Thursday, September 29, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson seven: Summary and frequently asked questions

I hope you have found the "How Stuff Works" series on how to purchase a side of beef both educational and informative. The process is not all that complicated once you have an idea of what to expect and it is well worth the extra work to have a freezer full of great-tasting, locally produced beef for your family to enjoy. I have included a list of other questions that have come up below. If you have a comment or question of your own feel free to post in the comments below.

Why would I want to buy a share of beef anyway?
The most important question! First off, as we discussed earlier in the series, buying a side of beef means you have the option of getting the meat cut exactly to your specifications and get a wide variety of cuts from steaks and burgers on the grill to a savory pot roast simmering in the crockpot all day. By purchasing a side of beef from a farmer you are helping to support the local economy and local food. There is something to be said about knowing exactly where your food comes from.

Is the meat really cheaper than at the store?
{Update Fall 2014 - beef prices are significantly higher than when I originally wrote this series in 2011. Nowadays, fall prices range from $3.50 to $4.50/lb hanging weight in my area, more in other seasons when there is not as much competition}

Perhaps. Right now (the summer/fall of 2011) beef prices in all areas of the production chain (from calves to steaks) are at record highs and these prices are passed down to the end consumer.  Let's revisit the cost of the example beef in lesson three. For reference, the hanging weight was 582 lbs and the farmer charged $3/lb hanging weight. For a quarter beef the total cost was $532.78 ($436.50 to the farmer and $96.28 in cut and wrap). If you bring home 100lbs of meat from the butcher that means you paid an average of $5.32/lb. Take a look at the prices of ground beef in the grocery store on your next trip. While just a few years ago ground beef could be found for as low as $0.99 a pound, prices this season range from $2.49 to $6.99 for basic ground beef in the supermarkets (high end grocery stores or organic, grass fed or natural beef cost even more). The ground beef in the purchased side of beef costs $5.32, but so does everything else including high end steak cuts that retail for much more.

Where can I find a farmer?
Ask around - many times friends or family can direct you to a local farmer. Another great option is Local Harvest. Use the search feature to locate a farm near you. The Farm and Garden section on Craigslist is also littered with postings selling beef (especially in the fall).

What is a good price?
It depends on all sorts of variables (market value of beef, cost of production, grain or grass fed, breed and age and so forth). In general, $3/lb hanging weight plus butcher fees is a fair price but prices can vary from region to region. You can find beef for cheaper but any lower than $2.25/lb plus processing and I would start to wonder why especially with the rising costs of production in today's market. An offer for beef at $2/lb with processing fees included is most often too good to be true. That price may seem cheap but when you have several hundred pounds of tough, chewy meat in the freezer, it no longer looks like such a good investment. In the fall there are many places offering beef for sale, call around and take your time asking questions about the beef - how old was it, what was the breed, how was it raised, how much pasture did it have, what kind of finishing did it have, how long has the farmer been raising beef, how many do they raise each year? A little research and preparation can save a lot of headache later.

How does hanging weight vary by breed?
Knowing the breed of beef will give an idea of what to expect. Angus is the most popular breed but Angus isn't necessarily any better than other breeds, they just have the biggest marketing lobby in the States. Most beef will be some sort of Angus or Angus cross. Dexters and Scottish highlands are smaller breeds of cattle so the overall hanging weight will be lower. Corriente and longhorns tend to be leaner breeds. Dairy breeds such as Jersey, Holstein, Guernsey, Swiss and so forth are also common at the hobby farm level (where folks raise two or three steers and keep one for themselves and sell the others). Bred for milk over meat, the dairy breeds can have a lower hanging weight but still produce good beef.

How long is the meat at the butcher?
In general it take about three weeks between processing and when the meat is ready for pickup. Usually the beef will hang in the meat locker for about 14 days before it is cut, wrapped and hard frozen. The hanging time increases the tenderness of the meat.

Could you do a series on buying pork too?
Sure. The process is mostly the same but look for a pork series soon.

Do you have any recipes?
Certainly. I have posted several recipes on the blog including tried and true recipes submitted by CSA members and others that cook with our grass finished beef. Here are the links to some of the most popular blog recipes:

Cheesy Hamburger Slumguillion
Fakey Beef Wellington
Beef Kafta
Slow Cooker Short Rib Ragu
Grass Finished Sesame Beef

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Onion harvest

It is about that time of year to start gathering in the later parts of the garden's bounty. The peas and lettuce are mostly gone, the green beans finishing up, now we start thinking about our root and storage crops. The other day we went through and dug the onion crop. Letting them sit for a few days out in the sun will give them a good cure by drying the outer layers. They will last much longer this way and I anticipate tying them up into braids in the next few days for use through the winter.


Buying a side of beef: Lesson six: Transportation and storage

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect. 

In this lesson of our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef we discuss picking up the meat from the processor and proper storage.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:

The butcher called and the beef is ready for pickup. Yay! Don't dash out the door just yet though, one of my guiding principles of the ranch is to never bring anything (cows, pigs, chickens, meat, fruit trees) home unless it has a home (a pen, yard, freezer or space to go). The last thing you want to do is bring home a year's supply of meat only to find that you lack enough room in the freezer.

How much freezer space?
A quarter share of beef will be between 80 and 120 pounds (depending on hanging weight as well as the number of boneless cuts included). Generally it is recommended to have about 3 cubic feet of freezer space for a quarter share. If your refrigerator freezer is completely empty (no ice cream , ice cube trays, cold packs, frozen veggies, no nothing!) you might be able to fit all the meat in there but I do not personally recommend storing the beef in this manner but instead encourage storage in a chest type freezer. If you are buying a half or whole beef, a chest freezer is required unless you plan on splitting with friends.

Why a chest freezer?
The main enemy of frozen foods, particularly meats is the threat of freezer burn. Freezer burn occurs when the temperature of the freezer fluctuates causing repeated micro-freeze thaw cycles on the surface of the meat. Frost free freezers do well to keep ice from accumulating in the box but do so at the disadvantage of the foods stored inside. Stored properly in a frost chest freezer (one that has to be unplugged and allowed to thaw out manually) that has an internal temperature of 0 degrees or below, your meat will keep for at least 18 months (though I have personally stored meat for several years with only slight changes in the color, but not the taste, of the meat).

Since you will be storing a considerable investment of meat in the freezer, if you will be purchasing a new chest freezer, it is recommended to buy a chest freezer with a lid on top instead of a standing freezer with a swinging door. The reason lies in the nature of cold air sinking - in a chest freezer you open the lid and rat around looking for something good to eat, find it and close the lid. All of the cold air is still settled around the product. However with a standing freezer, the instant the door opens, all of the cold airs floods out.

If you buy a new freezer be sure to plug it in a few days before picking up the meat. I recommend purchasing a small freezer thermometer to ensure the actual interior temperature is below zero degrees.

Now that the meat has a home when it comes home, we are ready to pack up for the butcher. Many butchers expect customers to bring their own coolers and boxes to transport the meat home (though I have used one facility that packs everything in cardboard boxes for you but the customer paid for this convenience in the form of higher per pound processing fees). Occasionally the butcher might have a few boxes kicking around but often they do not and unless you want to throw all the meat loose in the backseat, it is best to bring along something to haul the product home. We tend to use coolers and rubber-maid totes for hauling meat home from the processor though I always bring along a handful of those reusable grocery bags just in case we need a little more room. A quarter beef should fit in two mid-size coolers.

Bringing the meat home
Once you pay the butcher for the processing fees (consider bringing along a checkbook, just in case, as a surprising number of butchers do not take debit/credit), they will set your crates of meat out on the loading area. For the most part, they will not help you load the meat into your vehicle. Keep this in mind as you pack your boxes and coolers - either pack into boxes already in the vehicle or don't get them too heavy to lift (and remember to lift with your legs not your back!).

Do I need to bring ice or dry ice?
In general you will not need to bring ice with you to keep the meat cool. It comes out of the butcher's freezers at below zero degrees will keep itself cold for the ride home. Our processor is about an hour and half from the ranch and even on hot summer days, the butcher paper may get a little bit of condensation on it but the meat is still frozen rock solid.

Filling the freezer
As the neurotically organized person that I am, I record everything that goes into the freezer then later I tape a list with the types of cuts and the quantities on the door. Then we can check off what we take out and know at a glance what is still in there. It also helps us even our pace of consumption. Since most beef is sold in the fall, the novelty of eating all the steaks and ground beef first in the fall and winter will lead to a freezer full of roasts, stew meat and short ribs (all items that must cook for a long time) in the hot summer months. 

Another issue I see with many first time customers is what I like to call "freezer fatigue". Folks eagerly jump into sampling all the new cuts of beef in the freezer, then within a few months they are a little tired of beef but feel silly purchasing other meats (pork, chicken, seafood and so forth) when they already have a full freezer at home. By six months or so, they are so sick of beef, they take a break from it entirely. Relax! It is not a race, the meat won't go bad and it is OK to enjoy other types of meat too. The beef is meant to be stored for a long time, think of it as a year's supply.

Thawing beef
Many of first time customers are also weekly shoppers and as such, any meat for the week is purchased fresh. It can take a bit of adjustment to plan meals farther in advance to allow the beef to thaw. The easiest way is to plan a meal out in advance and put the beef in the fridge to thaw for a few days. The microwave is always an option but since we only have grass-finished beef the microwave draws out too much of the precious moisture in the meat so we never use this method. Our favorite quick-thaw method involves removing the beef from the butcher paper, placing in a zipper lock bag and placing in a bowl of warm water for about thirty minutes, turning frequently and changing the water as need. It may not thaw down a huge roast in record time but works well for burger and steaks to get a meal on the table in a hurry.

Now that your freezer is well stocked, be sure to take out a package of steaks to celebrate your investment. Lesson seven will summarize the entire "Buying Beef 101" series and address any questions.

Lesson seven: Summary and Frequently Asked Questions

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sad day for the service pickup


Buying a side of beef: Lesson five: providing cut and wrap instructions

In this lesson of our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef we discuss cut and wrap instructions for the butcher.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

Now we have a good feel for the process of buying a side of beef. We understand what it means to purchase shares in a live animal. We can calculate hanging weight and estimate yield. We know how to calculate the cost of purchasing the meat and what type of cuts come from each primal group. Now we are ready to provide our cut and wrap instructions to the butcher.

Of course, if you aren't super picky about what comes in your share, you can request the standard butcher's cut and only need to provide minimal information:

- Your name and phone number
- The name of the farmer you purchased the beef from
- The size of the share you purchased (whole, half, quarter)
- Don't forget to ask the hanging weight of the beef and processing fees!

Of course, in my opinion, providing your own cut/wrap instructions is a great way to ensure that the meat is cut to your specifications and needs of your family. After all, it is a big investment to buy a year's worth of meat in one go, it may as well be cut to your liking, no sense in having two steaks per package if you are a family of three.

Most all butchers are very helpful when it comes to walking you through the process of deciding how to have your meat cut up. They are used to fielding all sorts of questions so feel free to ask. Whenever I visit a new butcher I request a copy of their cut/wrap instructions sheet. Each sheet is designed differently - some go through each primal while others are broken into "steaks/roasts/other". It helps me to prepare when I know which questions they will ask and what they do not cover so I can be sure to pass on other instructions. The main questions they will ask beyond contact information are:

- the size of your share
- how many steaks per package
- thickness of steaks and size of roasts
- lbs of ground beef per package
- any special requests

Share size
Be sure to specify what size of share you are purchasing - whole, half or quarter. There are three different types of quarter shares:

Forequarter: This quarter contains less of the "money" steak cuts and so is frequently cheaper. Keep in mind the butcher fees will still be based on the overall hanging weight of the beef so the price break for the meat will be with the farmer. Be sure to ask if there is a discount for purchasing a front quarter.

The forequarter is a good choice for larger families seeking many roasts, are fans of ribeye steaks or those looking to get a deal on a lot of ground beef. Steaks include ribeye, flat iron and skirt (if requested) with the option of roasts from the chuck and brisket plus ground beef, short ribs, stew meat and soup bones.

Hindquarter: Since many of the valuable steak cuts are located in the hind quarter, be prepared to pay more for this section of beef. Some farmers will simply not sell fore and hind quarters because it can be difficult to find buyers for the forequarter and thus will only sell "half-of-a-half" quarters. Steaks in the hindquarter include: Tbone (or NY/tenderloin), top sirloin, tenderloin, round (or cubed round) and flank steak with rump and sirloin tip roasts plus ground beef, stew meat and soup bones.

Half-of-a-half: This quarter is exactly what it sounds like, all the cuts from a side of beef evenly distributed into two shares. This share gives the best variety of steaks, roasts and other cuts.

Number of steaks per package:
Pretty self explanatory here. Beef for our personal consumption and for our Meat CSA is packed two steaks/package.

Steak thickness:
For most people, a one inch thick steak is a perfect portion. Of course there are those that want a 2" ribeye or thin sirloin steaks but one inch is generally a good choice. However, in my personal experience, many butchers err on the side of a thicker steak (after all it is fewer cuts for them). When I have ordered 1" steaks, they lean toward 1.25" so I now request 3/4" steaks and end up with an average just shy of an inch.

Roast size:
A two to three pound roast is a good average size for a family of two with leftovers. Sirloin tip roast and brisket tend to be larger (3.5 to 5.5 lbs) and will not always fit in a crockpot whole.

Pounds of ground beef per package:
Most all of our ground beef is wrapped in one pound packages (though they average about 1.1lbs). They thaw quickly and are easy to distribute in the CSA and tend to be more flexible for stacking in the freezers. However, while a pound of ground beef is a good amount to use in a dish (taco meat, casserole, stroganoff and so forth), it doesn't quite make four burgers (especially if the beef is grain finished because it will shrink during cooking). Two pound packages are nice for big families or those wanting to thaw out one package and make several meals over the week but it does take much longer to thaw.

Special requests:
There are several steaks that are not part of the standard cut instructions and if the butcher does not mention them as you run down the cut list, be sure to request them instead of assuming they will show up in the share because they probably will not. These cuts include: flat iron steaks, skirt steak, hanger steak, tri-tip and occasionally flank steak. Beef cheeks must be requested before the day of slaughter or else they are discarded with the head. Other special requests can be related to services provided by the butcher shop like summer sausage, pepperoni or pre-formed hamburger patties. These items may have separate charges beyond the standard cut and wrap fees.

Wrapping and packaging:
Many butcher shops will double wrap with white butcher paper. The first layer is wrapped in plastic and the second in white butcher paper with a wax or plastic coating on one side. This system is widely used especially by small shops. Properly wrapped the meat will store for well over a year. The main disadvantage is not being able to see what is in the package. Some shops give the option of vacuum sealing (I have also seen those that use a sort of heat shrinking system but I wasn't took impressed with the shelf life of meat packed that way). The product looks nicer and stores longer but this frequently comes with a higher fee for cut and wrap because it takes much longer to do when there are several hundred packages per beef. We do not have any local shops that will vacu-seal but from the perspective of someone that sells meat for a living, I wish we did. Presentation goes a long way.

Also be sure to mention if you are interested in: stew meat, brisket, short ribs, shank and any offal (liver, heart, tongue).

If you would like to see sample yield records from a few of the beef we have processed over the years, read on. Otherwise, now that we are well equipped to determine how to have our share cut and wrapped we can move on to Lesson six: transportation and storage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson four: Cuts of beef

It has been a busy few weeks at the ranch but today we return to our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef. Lesson four will cover the different cuts of beef and where they come from on the carcass.

If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up the other lessons in this series on how to buy a side of beef:

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

In lesson three we learned about how to calculate the cost of a side of beef and the fees paid to both the farmer and the butcher. Here we consider the type of cuts your family normally eats and learn where certain cuts come from on a side of beef.

Before interfacing with the butcher to provide your cut instructions, you will want to have an idea of what kind of cuts you like and those that you do not care for so much. Think of the ways you normally eat beef:

- Is your family a "sit down, steak and potatoes type family" with a portion of meat for each person?

- Or, are you the type to use beef as an ingredient in a meal like stirfry and casseroles?

- Are you the type of cook to prepare a large meal with the intention of eating leftovers?

- Does your family use ground beef frequently in meal planning? How many pounds do you tend to prepare each serving?

- How frequently do you cook a roast?

- Do you see yourself preparing many meals using stew meat, short ribs, shanks or soup bones?

- Would you be interested in receiving any of the offal or variety meats (beef liver, heart or tongue)?

This brings me to a famous butcher's joke:

A man walks into the butcher shop to purchase a side of pork. 
When the butcher inquires about how the customer would like his 
side of pork cut up the man replies, "why all bacon of course".

Knowing the types of cuts you enjoy the most is only helpful to a point, as a side of beef or pork is only going to have so many of each type of cut. The names of cuts can vary depending on geographic location, but in the U.S. a beef is divided up into 10 primal/subprimal cuts, that is to say large sections of meat that are further broken down into retail cuts like steaks and roasts.


Primal cut: Chuck
This primal encompasses the neck, shoulder and part of the upper arm. These muscles do a lot of work and there is a good deal of connective tissue which makes it an excellent choice for braising and slow cooking.
What are my options: steaks, roasts (sometimes called arm roasts), stew meat or ground beef
Hidden gem: Flat iron steaks (also known as a boneless top blade among many other names)

Primal cut: Brisket

This primal from the chest of the beef is very tough and must be cooked long and slow. The brisket is used in corned beef and barbeque brisket but can be cooked as a plain ole pot roast. Some butchers I have worked with will automatically grind the brisket unless you specifically request it.
What are my options: Roast or grind

Primal cut: Rib

This primal is one of the more tender sections of beef. Located along the ribs, this is the source of a standing rib roast (also called a "prime rib" though technically that term refers to a grade of beef not a specific cut. The term is so common though that the butcher will understand).
What are my options: Roast (bone-in or boneless) or steaks (bone-in steaks = rib steaks, boneless = ribeye)

Primal cut: Plate

A smaller primal from the belly of the beef. This is the source of short ribs and skirt steaks.
What are my options: Ribs or grind plus skirt steak
Hidden gem: Hanger steak, also known as hanging tender

These first primals all come from the front (forequarter) part of the beef. The following come from the back or hindquarter of the beef. If you are purchasing a quarter of a beef, there is the option to purchase the front quarter, the rear quarter or a half-of-a-half, which is simply all of the cuts from one side of beef divided in two. Now on to the rear primals:

Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Short Loin

The three subprimals of the loin are the most tender cuts of beef. The short loin is where the good ole T-Bone steak comes from (and also Porterhouse steaks which are similar to T-Bone but contain a larger area of tenderloin though most butcher shops will label all the steaks a T-Bone). On one side of the T is the New York strip steak and the other side is the tenderloin/filet.
What are my options: T-Bone steaks or NY/tenderloin

Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Sirloin

A leaner portion of the loin, this muscle group is the source of sirloin steaks
What are my options: top sirloin steaks
Hidden gem: Tri-tip
Primal cut: Loin

Sub-primal cut: Tenderloin

The most tender muscle, a portion of the tenderloin extends into the short loin (hence TBone steaks) but the remaining tenderloin can be cut up into tenderloin (also called filet mignon) steaks or left whole as a roast.
What are my options: tenderloin steaks or roast

Primal cut: Round

This is a very lean muscle group that does a lot of work and so requires moist heat or careful cooking. The round, both top and bottom can be cut into steaks. The boneless rump roast also comes from this primal as well as the sirloin tip roast (which is not part of the loin primal at all but from the hip which is in the round primal).
What are my options: steaks, kabob meat, roast or grind.
Note: The round is a common source of cube or minute steaks which are simply boneless round steaks (top or bottom round) run though a tenderizing machine to slash the muscle fibers to make a quick cooking steak (made famous in chicken-fried steak but also great for other fast cooking applications like stirfry). Any boneless steak from a beef can be tenderized though I am sure one might get quizzical looks if you asked to tenderize the tenderloin. 

Primal cut: Flank

With the exception of the flank steak, most all of the flank primal is ground into hamburger. The other muscles are just too small for anything else.
What are my options: flank steak

Primal cut: Shank

The shank, or upper portion of the leg is an incredibly tough cut of meat but full of wonderful flavor for soups and beef stock. The low, slow, braised dish osso bucco uses cross-cut veal shank but can be prepared with beef shank. Some shops will automatically cross-cut (cut the meat perpendicular to the bone) the shank where others leave it whole. If you have a preference, speak up.
What are my options: shank or grind

Now that you have a good idea of all the different types of cuts on a beef and have given thought to how you might use them, we are ready to give our cut and wrap instructions to the butcher. This will be covered in Lesson five: cut and wrap instructions.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Anniversary adventures

Saturday was our sixth wedding anniversary but no day escapes the non-stop action of ranch life. Two years ago we spent our anniversary night trenching the driveway as an inch and a quarter of rain threatened to wash out the road. Not the most romantic day but still quite memorable.

We got a call bright and early from Teresa in at Madras saying she couldn't find our steers in the pasture. Nathan's nana Beverly has a few acres in town with pretty good grass and irrigation water so we parked a few of our CSA steers in there for a few months. They need good grass to be gaining weight and the grass at the ranch is pretty dried up this time of year.

Nevertheless, the steers were gone. Oh and did I mention Bev lives right along a highway? We quickly finished up morning chores and loaded up to head for town. What do you bring on an adventure like this? A big stick, radios, my camera and of course the phone number for the mobile butcher just in case.
Turns out though that the sheriff got a call in the night about some stock loose on the highway south of town near the auction yards. Thinking they had escaped from the auction yard, the sheriff called the yards and asked them to pick up the escapees. The fellas at the yards knew they didn't get out from there but graciously herded them into a pen, slapped the gate shut and went back to bed.

A morning that could have been spent chasing cattle across fields and farms, dodging cars on the highway turned out to be a quick trip down the road to the livestock auction to load up the renegades, give em a good scolding and thank the auction folks profusely.

And stay there!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Too much text on this page. We need a photo break!












Buying a side of beef: Lesson three - calculating the price of a side of beef

In the continuation of our "How Stuff Works" series on how to buy a side of beef, today we discuss how to calculate the price for a share of beef. If you are just joining us, be sure to catch up on lessons one and two first.

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

In Lesson two we learned about the differences between live weight, hanging weight and cut and wrap yield and how between each stage of processing, there is a certain amount of loss known as dress percentage and percent cutability. Now that we understand how the beef is weighed, we can discuss how to calculate the costs associated with purchasing a side of beef.

There are several methods farmers use to calculate the price of a side of beef for their customer. The single most common method is based on the hanging weight plus the butcher fees. Frequently this will be expressed as, "$3.00/lb hanging weight plus cut and wrap". {Update Fall 2014 - beef prices are significantly higher than when I originally wrote this series in 2011. Nowadays, fall prices range from $4.00 to $5.00/lb hanging weight in my area, more in other seasons when there is not as much competition}

That is great, but doesn't really help a customer prepare for the how much the beef will actually be. Since you are most likely purchasing shares in a live animal when you agree to buy beef from the farmer, neither one of you will know the exact price for that animal until it is sent to the butcher and you get the hanging weight.

Once the beef is at the butcher and you know the hanging weight you can easily calculate the price of your share. If the hanging weight is 582 and you agree to purchase a quarter beef at $3.00/lb the fees are calculated as such:

582 lbs x $3.00/lb = $1746 / 4 = $436.50 to the farmer for a quarter beef

The $436.50 is to be paid to the farmer but as a customer, you are still responsible for the fees the butcher charges to cut and wrap the beef.

In some instances, the farmer will deliver the animal to the processing facility, pay for the fees and then the customer picks up the meat from the farmer, pays his share for the beef and reimburses the farmer for the cut and wrap fees. A more common practice, is for you to pay the farmer for your share then go to the butcher to pick up your meat and pay the butcher for the cut and wrap. When talking with a farmer about potentially purchasing a share, ask if you will be picking up the meat from the farmer or the butcher.

So back to butcher fees. Each facility is different and has different fees. The most common fees include a per pound fee based on the hanging weight, a kill fee and possibly a tallow or bone disposal fee. There can be other fees if you opt for products like summer sausage, hotdogs/brats or pre-formed patties.

If you are providing custom cutting instructions to the butcher, ask what their fees are. That way you will know exactly how much your side of beef will cost. The fees that my current butcher charges are .55c/lb cut and wrap plus a $65.00 kill fee.

So if we return to our example hanging weight of 582 and you have purchased a quarter share, here is how to calculate the fees for cut and wrap:

582 lbs x .55c/lb + 65 = 385.10 / 4 = $96.28 in cut wrap for a quarter beef

Total price for a quarter beef:
$436.50 to the farmer + $96.28 to the butcher = $532.78

[Updated to add a note about cost: For a more detailed explanation, please see the comment below]
 We now know the price paid for our quarter beef ($532.78), now lets apply the price to the yield of the meat to determine our personal cost. In Lesson Two we use the example of 76% cutability (the final yield of meat when cut and wrapped, this is what will go in your freezer). 

582 lbs hanging weight x .76 cutability = 442lbs of cut and wrapped meat
442 lbs / 4 = 110.5 lbs of meat cut and wrapped for a quarter beef
Price = $532.78 / 145.5 lbs of meat hanging weight (582/4) = $3.66/lb
Cost = $532.78 / 110.5 lbs of meat cut and wrapped (442/4) = $4.82/lb

OK, now we know how much we are spending, but what kind of cuts come from a beef? Lesson four will walk through how a beef is broken down and all the different options for steaks, roasts and other cuts.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Buying a side of beef: Lesson two: Live weight, hanging weight and dressed weight

Today is a continuation of our "How Stuff Works" series on How to Buy a Side of Beef. If you missed yesterday's post, go ahead and start with Lesson One: Buying shares in a live animal before moving on to today's post. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section. Onward!

Buying a side of beef can be an economical way of filling the freezer and supporting your local farmer but the process can be extremely confusing for the first time customer. Here's a detailed primer on how it works and what to expect.

In Lesson one we learned about why buying meat direct from the farmer involves buying shares in a live animal and the different options for processing. Now let's move on to discussing the weight of the beef during different stages of processing.

Depending on the farmer you purchase your share from, the price of the beef will be based on the weight of the animal or meat from one of the stages of processing.

- Live weight (also known as "on the hoof" or "hoof weight) - Refers to just what it says, the live weight of the animal before processing. This is the least commonly used method with direct to market meat sales because most farmers don't have scales on the property (or the desire to load a 1,200 pound steer into the chute to get weighed). This weight measurement may also calculate in shrink. Shrink is what folks in the industry refer to the amount of weight the animal loses through *ahem* natural processes and stress during handling and transportation to the processing facility. If the animal is weighed before shrink, the customer is paying for hoof weight that has already *air quotes* "exited the body".

- Hanging weight (also known as "on the rail") - This term refers to the weight of the beef as it hangs in the butcher's cooler once the head, hide, feet, organs and blood are removed. If you think of any movie with a butcher shop scene and there are sides of beef hanging from hooks on the ceiling, that is what "on the rail" means. Since most every butcher bases the processing fees on the hanging weight, it is the most widely used measurement by direct to market farmers. Price quotes will frequently say something like "$3.00/lb hanging weight plus cut and wrap (which refers to the butcher fees)".

Another term related to hanging weight is the dress percentage. The dress percentage refers to the hanging weight of the carcass as a percentage of the live weight. The dress percentage ranges between 50% and 66% of the live weight. This number varies based on the breed and class of cattle. For instance, the Hereford breed has a heavier hide than say an Angus so it will have a lower dress percentage. If you are purchasing a side of beef, you are most likely buying a side of finished steer which averages a dress percentage of 62%.

- The cut and wrap yield (or package weight) refers to the actual weight of all the packages of individual cuts of meat that you will put in your freezer. When the carcass is broken down into recognizable cuts, there is some loss when cuts are deboned and fat is trimmed away. The carcass yield will also depend on the types of cuts you selected for your side (especially the amount of boneless cuts you choose). Grain finished beef tends to have a slightly lower carcass yield than grass fed due to excess fat being trimmed away. The carcass yield can vary greatly but a good average for percent cutability (carcass yield as a percentage of the hanging weight) is 76%.

During each step of processing, some weight is lost. It is very important to keep this fact in mind when trying to calculate exactly how much meat your share will contain. Remember:

live weight x dress percentage x carcass yield = cut and wrap yield

For example if we have a 1,000 lb steer (a little small but easy on our calculations) and use the average percentages from above it would yield the following amount of meat:

1,000 lbs X 62% X 76% = 471 lbs of meat (117 lbs per quarter)

Now that we understand the difference between hanging weight (HW) and cut and wrap weight (CW), we can move on to figuring the cost of a share of beef since the price is almost always based on one or the other. This will be covered in Lesson three: calculating the costs of a side of beef.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Buying a side of beef - Lesson one: buying shares

We are frequently asked if we sell meat (especially beef) outside of our Meat CSA program. The answer is both yes and no - we don't sell pork and chicken at this time but we do occasionally offer beef for sale. However since we only raise exactly the amount of meat we have a market for, we need to know well in advance to save an extra steer or two back (ground beef is an exception though, we frequently have hundreds of pounds of hamburger in the freezers).

Even then, I need to make sure I have enough customers in line to purchase the entire beef, not just a quarter or a half. Since most grass fed beef is harvested in the fall months, unless a farmer runs a beef herd with steers of various ages to be processed on a continual basis, advanced notice of three to twelve months is required. That's quite a bit of lead time.

The process of buying (or selling) sides of beef direct to market is surprisingly complicated for both the producer and the buyer. Last year I had grand delusions of running another blog where I covered more of the technical and business aspects of raising meat for a local market. In reality though, I barely had enough time to update the Ranchsteady blog but I still feel like such things deserve attention so I've decided to just discuss such "how things work" type topics here. They are not your average blog stories about moving cattle and chasing chickens but I hope they will be interesting and informative. This week we will discuss the entire process of buying and selling sides of beef - from figuring how much it costs to calculating what ends up in the freezer. Off we go!