Isn’t that a loaded question? As more people move to the local food and grass-fed movement, I’m noticing more people asking me this question.
Once or twice a year, we buy a bulk order of beef from a local farmer. When you get in on an order, they typically require you to buy at least a quarter of a cow. Sometimes they’ll charge you less per pound if you can buy a whole half of a cow, but you’d need an entire chest freezer to store that amount of meat.
A friend of ours just sent one of his steer to butcher, so our freezer is now nicely stocked with 1/4 of a cow. 100% organic, grass-fed beef, just the way we like it. It was a killer deal at $4/lb. The total came up to $405, for cut and packaged meat. It’s an investment that should last us about 8 months or so.
Buying a whole, half, quarter, or whatever- quantity animal is almost always a better deal than buying meat piece and parcel at the grocery store. Not only do you save time, hassle, and energy by purchasing the entire animal at once, but more often than not, local farmers will even package the meat for you. All you need to do is free up storage space in your freezer.
It’s not possible for everybody to buy a whole or partial animal, but for my family, it makes a lot of sense. There are some considerations you need to make, but by and large it’s a great way to feed your family for a year or more.
When I first told my sister that we had a quarter of a cow in the freezer she wondered how we managed to get the meat off the bone when we wanted it. She asked, “Do you have to saw off a big chunk or something?” I couldn’t help but laugh. She imagined it like one huge hunk of meat, literally one fourth of the cow like what you’d see hanging in the butcher’s freezer. I explained that it comes nicely packaged by the pound, similar to what you buy in the store.
When you first decide to buy a quarter of a cow, make sure you understand the conditions of your purchase first. Farmers butcher cows at different weights and sizes, and butchers process the meat in different ways as well. Some farmers will advertise their meat by selling it as “live weight,” or “hanging weight,” while others only tell you exactly how much meat you will be taking home.
Hanging weight, also known as dressed weight or carcass weight, is the cow after all of the inedible parts have been removed. This includes the hide, feet, head, bones, etc. Live weight, also referred to as “on the hoof,” is the entire animal’s weight, usually while it is still alive or right after it has been killed. If you are talking to a farmer and he is selling you a 1000 pound cow, keep in mind you won’t get 1000 pounds of meat. You will usually get around 60 percent, or 600 pounds.
It’s important to decide in advance whether you want to keep all the animal byproducts, as this can make a difference in your purchase. Live weight usually includes pieces of the animal like bones, blood, and organ meats. If you don’t want these, you may end up with less overall poundage of food. Keep in mind that while you can’t really eat bones or blood (obviously), they are a great way to amend your garden and serve a variety of other roles as well. I personally love to make bone broth, so I definitely was not going to pass up the bones when I got my share of the cow!
Therefore, if you are resourceful and willing to experiment, it’s not a bad idea to take the entire cow instead of just the meat. Farmers and butchers are often quite grateful for this, too, as it means they don’t have to pay to dispose of the byproducts.
You also need to decide if you want bone-in versus boneless. Sometimes you don’t get a choice. This is often the case if you are only buying a portion of the cow, like a quarter, instead of the whole cow. A farmer is not going to provide his customers with a million different options in most cases, because this is a huge hassle for him and for the butcher.
You will generally receive the same option as all of the other “cow-partakers.” The same rule applies for how much fat is left on the cuts. If you’re purchasing grass-fed beef, there is hopefully very little fat.
Now, when you’re working with the local farmer, he will also likely factor in processing costs. Most of the time, this has to be done off the farm at a location inspected by your area’s health department. As a result, the farmer often pays those butchering fees out of pocket, and you are expected to reimburse the farmer for his expense.
This price increases if you opt for several value-added options, like hot dogs or hamburger patties. Decide ahead of time whether you want to select these options, because while it can add a few dollars to the meat’s overall cost, if you think you might have a difficult time figuring out recipes with some of your cow, it’s better than having the meat go to waste.
When you purchase a quarter of a cow, you’re often “going in” with other people. Some farmers don’t split the cow for you but will just sell an entire cow, so it’s up to you to sell the other portions. If this is the case, MAKE SURE the other people are solid in their commitment to buying the meat. If you tell the farmer you plan to buy the animal, he plans on having it cut, wrapped, and ready to go at the agreed upon time – and he is expecting payment. It’s not a bad idea to have each person put down a small “deposit”.
This can go towards the deposit you pay to the farmer (if he charges one) and also helps take some of the anxiety out of relying on the other people.
You should also do your homework on the farmer. If you already know a farmer and plan to utilize his services, that’s great. But if you’re going into this blind, do some research on the farmer’s methods, how they feed and treat their animals, etc. Ask for reviews or recommendations, and ideally choose a farm near where you live. This way, you can see the animal every time you drive by!
Make sure you also budget out plenty of money ahead of time to pay for the meat. Save more than what you think you might spend, as the farmer has very little control over the exact final weight of the animal. If it weighs a little more than he anticipated, congratulations! You get more meat than you thought you would. But on the flip side, you’re paying per pound, so you can expect to have to shell out a little more money.
Before you can pick up your meat, the farmer will often give you the date when your parcel is going to the meat processor or butcher. He will either get your instructions for how you want it cut then or ahead of time. Keep in mind that the smaller your cow share is, the less autonomy you will have in how the meat is cut. The beef generally dry-ages in a climate controlled cooler for around a week before it’s cut. This helps tenderize the meat. Then, it takes another few days to cut, package, and freeze the meat.
Of course, total cut weight depends upon the cow as their sizes do vary, but this quarter was about 101 lbs. of beef. If you’ve ever wondered how much meat is a quarter of a cow, this is what was included in our order…
- 26 lbs. ground beef
- 24 steaks
- 1 pack of ribs
- 11 roasts
- beef bones for making broth
- beef liver
We specifically requested the liver. I’ve decided that I really want to start serving my family organ meat pretty regularly, as it’s super good for you when it comes from organic, grass-fed animals. Do any of you have a good liver recipe to share? We made liver and onions last night, but it wasn’t a big hit. I’m planning on mixing the leftovers into our fajitas tonight, hoping to tone-down the flavor by tossing it with strips of steak and peppers.
I advise you to take as many different cuts of beef as possible. While some cuts are easier to prepare and serve like tenderloins or porterhouse steaks, for example, each cut has its own unique flavor, texture, and purposes. With the rise of Pinterest and a million other cooking websites, if you’re creative, you can almost always find a delicious way to serve even the most seemingly unpalatable hunk of meat.
Generally speaking, butchers will try to split the cuts so there are a variety of options available. You might get chuck or arm roasts, briskets, ribs, round roasts, and steaks. Most steaks will include a variety of cuts, like strip, Delmonico, sirloin, flank, skirt, T-bone, porterhouse, or filet mignon. These cuts are obviously dependent on the size of the cow, distribution of the purchase, and genetic makeup of the individual cow.
Anyways, in case you’ve ever wondered, that’s what a quarter of a cow looks like! I love being able to stock up on great quality meat at a great price. You can really reduce your overall grocery bill, with most meat costing $3 or $4 a pound for organic, grass-fed meat – this is roughly half the price at least of what you would spend on the same quality meat at the grocery store. Plus, if you’re buying from a local farmer, you know exactly how it was raised and slaughtered. You support local agriculture and don’t have to worry about artificial growth hormones and additives.
If you are thinking about buying beef in bulk like this, you might want to check out my post on knowing the difference between cut weight and hanging weight, so you know about how much you can expect to pay total. Some farmers tell you the price per pound before processing, which ends up being much more once it has been cut and packaged.
Before you buy, you should also consider your freezer space. Generally speaking, you need about one cubic foot of space for every fifteen to twenty pounds of meat. While you might be able to fit a quarter of a cow in the freezer space provided in a refrigerator/freezer combination unit, keep in mind that you won’t have a ton of room for a whole lot else!
Most farmers will require you to do your research and make your decision well ahead of time. This isn’t a purchase that you make on a random Saturday! You will usually need to place your order at least three to six months (often longer, depending on the size, scale, operations, and regulations of the farm!) before you actually receive it. This is because the farmer needs to budget out feed and butcher costs, as well as reserve an animal for slaughter for you and your family.
You will also need to pick up and transport the meat yourself, so be sure to account for weather conditions and the size and conditions of your vehicle when you are making this decision. It’s definitely not one to make willy-nilly, but it’s almost certainly always worth the investment.
Some people argue that buying meat in bulk like this isn’t the greatest investment because you’re not supposed to freeze meat for more than a few months. I’ve never heard of anybody getting sick from this, but technically I guess it’s not the freshest meat once it’s sat in your refrigerator for a year or more. The reality, however, is that if you take all of the proper steps to avoid freezer burn (like resealing unused portions in vacuum sealed pouches, and storing food in an upright freezer instead of a chest freezer), you will have very little waste or spoilage.
Do you buy meat in bulk from a local farmer? What types of meat do you stock your freezer with?