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.


susanander said...

Hello, there! love this blog! But wondering where Lesson three is?

Katia said...

Link updated! You can also follow this link to the whole list of topics covered in the buying beef series. Thanks for stopping by!


Anonymous said...

Very well-written and informative. Thanks.

Katia said...

Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

This is very good. I just got a beef that was 1068 live weight about 16 hours before hanging which was 570. He was 16 months. I was told his hanging weight was light because he was younger than 18 months. Is that correct?

Katia said...

Thanks for stopping by! I would agree that the hanging weight was light because the beef was younger. In a commercial setting beef is fed out and finished at 18 months. Before that, the body is still building the frame and doesn't start to devote resources to muscle development and fat deposits until after that happens. Grass fed beef will take even longer to hit that point for finishing. We can and have harvested at 18 months but find that the sweet spot for our beef is around 26-30 months.

Anonymous said...

purchased 1100 lb live weight heifer,the meat was cut and divided equally amongst 4 of us. we received 45 lbs ground meat and 49 lbs cut. that seems a bit light to me whats your opinion?

Katia said...

A little light but certainly within specs in my opinion. This is likely related to the amount of ground meat (which is skewed higher from the numbers you provided) and harvesting a heifer versus a steer. In general heifers tend to cut out a little lighter than steers simply because unlike steers, they are also directing energy to reproductive maturity in addition to filling out the frame and adding muscle mass. Hope your family enjoys many delicious meals! Thanks for stopping by the blog.

grizz7786 said...

i went in with a guy on a steer he bought it and raised it do i pay him on the hoof or on the rail the say the going price is $1.31 a # thanks

Katia said...

Traditionally you will pay the farmer based on the rail price because that is always a known number. The price you were quoted is the live weight price.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know what a good price for hanging weight is. I wasn't to sell a beef. Grass fed, nothing more. Do you think $3.00 per lb, plus kill fee and C&W is too much ?

Katia said...

That pricing seems fair though it will depend on your regional market. If you live deep in cattle country far from urban areas it might be harder to find customers than if you live right outside a high cost of living metro area (where $3 might be way below what other farmers are selling their sides). Best!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I have a small operation (7 steers). I would like to share with my customers a simple explanation as to the hanging weight verses actual yield. Do you have anything that I could use from your blog that is not too complicated? Many Thanks.

Katia said...

You are welcome to make a simplified version of the HW vs package weight content and include a link to the blog if they want a more detailed description. Happy farming!

fixitlady said...

Do different breeds have drastically different yields? I went in with a friend and another friend of hers on a side of beef from a Brangus cow that was finished on sweet feed for 2 weeks. (So the side was split 3 ways) They commented it took a little longer to get her to butcher weight because it was cold so it was linger than than the promised 2 weeks on sweet feed. We had been told months ago that the side would cost $1200 (our share being $400) and would work out to $4-6/lb. So...we just got our meat and I weighed each package and noted what they were and the final tally was less than 50 lbs of meat, including 4 1/2 lbs of soup bones. (21# hamburger and 21# of steak and roasts plus 2# of ribs.) It seems to me to be quite a small amount of meat and wondered what your thoughts are. I don't know how to approach my friend.

Katia said...

Howdy! Apologies for the belated reply, spring is a busy time around the ranch.

In response to your original question, "do different breeds have drastically different yields?". The answer is both yes and no. Yes some breeds yield less meat in general (dairy breeds for example). Others are smaller breeds of cattle - corriente, dexters and the wee highland cattle.

However, your circumstances seem to relate more to the age and finish of the animal. From the limited details provided it seems the side of beef came from a younger, lighter heifer (females tend to be lighter than steers). So the yield from your beef seems within range.

Next time, ask to base your final price on the hanging weight at the butcher. Then your final cost will more accurately relate to your package weight.

Enjoy your beef!

Confused in Ohio said...

Hello, 1st time beef butcher beef purchaser. Was told 2.20lb(H/W) plus processing fee(C/W). Live weight was 1,300lb, rail weight for 1/2 was 444 package weight 197lb(97 lb hamburger)..

This is bone-out, less than 50% and cost me $1,279.8 (6.399$ a pound)... it did fill a 7 cu ft freezer but i have mixed emotions as i was told i would be getting 368lbs of meat... 65% would be 286lbs.. i got less than 50%, where did my meat go? And more importantly did i not get what I was promised? I know that this is all subjective/in the eyes of the beholder but when i expect one thing to pickup something less/different it concerns me.

Thank you for trying to teach us what to expect and the process involved. This has made me re-evaluate my need for bulk meat, regardless of quality and taste. I only got 10 pieces of short ribs... 1-7lb brisket... i weighed and noted every piece of meat when i got home... dissapointed, unsure. Confused=absolutely.

Thanks again...

Katia said...

Thanks for stopping by. I can understand how such a dramatic difference in anticipated package weight would be bewildering. I don’t know all the details to your circumstances but I did notice a few things.

(1) It seems you just recently picked this beef up from the butcher meaning it was harvested during the winter. Winter harvested beef in cold climates is almost always grain-finished. Grain-finished beef has higher levels of intramuscular fat but also has large deposits of solid fat (tallow) along the carcass. This tallow counts for your hanging weight (and price) but is discarded in the cutting process.

(2) Bone – you mentioned the carcass was bone-out. That will account for significant weight and volume loss.

(3) There is a sizeable discrepancy between the price you paid versus the price calculated. The price quoted was $2.20/lb HW x 444lb HW = $976.80. You paid $1,279. I am going out on a limb and assuming that the difference can be accounted for with the fees paid to the farmer or other processing fees such as a kill fee or a disposal fee (which averages about $75-150 per beef).

It is also possible some of this cost comes from specialty processing fees for summer sausage, pepperoni sticks and other cured products. I never covered these smoked products in the main how to buy beef guide. In general, smoked products are made in minimum batches of 25# (though some butchers require 30-50#) and have an additional processing cost on top of cut and wrap – usually between $5-8 “green weight” (aka pre-smoked weight). There is additional weight loss in the smoking process.

I doubt the butcher snuck off with some of your meats. You could always call and check but your volume estimate of 7 cu/ft feels about right for a bone-out side of beef. It seems like the combination of fat and bone loss contributed significantly to your lowered package weight. But hey, most people don’t eat those parts anyway and now you don’t need even more freezer space to store those parts you will not eat! Even if you “add back in” the extra fat and bone discarded, your price per pound is lower but the quantity of edible meat is probably about the same. You pay “less” but you still end up with about the same. It’s a bit of a psychological mind trap there hehe.

It is also far easier to meal plan exactly how many portions of meat you have in the freezer. 197# of boneless meat has 788 (4) oz portions which is enough to feed a family of four beef for dinner every single night from January 1st to July 16th. While I don’t recommend beef for dinner every night, knowing that each portion, be it ground beef or tenderloin steaks, costs $1.62 ($6.49/4) is enormously helpful. For families that use grocery budgeting, beef in the freezer is an easy win – it is already paid for and you know exactly how much you can spend on the rest of the meal to keep meal costs at a controlled amount all year long - be it a $10 meal or $25 a meal, just allocate $1.62 of the budget per portion of beef.

I do hope you enjoy your meat. The quality and taste are certainly worth it even if it is more complicated to buy in bulk. Best!

P.S. For the record, your short rib and brisket numbers are spot on and exactly what I would anticipate.

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