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Save money on meat by buying a cow.  Frugal living and couponing!

The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series written by Amy, a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

All of my research from the past month paid off beautifully.  This afternoon a man came to my house selling beef out of the back of his truck at an amazingly low price due to there being an “overstock.”  He was fast talking and friendly.  Yet, I don’t think he had any idea of what he was getting into when he saw little ol’ me with my toddler in my arms.  He was a salesman for sure and told me that his beef was grass-fed and never given any hormones or antibiotics (after I repeatedly asked those questions).  Finally, when pressed he admitted that the cows were given one antibiotic shot right before they were slaughtered.  When I told him I was no longer interested, he told me that ALL cows had to be given that shot in order for their meat to be sold, even organic cows.  I challenged him heartily with information from the FDA and USDA’s definition of organic meat, but he held to his guns.  After he left, I called a farm that sells organic meat, and my gut instinct was right.  He wasn’t telling the truth.  I share this with you as a reminder that we have got to be educated.  People will mislead us (intentionally or otherwise) in order to sell us their products, and we’ve got to know the facts so that we aren’t swept away by what appears to be an amazing deal.

So if you are like I am, you are looking for an amazing deal (but not one that is too good to be true!), and your next question is probably something along the lines of “how can I afford grass-fed beef?”  If you have looked at your grocery store’s prices, your jaw has probably hit the ground and your heart might have groaned in despair.  The differences in prices of conventional beef and grass-fed are significant at the grocery store.  Here’s where I come to give you some hope.  There is a way to buy grass-fed beef at a much better price than the grocery store.  It’s all about buying a cow.  Why would you want to buy a cow instead of just shopping around for the cheapest prices on meat around town?  Because when you buy a cow, you are going to pay a certain price per pound, but that pound is going to be everything from ground beef to chuck roasts to steak.  So while you might pay a bit more per pound for ground beef than the grocery store prices, you definitely will get a much better price on the more expensive cuts of beef.

Now, I know the thought of buying a cow might be intimidating.  It was to me at first too, but my goal is to break it all down and make the process less mysterious.  I want to help you learn the ropes so that you’ll know what questions to ask and how to shop around wisely.

Finding a Seller

This is probably the biggest question that I hear.  How do you find a place to buy a cow?  My personal favorite way to find a seller is through word of mouth.  Ask friends or post the question on Facebook.  While you might write off your friends as not knowing where to buy a cow, they might know someone who knows someone.  If that proves to be a dead end, there are two web sites that are helpful in that they have directories of farms that are selling grass-fed beef: Eat Wild and Local Harvest.  It will take more work sorting through the farms listed, but I think it is worth the effort.

Comparing the Weights

When we bought our first cow, a friend and I worked together to do the research on a few farms we knew.  As we were comparing prices, we quickly realized that it wasn’t as simple as comparing price per pound.  This is due to how the estimates are given.  There are three weights commonly given for pricing: live weight, hanging weight, and finished weight.

Live weight or “on the hoof” is how much a cow weighs before it has been slaughtered.  The hanging weight is the weight of the cow after it has been slaughtered and had its head, hide, and hooves removed.  The hanging weight is approximately 60% of the live weight.  Finished weight (which is also sometimes called take-home or cut weight) is the easiest to price out as it is the actual amount of beef that you are taking home.  It would be what you would use to comparison shop with your local store.  Finished weight is approximately 60% of hanging weight.  Now it is absolutely essential that you realize that these are approximations.  So much depends on the cow and the butcher.  The better the butcher, the higher percentage of meat that you will get from your hanging weight to your finished weight.

Let’s say that you were buying a cow whose live weight was 1,000 pounds.  If you were paying based off of the hanging weight (which is pretty normal), you are going to be doing some estimating.  Let’s say the cost was $4/lb of the hanging weight.  Your hanging weight is going to be around 600 pounds and so the upfront cost per pound would be $2,400 (600 lbs x $4/lb).  So to figure how much you are actually paying per finished pound, you would estimate that of that 600 lbs, you are going to get 60% of it resulting in 360 lbs of beef.  The price per pound would be the cost of the hanging weight divided by your finished weight or $6.67/lb ($2,400/360 lbs).  What gets a bit tricky though is that these are all estimates.  You won’t really know what kind of deal you have until all is said and done.

Now, there are farms who will sell the cow to you and tell you exactly what cuts you are getting and what the finished price per pound will be.  Those are obviously the easiest to comparison shop.

Processing Fees

There are often processing fees involved.  Don’t make assumptions.  Ask your farmer about these fees.  Is there a kill fee?  Does the butcher have a processing fee?  When they tell you the price per pound for these fees, make sure you know if the price is per hanging weight or finished weight.  Know too that most people you are going to be working with will understand that you are new at this and will be more than happy to answer your questions.

How Much to Buy

The weight of meat you are going to get will obviously vary from cow to cow.  Most of the time, if you purchase a whole cow, you will get a better price than if you buy a smaller portion.  It pays to find a few friends and go in together in this adventure.  There are places that will sell smaller portions, though.  The typical amounts to purchase or share a cow are in fourths.  There are some farms that will sell 1/8th.  If your cow weighed around 400 pounds finished weight, that would mean that 1/4th of a cow would give you 100 pounds of meat (some of the weight will be bones in things like beef ribs and t-bone steaks).  When I think about how much to buy there are three things that factor in for me.  One, how much money do I have to invest in this right now?  Two, how much freezer space do I have available?  Three, when do I want to deal with this again?  Normally, I try to buy enough to last a year so that I only have to do this shopping once a year.  I haven’t had issues with my meat going bad during that time (and according to the USDA’s Freezing and Food Safety information, frozen food is safe indefinitely.  The quality of what you are freezing is the only thing subject to change).

You will need approximately 7 cubic feet of freezer space for a half of a cow.  Our medium sized chest freezer has easily held our quarter cow purchases with plenty of room to spare.

Questions to Ask

If you are like I am, when you are actually on the phone, it is easy to forget exactly what questions to ask.  Sometimes, I feel a bit annoying too when I have so many questions.  Here are the top questions though that I would ask the next time I purchased a cow.  Now, some of these questions you will ask the farmer and some of them you will ask the processor so you need to have both of their contact information.

What do your cows eat?
Are any chemical treatments used on the fields where the cows are grazing?
Is any of their feed genetically modified?
Are your cows given hormones or antibiotics?
Are your cows grass or grain finished?
How is the meat packaged?  (freezer paper or vacuum sealed bags?)
When and where can I pick up the meat?
How many coolers do I need to bring to transport the meat home?
What is the price per pound?  (is that hanging weight or finished?)
Are there any other fees that I should know about?
When is payment due, and what form of payment do you accept?
Can I make any requests in how the cow is butchered (i.e. more ground beef instead of roasts)?
What are the typical cuts included in a whole cow and how much of each are there generally?
How often do you sell your cows? (this will let you know how much you need to buy)

If you noticed, I didn’t ask if the beef was organic because many of these smaller farms will essentially be organic without paying all the extra expense to be certified organic.  Oftentimes, that is where you can find some really good deals.

Hopefully this has helped to take some of the mystery out of buying a cow.  Remember too, if your first experience isn’t the best, don’t give up.  We weren’t super thrilled with the way our last cow was butchered, but for the price we paid (it was less than $4/lb finished weight!), I’m not about to complain!  The beef was tasty and healthier than anything we had bought before then.  Our beef was double wrapped in freezer paper, and we have had no issues with freezer burn.  This is a great way to see where you beef is coming from and to support your local farmer.  Have fun with it!

Have you bought a cow before?  What lessons did you learn in the process that I might have failed to mention?  Do you have a farm that you love and are willing to share with the rest of us?  If you are new to this, do you have a question that I didn’t answer?

    • AT

      Don’t feel bad asking all those questions! A responsible (and proud) operation will be open with their answers and respect the fact that you’ve taken the time to do your homework.

      • amysanders

        thanks!

    • Khadija

      What an awesome post! Thank you. :)

      • amysanders

        i hope it is helpful.

    • MIssy

      My mom has bought a cow before. We have a man in town who raises them or you can bring your own. As of a few years ago I want to say it was $1,500 for a whole cow that was his. But I doubt he’s “organic” or antibiotic free.

    • Wow, great info! Thank you for all the research and sharing it with us!

    • Katie

      great article, lots of good info. We have friends that own a grass fed beef farm in the Lowcountry. One thing to be aware of is taste! Grass fed beef has a much different flavor than grain fed. The ground beef is about the same, but steaks have a different flavor and texture. Try before you buy to make sure your family likes it.

      • TheChapLeigh

        Yes, the flavor greatly depends upon what the cow has been allowed to graze upon, & the variety of this “forage” — meaning, all the various grasses the cow has had access to. My understanding is that the greater the variety of grasses growing, the healthier & more flavorful the meat — so you want good fields for the cows to graze.

    • jrsbus

      ok note if you go this route do “NOT NAME THE ANIMAL!!!!” my aunt marsha had big bull became pet no joke would actually fetch. when it was time kids would not eat as they knew who it was.

      • amysanders

        sweet kiddos. thanks for sharing your lesson learned!

        • Tara

          Ha, this reminds me of when my step-father sent Bud our beloved bull to the slauter house. We ate off of him all winter that year. Well, the rest of the family did. My sister and I didn’t eat beef for a long time after that.

    • katkoupon

      Great information! I will be sharing this on facebook. For anyone in the Myrtle Beach or Florence areas, check out Ovis Hill Farm on facebook, all contact information is on the About page. You can visit their weekly markets to try some of the cuts before committing to buy. They sell Meat Shares, much like a CSA, and you can choose half or quarter cow. You also choose whether you want to pick it up all at once or in installments. The latter works great for us as we have limited freezer space. The price is broken down to package weight, so no calculator needed :). Another great thing about this farm, is that they work collectively with neighbor farms, like a network, and are therefore able to provide us locavores with a variety of local foods: honey, poultry, pork, beef, Happy Cow dairy products, organic vegetables, and more. It really is a great place to shop!

    • Janice

      Everyone needs to understand that grass fed tastes different in different locations, even if farmers live next door to each other, one may have more thistle or ragweed or something. Years when there are droughts may affect the taste as only the hardy weeds survive (this applies to milk as well, I had a friend that wasn’t able to drink her raw milk because it was so bitter- not spoiled, just bad tasting during a drought). If you don’t like one farmers meat and are committed to grass fed, try a different farmer. We personally use a farmer that is hormone free, and grass fed most of the time, but finished on molasses and hay. We get (most) of the health benefits, but a taste we like much better. He also sells some grass fed for those who want it. Trinity Farms, look it up on Local Harvest for Alabama.

      • TheChapLeigh

        How the cow is “finished” is an excellent question to ask. Some do finish on grain. Additionally, the age of the cow at slaughter is good to know… the younger ones (hubby says 20-30 months is a good range) may not have had time to develop good marbeling. Lastly, how long of a time from pasture to slaughter… cows under stress can burn up their marbeling and excellent finishing within 24 hours, from what I’m told. The farm we have bought from actually slaughters on-site, lets the carcass hang for 7 days, then is taken to the butcher. If the cows have a long trek to where they are slaughtered, it can significantly impact the taste.

        • amysanders

          thanks for that insight (from both of you!) i love learning with you all.

    • Angela S.

      GREAT article! We bought our first cow in December and was THRILLED with the taste. The best beef ever. Remember that grass fed can be a bit tougher since they are not corn or grain fed at the end to “fatten” them up. We ended up getting a yearling which was much more tender than a fully grown cow. Will certainly do again.

    • yourbilletdoux

      Thank you so much for this article. Does anyone know how long it will take two people to get through a quarter of a cow? Is it crazy to not split it up?

    • yourbilletdoux

      Thank you so much for this article. Does anyone know how long it will take two people to get through a quarter of a cow? Is it crazy to not split it up?

      • amysanders

        i think it depends on several things. how much beef does your family eat weekly? how large is the cow that you will be purchasing? a quarter of a cow worked well for our family of 5. (and we eat beef of some sort on average 3-4 times a week.)

    • Jodi J.

      Thank you SO much for this “how to”. I have been thinking about doing this, but didn’t know where to start and this makes the process so much clearer.

    • CBJ92615

      If you’re in the tri-county Charleston area, Cordray’s Farm in Ravanel is WONDERFUL!! My sister and I just bought and split 1/2 cow, and it was a fantastic endeavor. They answered all of our questions, which was the majority of those posted above and were wonderful. With 1/4 of a cow, it took up 1 1/2 shelves of a standup freezer. With 2 adults eating the cow, our estimate will be it would last us for 1 year (we eat beef about 3 times per week). Also, grass fed beef is leaner like vension, so go and buy some at their store to try it. I think it’s fabulous! They also butcher wild hogs- FYI.

    • Derek

      Thanks for the post. My take home message is:
      Don’t eat beef.
      Not because I don’t like it (it is actually by far my favorite domestic meat), but it just costs way to much. Oh well, I’ll just have to Iook on the bright side, I’ll probably have a healthier heart without eating all of that red meat.

    • as5216

      I am actually picking up my second whole cow this weekend from Indian Creek Angus in North Georgia (about an hour North of where we live in Atlanta). I had a great experience with purchasing a quarter cow last year, and am splitting a whole cow with another family this time. For our family of 5 (2 adults, 3 little ones) the half a cow should last us a year.

      Grass fed beef (particularly like ours which is not grain finished) takes some getting used to as it is a different taste, and exceptionally low fat. But I think it’s way better than regular beef, and I love that I know where the cow comes from, how it’s been treated, that it’s not pumped full of antibiotics, and can explain the whole process to my girls.

      I won’t ever go back to buying grocery-store beef again.

      • amysanders

        can you tell me how much your finished price per pound was with them? (they are one of the farms I was looking at ). Thanks!!

    • Stella02

      I haven’t bought a cow YET, but Robbie and Shannon of 4N Family Farm have the best beef in the Cleveland Co area of NC and have been very helpful in answering all my questions. AND they are open to sharing their farm with people and teaching them be ause my husband is still not 100% on board with all this and they said he could come by and ask all the questions he wants. Not to mention, they are some of the nicest and sweetest people I’ve ever met!

    • MelindaNC

      My favorite experience was haggling at an auction for 4H Beef cattle. For several years running, we would go to the Ashtabula county fair in NE Ohio. The 4H kids got the money and we got great tasting beef. I loved the excitement of bidding in an auction setting.

      An everything you say about how the meat will be divided and wrapped is true. I like more ground beef rather than roasts so the butcher wrapped those up the way our family wanted.

    • Renee

      So timely! I was doing all the research about this just 2 weeks ago and this is WAAAY helpful! Thanks so much! My problem, living in the beef capital state of the US, is finding a farm/individual that sells it!! I’ve contacted 2 people on localharvest.com who haven’t responded…anyone living in southern FL have a provider they’d like to share?? Thanks again for this info!

    • Renee

      This article was so timely as I was trying to figure all this out a couple weeks ago! Thanks for doing all the leg work!! I tried contacting a couple suppliers on localharvest.com, however haven’t heard back from either of them! I didn’t expect to have this problem living in the cow capital of the US, but does anyone know of a supplier in southern FL? Thanks so much!

    • Whitney626

      Hi! I know this is an older article but I am still having a hard time figuring out where to find the best and most economical place to buy a half or quarter beef. I live in Atlanta and was wondering if you would mind telling me where you got your beef for less than $4/lb finished weight. My email is whitneybairsneed@gmail.com. Or if you have any other farms to suggest that would be greatly appreciated! Sort of overwhelmed by all the options:-) Thanks so much!