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 http://www.localharvest.org/
- 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?
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% (http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/nutrition/DJ0598.html)
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.
Ask for the heart,, 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.
Here are a few other resources on buying good beef:
- Find a farmer near you at eatwild.com
- If you’re in the greater Grand Rapids area, definitely check out my local Grand Rapids real food resources page – I’ve listed all the farms we frequent for vegetables, meat, cheese, eggs, milk, and fruit!
- Cool infographic on beef; particularly the part about grassfed beef vs. grainfed, and it shows all the parts of a cow in case you forget what’s what
- Awesome story of the lives of two steers
- Order truly grassfed beef online through Tropical Traditions, TX Bar Organics (fajitas pictured below) or US Wellness Meats
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.