances, you may need most of a freezer for your beef. (My MIL keeps a portion of our beef until I have room for it… :>))

      • Jen says

        I just picked up a 8.8 cuft chest freezer in anticipation for the beef I’m about to buy. Since it is new, it only costs $31 a year to run. Since I’m saving much more than that buy buying beef in bulk, I think it’s definitely worth it!

    • says

      My coop just bought half a cow. We had 228 pounds of various cuts, which took up about half of a 14 cubic foot freezer. I’m planning on getting a 7 foot chest freezer that will fit most of the half cow (when I buy one in the future), or a 5 cubic foot for quarter cows.

    • says

      I do have an upright freezer, a chest freezer, and a second fridge/freezer combo that I use for all the milk, eggs, and meat that I buy in bulk. I have never looked at those costs but I’m sure it’s cheaper than paying retail….

  2. says

    Just bought 50 pounds of ground beef for $2.50/pound from friends who raise their own and “had extra”. Such a great deal and so yummy!

    We have had good luck finding chickens on Craig’s List…and the same farmer is also doing beef — just a hobby farm so not lots, but a great deal for us!

  3. Trisha says

    As one who raises beef (from my dairy cow) and lives in cattle country, I want to make a small correction. Calves are not taken prematurely from their moms. That would not be cost effective for the rancher. They gain a great deal of weight when they are nursing therefore are worth more that way. The rest is generally accurate though I like my steers to be about 18 months old which is the standard. 2 years is fine too, but that ends up being a LOT of beef.

    I don’t grain mine at all and because they are half Jersey half Angus, they have spectacular marbling.

    Different breeds will produce different amounts of marbling. It also will depend on how long the calf was able to nurse. I leave mine with the cow and share milk until it’s time to dry up the cow for her next calf.

    Having a side of beef in the freezer is a wonderful feeling! You know you’ll have good quality meat for your family for many months.

    • Melanie King says

      We love having farm fresh animals in the freezer! I would say though that you should be careful allowing beef to hang too long…beef quickly goes from more tender to tuition…we are specific that our beef/goats hang no longer than 20 days…it is a sick feeling to feed over aged beef to the dogs!

  4. says

    my SIL and some friends and us went in on a cow recently. we discovered that we have to make sure the one who SLAUGHTERS the cow knows we want the organ meats. we found out too late…guess he just cuts the cow and leaves it all in the field…or sells it to some weston pricer for 10x more than we ALREADY purchased it for…

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Oh, yikes, I never would have thought that needed to be a discussion, just the butcher! What a shame!! :( Katie

  5. says

    Awesome post. Thank you so much for the information. I have been wanting to purchase beef this way, but just to tight on money right now:( Hopefully in a year or so we can start purchasing meat this way.

  6. says

    I’ve never seen anyone charge “live weight.” I have only seen hanging weight, or take-home weight. Usually it is hanging weight. But if you ask for the tallow and bones too the prices are not bad. We always do and I render the fat myself from both pork and beef. And I make stock.

    On the pork, we don’t really like ribs, so we have that meat made into sausage. Bonus: when the butcher’s doing the meat just for you, they can make some changes like this for you. You can get cuts you don’t like made into ground meat.

    We purchase almost all our meat this way when possible, although sometimes we also buy through a local butcher shop a bit at a time. Our local butcher shop offers “meat boxes,” where if you spend a minimum of $50 you can get good prices on everything. It lowers their homemade sausage from $4.79/lb. to $3.33/lb. I buy a box every two weeks plus sometimes additional bones or a whole chicken. If you can find a local butcher (a real, raises-animals-sustainably one) that’s a great alternative to the chunk of change that buying whole animals is.

    • michelle says

      Around our area most all animals are sold live weight. In all our years of having 4-h animals we and everyone I know have sold live weight.Guess it depends on where you live.Either way it usually equals out to be about the same price.

  7. says

    I’ve only (briefly) considered buying a partial cow once in the past, but idea seems to be growing on me. I checked out the link for a local farm and there’s one not too far that offers both entire deliveries and CSA-style (which would be our choice since we have limited freezer space). Thanks so much for the informative post and helpful links!

  8. annie says

    yes, you can use oxtail to make soup. my mom makes a soup using oxtail, ginger, carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes that my siblings and i love.

  9. says

    We know someone that owns property and we have bought beef from him before but he didn’t butcher this year and now we are looking for an affordable way to assure we will have meat in the future. What is a good way to approach someone with land that is suitable for cows about raising a calf for us? We are unsure how to approach him and see if he would be willing to let us put a calf on his property.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Wow, I wish I knew how to help on this one! If you’re on Twitter, there’s an awesome group of farmers that do an #agchat every week, so checking with some of them will probably garner more advice than you need (my beef farmer is @wbdairy and might have some ideas too). Good luck!! :) Katie

    • michelle says

      I would approach them and just tell them what you would like.It really depends on how much work you want to do. are you willing to do all the feeding and cleaning of the area yourself. Possibly hauling water in the winter and depending where you are located and how cold it gets breaking ice in water tanks and refilling them daily.Do you want the land owner to do all the work.I would then present it to them that for use of their space to raise it you are willing to pay then X amount of dollars for use of the space, or x $ for them to do all the work you just provide the calf and feed, or you are willing to share a set amount of the meat with them in exchange for the use of property.Just a few different ideas on how you can go about it,

  10. Kelly says

    Just wanted to say than you so much for this article! I have been interested for about 1 year in buying a cow, but was really lost and feeling like a dummy. This article was EXTREMELY helpful!

    • says

      Hi Joy,

      It depends on your farmer. Some do take orders for 1/2 or 1/4 cows – but then of course they need more people to buy the rest of the cow. Lots of people will find friends to share with in order to purchase an entire cow and get exactly what they want.

  11. Elizabeth Mccordy says

    Ok, we had a cow slaughtered. The hamburger from that smells like really bad breath when I fry it. Is this natural? Is there something I can add to it to make it smell better? I can’t eat it due to the smell and don’t want to waste 100 lbs of burger.

  12. Robyn says

    Thanks for the article! I am interested in buying a cow for the cost savings and the benefit of knowing what’s in my beef, but I am worried about the lack of a USDA inspection.

    Do you have any information around that? What specifically do they do in an inspection? Have you ever had a problem that an inspection might have helped you avoid?

    • says

      I’m fairly sure that all butchering and processing plants still have to be inspected…so my guess is that you have nothing to worry about. I’d have a conversation with the farmer you’ve chosen to find out all the steps the cow goes through to get to you for real. Good luck! :) Katie

    • says

      I work at a USDA Inspected slaughter/processing facility. It is a very small, Co-Op (not the stereotypical massive slaughter house). We do both custom butchering and USDA inspected product. Only USDA meat is inspected on a regular basis. Custom meat (non-USDA) does have some inspections but are more like on a yearly basis by a health inspector.

      I would recommend finding a facilty/butcher that does both USDA and Custom and then choosing to have them do it Custom to save a little bit of money. Or you can ask your butcher if they have a HACCP program and if they do not, I personally would steer (see what I did there?) clear! Hope that helps?

    • says

      Hi Bernice,
      We bought a portion of a cow in November 2014 and paid about $4.50/pound TAKE HOME. I don’t remember what hanging weight price was – but remember that this is going to vary wildly by location, farmer, growing practices, etc. You just have to price your area. :) Katie

  13. JMB says

    Is there a good place to find average cost for ‘Take home’ price for your area when you are selling home raised beef you take to butcher? Donating to charity/food bank, need for accountant

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