How to Buy Beef by the Side

by Jenn @ Frugal Upstate on April 10, 2014

For several years Yankee Bill and I have been buying a half pig from a local farmer who uses organic methods (although they haven’t gone through the expensive hoopla to actually be able to use the label “organic”). This year we also purchased a half cow from a different farmer, which we split with my mother and brother (50% for us, 25% for each of them). Since I posted the picture of the trunk of my car full of meat, many of you have had questions about how I found the beef, how much we wound up with and whether or not it was truly a cost effective way to purchase beef.

buying a side of beef

Today I’m answering you all!

How do you find a side of beef to purchase?

For those of you that don’t know, I live in upstate New York, right smack in the middle of dairy country.  It is quite common here for folks who are already raising barns full of cows to raise a steer or two and have them butchered for meat at about 2 yrs old.   I put the word out for several years that if anyone had a half we’d be interested in buying it, and finally this winter someone had one to offer for the spring.

note: cows are female cattle who have given birth and therefore can produce milk–technically a young female who hasn’t given birth is a heifer, an “intact” adult male is a bull and a castrated adult male is a steer.  A male that you are turning into beef is not a COW!

Of course that isn’t going to work for everyone–but that’s ok.  There are several other options for finding a cow:

1.  You can try asking around and seeing if anyone you know has purchased beef this way.  You can check with their farmer/rancher and even if they don’t have one for sale this year you can ask about going on a waiting list or see if they can refer you to someone else.

2.  You can check the Local Harvest website.  Just put in “beef” in the search bar and your zip code and it will pull up farmers in your area who have registered their farms on the website.  Local Harvest is also a great way to find other types of farmers, farm markets etc in your area!

3.  You can look for a butcher shop, meat processor etc in your area and ask them if they can refer you to someone who may have a half or quarter to sell.

How do they charge for a side of beef?  What does it cost?

You purchase beef by weight, but there are three different types of weight that could be used–live weight, hanging weight, and dressed weight.  If you are purchasing beef this way it is important to know what type of weight is being used to compute your cost so you don’t get any surprises.

1.  Live Weight.  This is how much the animal weighs if it were to step on a scale.  You probably won’t see this used much.

2.  Hanging Weight.  The hanging weight is the side of beef after it has been skinned and halved.  The hanging weight does not include the hide, head, hooves, and the internal organs. It does include the bones, gristle, and fat.  This weight is taken before any “aging” is done, and so the meat is still at it’s highest water content.   The hanging weight is the most typical method used for determining your cost.  When you receive your actual meat it will weigh about 1/3 less than the initial hanging weight due to  the removal of the bones, fat, gristle and evaporation of the water during aging.

3.  Dressed Weight.  This is the weight of the meat after the butcher has transformed it into the various cuts of meat you would recognize.

When I arranged to purchased our half cow we didn’t know how much it would end up weighing.  My farmer estimated the hanging weight at around 300 to 350 lbs per half.  When it went to the butcher it actually weighed 397lbs–so you wont’ know exactly.  Our farmer charged us for the beef by the hanging weight ($3 a pound) and the butcher charged $.55 a lb to process the meat.  The butcher also charged a $25 per half slaughter fee, and an additional $20 if we wanted the tongue, heart and liver.  I asked for the fat to make tallow and he didn’t charge for that.

So here is the math:

$3 per pound and $.55 per pound processing = $3.55 lb my cost

397 x $3.55 = $1409.35 cost for the beef itself

$1409.35 + $25 + $20 = $1454.35  for the beef, slaughter and organ meat.

So we paid $1454.35 total for the meat we received, and of course since I split the side with my mom and brother, I paid $727.18 for my quarter of a cow.

But that’s not the whole story because we needed to know how much meat we received in order to figure out how much per pound of finished meat we paid.

The butcher shop didn’t weigh the finished meat (you could ask yours and see if they will–mine couldn’t).  Luckily I had purchased a 110 lb. Hanging Spring Kitchen Scale from Amazon, and I actually weighed all the meat a bag full at a time and wrote down exactly what cuts we received so that I could share it with you all:

Weighing beef from our half cow

The end result was 256.5 lbs of beef.  So we paid $5.67 a lb.  Now depending on where you are in the country and what kind of meat you typically buy, that might sound pretty expensive to you–but that still isn’t the whole story because we haven’t talked about what KINDS of cuts you get.

What cuts of meat do you get?

To start out with, different cuts of meat come from different parts of the cow.  When you buy a half cow that isn’t such a big deal, but if you are purchasing a quarter of a cow it can make a big difference.  The more tender and expensive cuts (Sirloin, Porterhouse, Delmonico, Filet Mignon) all come from the hind quarter of the cow.  The Front quarter of the cow has the less expensive cuts and a lot of stuff that just gets made into ground beef (think Chuck Roast, Brisket, Stew Beef).  Typically if a place sells by quarters they will actually charge less for the front quarter and more for the hind quarter.  Another way that they can sell the beef is in “Split Quarters”–that means that they take the half and evenly distribute the meat into two “quarter sized” piles–so both parties get some cuts from the hind quarter and some cuts from the front quarter.  Again–it’s important to know WHAT exactly you are paying for and receiving so that you don’t wind up disappointed.

A butcher may just do standard cuts, but typically they will have some sort of a “cut sheet” and give you options.  Our butcher asked how thick we wanted our steaks, how big we wanted our roasts,  and how fatty we wanted our ground beef.  He offered us the options of getting short ribs, flank steak, brisket and soup bones–we took all of those but if we hadn’t the meat would have been cut off and tossed in to the grinder for ground beef.

Our totals for the 256.5 lbs of finished meat we received (of course we split that in half, I took half then my brother and mom split the other half between them):

93 lbs of ground beef
6 Delmonico steaks
6 Sirloin Steaks
8 pkg Stew Meat
6 pkg Sirloin Tips
2 Rump Roasts
3 London Broil
6 pkg Short Ribs
6 NY Strip Steaks
6 Chuck Roast
6 pkg Filet Mignon
1 Eye Round Roast
1 Bottom Round Roast
1 Flank Steak
1 Brisket
12 pkgs Liver
7 pkg Soup Shank Bones
1 Heart
1 Tongue

For reference here is a picture of the soup bones and the short ribs:

Soup Bones and Short Ribs

I didn’t expect the beef bones to be so, well, meaty!

Is it cost effective to buy beef by the side?

Now I could go out to the store and comparison shop for all the cuts I received so I could run up exactly how much I’d pay for the exact same thing in the grocery store–but honestly, that’s a lot of work.  I looked up the USDA Weekly Retail Beef Feature Activity (advertised prices for beef to consumers at major retail supermarket outlets) for last week (April 4th)  and found that while “non branded” 90% lean ground beef averaged at $4.61 lb in the Northeast region,  Filet Mignon averaged for $14.99 lb, Boneless Ribeye Steak (Delmonico) averaged $6.99, NY Strip averaged $6.94 lb, and Sirlion averaged $5.79.

 My general sense is that I either broke even or came out ahead.

Could I have done better?  Of course. I could shop just the sales and only buy the cheapest cuts of meat–you don’t actually NEED to buy Delmonicos!

So what are the benefits of buying beef in bulk?

1.  Reasonable cost.  I might conceivably be able to purchase cheaper cuts of meat and get them at loss leader prices–but the prices I paid for what I got were very reasonable.

2.  Great quality.  I know the farmer who raised my beef, and he raised it the exact same way and with the same attention as the ones that he raises to feed his own family.  I know that the animals were treated very well during their life, spent plenty of time outside eating grass in the summer and were fed very good quality food (although this is a conventional operation-not organic).  The meat looks beautiful and tastes good.

3.  Convenience.  I’ve got a freezer FULL of meat.  (In the picture below the first 3 shelves of ground beef on the door are my Mom and brother’s, and the second shelf from the bottom is venison)  I don’t EVER have to run out to buy meat for dinner, between the half pig, the quarter cow and the 2 deer.  The only reason for the next year I should have to buy meat is when I feel like having chicken, just for a change.

Freezer of beef from half cow

4.  Beating inflation.  According to articles and reports I’ve read, the cattle herds in the US are at a 60 year low, and beef prices are at an all time high (LA Times: Beef Prices Reach All Time High).  Right now my cost is pretty much a break even proposition with the current prices. . . but when I’m still eating this meat in October. . . what will the price of beef be then?  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Average Prices page, lean ground beef has gone up 10.3% since last year and 4.1% since LAST MONTH.  Likewise general beef roasts have gone up 10.7% since last year and 8.2% since LAST MONTH.  I expect that by fall I’ll be feeling that the meat in my freezer is as good as money in the bank.

Tips and Tricks.

1.  A  half a cow is a LOT of meat.  Have plenty of room available in your car for transporting it.  Ask your butcher if they provide boxes or if you need to bring some.  I’d say our meat required at least 8 “book box” size boxes.

2.  Be prepared with plenty of freezer space.  Our half cow completely filled a 4  1/2 foot deep freezer.

3.  Ask how it will be wrapped–either in butcher paper or vacuum sealed.  We prefer the vacuum seal and would have been willing to pay a bit extra for it as it prevents freezer burn if your meat is in the freezer for a long time.

4.  200 lbs of frozen meat will stay frozen for quite a long time even without coolers to put it in.  Ours was packed in the back of our truck, then we drove over an hour to get home, then at least 45 minutes to take it all out of the car, weigh it and move it into the freezer.  Everything was still ROCK hard.  Of course it wasn’t warm out–probably about 40–but still, it’s a lot of cold stuff all together and it will stay cold for a good while, so you don’t have to stress too much about an average drive home.

5.  Speaking of cold–make sure you have a pair of winter gloves to wear while moving that frozen meat around.  It’s basically like picking up and handling large ice cubes.

So, what other questions do you have?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Nichole April 10, 2014 at 4:39 pm

There is nothing like grass fed beef from a local farmer. I grew up on a dairy farm in northern NY, we always had fresh beef. When I got marries, it wasn’t an option, I bought store beef. No comparison! And I am so skeptical of what store beef actually is. My middle child can tell store ground beef from a mile way. I hate to pay large mounts of money on “skeptical” beef. Beautiful post, happy eating;)

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm

There is a huge quality difference, isn’t there?

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Cora April 10, 2014 at 6:07 pm

I am absolutely THRILLED to come across this blog – glad to know I’m not the only insane one here in the northern half of the Empire State!

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Thanks Cora–there are far more of us “crazy” folks in the Upstate area then you realize.

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Julie April 11, 2014 at 7:00 am

We’ve been buying beef this way for two years. We discovered a quarter lasts about a year for our family of three. I found our local farmer at a farmer’s market. It turns out the farm is only a few miles from our home, and we’re welcome to come visit the animals any time.

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm

It’s great that you can see exactly where and how they are being raised Julie. Gives you far more confidence in the quality of your food, doesn’t it?

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Amy April 11, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Wow! This is by far the most thorough and detailed explanation of how to by beef straight from the consumer. My husband and I raise beef here in Nebraska and we sell meat to our family and close friends. This is not solely our business, we just fatten about four of five animals on the side. If there are any questions I just may have to refer them to your website.

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 11, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Well thank you Amy. I’m glad you found it useful and I’d be honored to have you refer folks to this article!

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Thomas @ Expertwager April 11, 2014 at 10:21 pm

We’ve been purchasing meat this way for 3 years. We discovered a one fourth continues about a season for our group of three. I discovered our regional cultivator at a farmer’s industry. thanks for sharing.

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Nick April 13, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Great article. How long would beef typically keep in a standard home freezer?

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 17, 2014 at 10:07 pm

When it’s vacuum sealed it will last a year no problem. I’m comfortable for it to be frozen for probably 18-24 months myself (if it were to last that long). If it were only wrapped in butcher paper I’d be less confident and try to use it up faster as there would be more air in contact with the meat. Remember–although freezer burn isn’t tasty and reduces the nutritional quality of the food, it doesn’t hurt you. It is just not best quality.

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Katharine Jones April 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

So glad you did write about this. You had said you would. Now my partner and I can make a decision about buying beef this way. Thank you for the information!!

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Jenn @ Frugal Upstate April 17, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Glad it’s worthwhile to you Katharine. I know I was confused at first–it helps to know what everything means and how they figure the cost when you are trying to make a decision!

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