For the last few years, I have been wanting to buy part of a cow. I read In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it got me interested not only in the health of the animals that I was eating (and in turn how that affected my health), but the environmental impacts that my cuisine choices were having. Grass-fed beef is appreciably better for the environment (no crazy fertilizer, shipping, etc to get the food to the cow, it’s just eating grass, and then hay through the winter, plus – no feed lot sewage lagoons), healthier for the cow (corn and grains ferment in the cow’s digestive tract and not uncommonly give them serious medical issues, including leaky gut, etc), and healthier for the person eating it (grass-fed beef has a much higher omega3:omega6 ratio than grain-fed beef, as well as being leaner overall). There are a lot of philosophical reasons to eat grass fed beef. In the Seattle area, we are lucky to have easy access to it at most grocery stores, however it’s fairly limited in terms of what cuts are available, and it’s appreciably more expensive than standard feedlot grain-fed beef. The way many people get around the huge cost differential is to buy the beef in bulk. Prices in the greater Seattle area run in the $4-5/lb hanging weight, which begins to quickly add up, and that is if you can even get beef from the farms. Many of the ones in the area sell out the year before harvest, so you put down a large deposit and then wait like a year for the cow to be slaughtered. And I’m not particularly good at patience or planning ahead.
The way that beef shares are bought (at least most of the time) is by hanging weight. You find a farm that has some available, and you decide how much of that cow you want to eat. Most farms charge less per pound if you buy a whole steer vs. 1/2 or 1/4. The farms give prices per “hanging weight” of the steer. This is the weight of the cow after it has been slaughtered, skinned, and all of the guts and other undesirable bits have been removed. When you buy 1/4 cow, the hanging weight of the half steer is taken, and all of the cuts are split in half, so both buyers get equal amounts and cuts of beef. Hanging weight varies greatly. Some farms have a ballpark in terms of how much their cows will weigh in at, others don’t. You won’t know how much beef you’re going to be getting until after your deposit is down and the cow has been killed. The way that most farms do it is that they collect a certain fee/lb hanging weight, then on top of the farm’s cut, there’s a cutting and wrapping fee that you pay the butcher. The farm that we bought our 1/4 from is about 2 hrs south of where we live, outside of the Seattle metropolitan area, that charges $3.25/lb hanging weight, plus a $.55/lb cutting/wrapping fee. But that cost isn’t the end-all, be-all cost of the beef. By the time the meat has been trimmed from the bones and cut into all of the cuts you requested, there is some loss. Most butchers run 60-75% of the hanging weight in dressed cost.
Now let’s discuss the math. Because you don’t know how much your share of the beef is going to weigh, it can be difficult to gauge how much money it’s going to cost and how much freezer space you’re going to need. Our 1/4 cow came in at 148lbs hanging, making the whole cow’s hanging weight about 600lbs. Once you factor in the loss, let’s say you end up with 100lbs of beef. It’s just Craig and I at our house, and we don’t want to hold onto this beef for more than a year, so the math that I’m doing is based on a 2 person household over a year. With just the 2 of us eating the beef, we would have to go through 1/4lb of beef per day. Now of course it’s doable, but we do not usually eat a great deal of beef, so deciding that we will start eating a great deal more beef than we have been eating in the past for an entire year is a tough proposition. Last week bought 2.5lbs of steak, and it felt like a lot of beef to eat that week. We just weren’t quire prepared to commit to 1/4 cow on our own. Locally, we have a couple of great friends who were also interested in getting a share of beef, but weren’t prepared to take an entire 1/4 cow, so we agreed to split it. It’ll work as an effective trial run.
So we bought our beef. I drove down to the butcher shop and met the owner of the farm down there to pay her. Then I paid the butcher. We were lucky enough to get some extra offal that the butcher was looking to offload. We got 4 hearts, 4 tongues and a few livers(both cow and pig), plus extra boxes of “dog bones.” When I spoke with the butcher on the phone, I was friendly, but at the end of our discussion about what our preferences were, I asked him if he had any extra “stuff” lying around that he may not want. I explained that I have dogs, so whatever weirder bits that people don’t normally buy, I would love to take for the dogs. He explained to me that if we want anything from the gut sack, we have to take the whole gut sack (barf), but he has some extra tongues, livers, and hearts floating around that he could dig up for us. I was thrilled. I brought down 4 coolers, 2 large ones and 2 smaller ones. They would have been just enough, but when I got there, he ended up giving me 2 big boxes of “dog bones,” which were just all of the extra bones from the cow, chopped up into manageable pieces, but not wrapped in freezer paper. After handling them, I think they look and smell fine, and I suspect they’d make for some pretty incredible stock, so I expect to make a huge pot of stock once the weather finally cools off in the PNW.
How did we split it up? An economist would have been so proud of us. First we split up the lower value cuts, or things that we had equal numbers of. For example, there were 26 roughly equal 1lb packages of ground beef. We each took 13. There were 3 chuck steaks, so we each took one, and added the third to “the pot.” We split the “dog bones” roughly evenly as well. Once the easy splits were done, we laid out all of the high value and one-off cuts, then sorted them into 3 groups with different levels of demand. The high-demand items were the rib roast (prime rib), brisket, tenderloin, etc). Then we haggled. Our friends took the rib roast, which was the largest single piece of meat that we got, but in exchange, we got both the brisket and the tenderloin steak. For the most part, it was a really easy way to split up the meat, because they prefer steaks, and we prefer roasts. We both walked away with very similar amounts of meat, and with the specific cuts that we were most likely to enjoy. When we knew what we had, Craig helped to satisfy my OCD urges to make a list, and we weighed and entered everything into a spreadsheet before sticking it into the freezer for good. Now when I am trying to figure out what to make for meals or reading recipes, I can pull up my spreadsheet and determine what exactly is in the freezer and how many pounds of it I have.
So let’s work out what kind of deal this is. Counting ONLY the “high value” meat, that is, none of the weird stuff I’ve never eaten or cooked before, and no bones, we paid 8.00/lb. The only thing that we would have gotten that cost less than that per pound (grass fed) is ground beef($7/lb locally), with steaks and stuff like roasts running in the $11-19/lb range.
Add in the heart and tongue, which are both quite tasty, based on my research, and we paid $5.71/lb
That doesn’t take into account the cost of the bones. Around here, grass fed bones/oxtail run in the $5-$8/lb range if you can even find them outside of specialty butcher shops. If you include the cost of the crosscut marrow (soup) bones and oxtail, and leave out the cost of dog bones (for argument’s sake) we are down to $4.88/lb.
I won’t count livers, as we wouldn’t have taken them home if they weren’t free. We aren’t big liver eaters, and honestly, I’ll probably end up dehydrating them and using them as dog treats. The “dog bones” will be both eaten by the dogs and turned into stock, so I’ll just call the stock free, and go from there.
As long as this beef ends up being tasty, and we end up using everything (part of the fun is learning to cook cuts you wouldn’t normally buy in the store!), I can see this being an annual thing. And now for some freezer porn.
And to answer your question, that’s a 5 cubic foot chest freezer that I totally emptied and defrosted the weekend before beef pickup. Without the 50 or so lbs of dog bones we got from the butcher, the entire 1/4 beef (148lbs hanging weight) fit in the freezer. Pictured is 1/8 beef with 6x 4lb bags of “dog bones” Of course your mileage may vary in terms of what shape the butcher wraps your cuts in, how efficient he is with cutting the beef, and of course how large the steer is you get.