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!

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.

Lesson One: Buying shares in a live animal
When buying beef from a small farmer, most often the customer ends up purchasing shares in a live animal which is then taken to the butcher where it is processed into recognizable cuts and finally, picked up by the customer. The buyer writes a check to both the farmer and the butcher. But this seems unnecessarily complicated, why all this extra effort? One of the main reasons has to do with processing facilities.

There are two main types of processing facilities/butchers/abbatoirs available for use: inspected and custom.

The first is a USDA or state inspected facility. These places have an inspector on hand that is present for slaughter and oversees the way the meat is handled. Meat that is USDA inspected is eligible for resale. If you are selling cuts of beef at a farmer's market or to a local co-op, the meat must be inspected (certain states have state inspection programs, while others require federal inspection and if meat crosses state lines for resale it must always be federally inspected). USDA inspected facilities are great because they allow the small producers to be able to market their product to a wider audience.

However, these facilities can be few and far between which can mean that the animals have a long and stressful journey to the processing facility and the farmer has higher transportation costs. In Oregon, most of the 13 USDA inspected facilities (OR does not have a state inspection system) are located west of the Cascades. Here in Central Oregon we have access to two USDA facilities; Oregon Beef in Madras and Butcher Boys in Prineville (which is the easternmost facility in the state, even though the border is another 200 miles east as the crow flies). But for the ranchers that live in the other two thirds of the state - where much of the state's cattle are raised - taking beef to an inspected facility means several hours of one way travel back to Central Oregon or west to Idaho and a return trip to pick it up.

The other option for processing is what is known as custom processing and this is why you had to go through all of the hassle to purchase shares in a live animal. If you own the animal, you have the right to have it processed wherever you like since the meat is solely for your individual consumption. This means you have the option of using a custom facility. Unlike USDA inspected facilities, custom processors are not required to have an inspector on hand during the slaughter and since the meat is not inspected, it is ineligible for resale (hence why meat from a custom facility will always be stamped "Not for Resale"). This system also gives rise to the use of mobile slaughter.

 Custom versus inspected packaging

With mobile slaughter, the butcher comes to the farm and harvests the animal on property and transports the meat back to the butcher shop. This method is the least stressful for the animal since they never leave their comfortable home environment - no stressful loading onto a truck or driving for hours to an unfamiliar place.
Buying shares in a live animal gives the producer the flexibility to find a processing facility to suit his or her needs and the needs of the customer. Both types of processing facilities have their pros and cons but the main point I want to make is that just because the meat is inspected, does not mean that it is necessarily a superior product - there are plenty of good Mom and Pop custom shops that forgo the added expense of inspection much like the small farms that pass on the expense of becoming certified organic even if they follow organic principles.

Since the beef is purchased as shares in a live animal, the cost of purchasing a share will be based on the actual weight of the animal (either on the hoof or on the rail). This will be discussed in Lesson Two: Live weight, hanging weight and dressed weight.


Anonymous said...

Great series of articles, it's been very informative as I'm buying my first portion of a cow this spring.

Katia said...

Best of luck on making your first direct-to-market beef purchase! I hope this article has better prepared you to be an informed consumer.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this information!

Anonymous said...

I've been on the buying side a few times and now I'm on the selling side. After raising her for a year, I'm selling half of my 1st beef & taking her for slaughter tomorrow. Thanks for all the pointers, especially the Inspected vs Custom butcher processing and the weight ratios in part 2!

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