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


Kosher Man said...

That was fascinating and useful. I don't care about pork but I'd really like to have a series on lamb, or at least some differences from lamb and beef.

Katia said...

Thanks! I'm glad you found the guide to be helpful and hopefully you learned a thing or two.

I'll have to consider doing a guide on lamb. The nice thing about lamb is the amount of possible cuts is much smaller so it is not so overwhelming to try to figure out the cut instructions.

Unknown said...

Extremely helpful series.

Katia said...

Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by for a look.

Anonymous said...

Super helpful, thank you! I had to stop to convert to metric a few times, but having the full description of cuts was brilliant. I know I'll be referring back to this a lot til I have it memorised! :D

Katia said...

So glad to be able to help. Keep in mind that some specific cuts have different names regionally but the primals - chuck, rib, plate and so forth tend to be the same. As long as you know what primal the cut is from, you should be able to figure everything out with your butcher. Best of luck!

Marvin said...

Excellent series! Thanks for taking the time to break everything down/

I had a beef butchered (in OR) once and I requested the tri-tip. Butcher said no problem. What I got back labeled as the tri-tip was so small the whole thing fit in the palm of my hand.

Is it true that there is only 1 tri-tip per whole beef? I was also told at one point that you can only get the large tri-tips, like those found in the grocery stores, from a Holstein. Is that correct?

Katia said...

Glad you stopped by Marvin and that you enjoyed the series on processing beef.

Sometimes if you request less than common cuts from a small butcher, they may not have an idea of how to cut out that particular steak. There are two tri-tips on a whole beef, one per side. This triangular/boomerang-shaped muscle is from the bottom of the sirloin primal. From my experience, they have a packaged weight of about 2.2 to 2.5lbs each. All beef have these muscles and larger tri-tips will come from larger animals, not necessarily breed specific. As Holsteins harvested for beef tend to be a little lighter than beef breeds, I might expect Holstein tri-tip to be a tad smaller actually.

Sounds like you just had a poor experience with an inexperienced butcher. Do shop around, there are fantastic butchers in every part of the country. Spend some time really getting to know your butcher and you will be rewarded with an excellent relationship (and perfectly cut out meat to your specifications) for years to come.

Thanks again for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Excellent series on buying beef - thank you!

Katia said...

You're welcome! Thanks for visiting.

Anonymous said...

your site is very informative. I now have concerns about my purchase . hang weight of small angus was 340#. with your calculation formula, i fgured roughly 259# cut & wrapped. In my est. i recieved aprox 213# 58pkgs burger @1.5# 10 pkgs rib steaks @1.5#ea 13 cube stk @1# 6 stew shanks 1.5#ea 4 port house @2.# 8 stew meat@1#ea 6 chuck roast @2.5# 7 sirloin @ 2# 5 t-bone @ 1.5# & 7 short rib @2# seems a little shy to me, but this was my first whole cow purchase / process. Am I ok? or should I change processor?

Katia said...

Glad you enjoyed the site. Your numbers seem reasonable to me. Likely the reason the package weight was lower than anticipated is because the cut and wrap yield percentage is significantly lower on younger/smaller animals. This is mostly because the body of a younger animal is more focused on building the skeleton first. Once mostly full grown, then resources are redirected into building muscle mass. If harvested before this time, the hanging yield and cut out yield will be lower. There is probably no reason to switch processors for the next time. Enjoy your beef! Thanks for visiting.

Natalie said...

This is really excellent series, thank you. We are splitting our first cow very soon (used to grow up with a 1/4 cow in our freezer every year but this will be the first time in my adult life)
I've been very nervous about how the whole process will go down but your series has made it seem much less daunting.
I'm so excited to get to fill my freezer with god quality meat we could never dream of affording otherwise! We recently rented a house on a cattle farm and we're buying one of my landlords cows (specifically a yearling I think, as he didn't get last year's bull calves banded he said) and having a mobile butcher come out. It doesn't get more local than eating meat that was killed and processed right on the land where the animal was born, and then not even having to transport it home

Katia said...

It doesn't get anymore local than that! So glad the series was helpful. Enjoy your beef and thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information i was very apprehensive about the possibility of buying a large amount of beef at one time but I am now very much looking forward to enjoying the opportunity to now buying locally and being informed of all the best ways to fill my freezer as well as saving money thanks again. Raymond

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