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Step-By-Step Guide to Buying Farm Raised Beef

Lauren and I have mentioned a few times that in an effort to eat healthier, we try to use grass fed organic beef. Buying healthier meat is one of those things that I think is always a great idea. I’m not going to make a moral issue out of this because I don’t believe that it’s wrong to buy meat from a grocery store. We’ve done it quite often, but we are simply trying to consume better ingredients more often. Sure, you can buy the organic grass fed beef in the store, but there are a couple issues with this:

  1. It’s expensive. You can usually find the ground beef for around $5.50 – $6.50/lb., which is a bit more than the normal stuff. Seems reasonable, but remember, this is just ground beef. What if you want a steak or a roast? That is where the prices really start to get out of control. Expect to pay close to $20 /lb. for ribeye. Ouch!

  2. Do you know where it is sourced? Even though it might be certified organic grass fed, that doesn’t mean that it is sourced locally in any way… nor does it guarantee humane treatment of the cows. I’ve seen labels of the ground beef from my local grocery store and found that the beef was sourced in South America. There isn’t anything wrong with this per se… but if I’m gonna spend money on good meat, I’d prefer it to be local.

Because of the above 2 reasons, we buy in bulk from a local farm. It is cheaper and we know where it’s coming from.

Where do you find a cow to buy?

I have to be honest – it is relatively easy where I live in upstate New York. There are many farms as close as 20 miles from my house… but unless you live in a very urban area, or in the desert, chances are you can find a cattle farm pretty close to you too. But you have to ask around. Most small farms are family operations and don’t have websites, so you have to ask actual people… not Google. You can also to to EatWild and search for a farm in your area.

I also recommend that you go out to the farm to visit. Most local farms would love to have you come to take a look and chat about the process. Not interested in seeing that cow walking around that will soon be in your freezer? I completely understand, but I still think it’s a good idea to see the farm and talk to the cattle raiser in person. If you have kids, they would love to visit too!

How much does it cost when buying farm raised beef?

It can cost anywhere between $3.00 and $9.00 per pound. Because of that I won’t be able to say it will cost $x per pound since it depends on several factors:

  • Live weight vs. hanging weight vs. boxed weight – Live weight is exactly what it sounds like, how much the cow weighs when it’s still walking around. After it is slaughtered, the head, skin, hooves and other unusable pats of the cow are removed, leaving the “hanging weight”, usually about 60% of the live weight. When you talk to the farm owner, they usually price the beef in hanging weight. Once the beef has beef aged and butchered, it looses more weight. Boxed weight is typically 60% of hanging weight (but this will vary by butcher). So here is the math you should be doing in your head to compare prices… if a cattle raiser gives you a price of $3.50 per pound hanging weight, then expect to be paying $5.83 per pound ($3.50 / 0.60) once it’s packaged. Also – you will likely have to pay the butcher too.

Should it be certified Organic?

Our first half cow we bought in 2012 was certified organic. But it was also expensive. And since 2012, beef has skyrocketed in price… so this time, we did not go with an organic farm. However – did you know that it is a TON of work and money for the farm to claim the USDA Organic designation? Many smaller farms just don’t have the resources and time to deal with it, but still provide amazing quality beef that would pass the organic certification with flying colors if they jumped through the hoops. That’s another reason why I recommend visiting the farm, and talking with those who feed and raise the cattle.

How should I get it butchered?

When you call the butcher, they will ask you lots of questions about how you want your beef cut. Be prepared ahead of time so that you get exactly what you want. Want some tips? Well… I am kind of a beef and meat nerd (you didn’t know that existed, did you?). Here is how I get mine cut:

  • All steaks cut to 1 – 1 1/2 inch. I did 1 inch this time around.

  • Rib Roast – Do NOT turn into hamburger. I leave the rib roast not cut because I love prime rib. But I do get it cut in half, 3 front ribs and back 4 ribs. If cut into steaks, these are your ribeye steaks.

  • Porterhouse/T-Bone/Strip/Tenderloin – Do NOT turn into hamburger. These 4 steaks are all variations and parts of the same part on the cow. If the tenderloin and strip are not separated, then you have T-Bones and Porterhouses. The difference between a T-bones and a Porterhouse is simply the size of the filet (or tenderloin – this muscle located along the back bone is thick on one end and narrows to the other). I prefer to separate the tenderloin from the strip and to keep the tenderloin whole and (its super easy to cut yourself and then you can control the thickness) and have the strip cut into steaks. My rationale (in case you’re wondering) – the filet and strip cook at different rates, so it can be tricky to grill a Porterhouse to perfection. Often, if you cook the strip side to a medium rare, then the leaner filet side is overcooked. But that’s just me. I’d rather just have them separated.

  • Short ribs – Do NOT Turn into hamburger. Yes, you might want these. Braised short ribs are AMAZING – or grilled Korean style.

  • Sirloin – Do NOT turn into hamburger. Sirloin will be your most plentiful source of decent steak in the cow, and while tougher than ribeye and strip, it’s pretty tasty. I get all the sirloin cut into steaks.

  • Flank steak – Do NOT turn into hamburger. Your butcher might not ask about the flank steak, but it is amazing, and you should get this cut for yourself.

  • Chuck Roast – Do NOT Turn into hamburger. This might be the most flavorful cut of beef. Ideal for the crockpot.

  • Bottom Round, Top Round and Eye of Round Roasts – I could go either way on this one. When you get roast beef from the deli counter, it is often from one of these cuts of meat. They are all pretty tough, which is why it works best sliced against the grain or slow-cooked. I got the bottom round roast from our last cow, but never got around to making a pot roast. This time, I had it made it all into hamburger.

  • Stew meat – I could go either way on this one. I love beef stew, so I get the stew meat.

  • Brisket – I could go either way on this one. Do NOT Turn into hamburger. Brisket is AMAZING smoked, but I don’t have a smoker, so I got it turned into hamburger. Wait… darnit! My dad has a smoker! And he only lives 4 minutes away! Oh… and searching the internet, seems that there are PLENTY of amazing recipes using the brisket even without the smoker. Looks like I made a mistake on this cut.

  • Cube Steak – Turn into hamburger . A pretty tough cut of meat. Usually needs to be pounded with a meat tenderizer to make it edible. I have it ground into hamburger instead.

  • Everything else – Hamburger.

It typically ends up to be about 75% hamburger, 25% steaks and roasts. One more tip – it might cost more to get it vacuum sealed in plastic, but it is well worth it. Even if you have a vacuum sealer at home, I can almost guarantee you that the commercial grade one that your butcher has will do a better job.

What is the meat like?

If you’ve never had grass fed (and finished) beef before, you should know that it is different in flavor, size and texture than your typical mass produced corn-fed beef.

  • Size – The gigantic corporate-owned farms either feed their cows almost entirely on corn and soy, as well as giving them hormones and antibiotics. So they end up being much larger than cattle going about their business on the pasture, eating in a much more natural manner. Not only do grass fed cows yield less meat, but the steaks are smaller. Above, note the difference in size and fat content of the grain-fed steak on the left, and the grass-fed steak on the right, both the same cut.

  • Taste – it is hard to describe the difference in flavor. Some describe it as a gamier or funkier flavor… but you will notice it immediately. It’s not bad, just different and might take a few tries to get used to. Now, I prefer it quite a bit. Grass-fed beef tastes the way that it was meant to.

  • Texture – Grass-fed cows are leaner, which means less fat and marbling in the meat. For certain steaks, like a ribeye where fat-marbling is prominent, the grass-fed variety will not be as juicy and tender.

When to buy a cow?

Around here, the cows are usually slaughtered in the fall, before it gets cold. It’s mid October right now, so if you want one – GET ON IT! For next year, start looking around in the summer or earlier. Many farms sell their cows a year in advance, so make sure that you plan ahead!

How do I store it, and how long will it last?

Obviously, you’re gonna keep this meat frozen. But there is a big difference between a nice chest freezer and the freezer in your kitchen. Most standing freezers are self-defrosting, or auto-defrosting. This means that the freezer never builds up frost on the inside walls, which for the most part is a good feature. But not for longer storage of meat. Here’s why – self-defrosting freezers work by way of a heating element in the walls that melt any ice build up several times a day. This is fine for most applications, but the slight raise in temperature will cause foods stored near the walls of the freezer to slightly thaw and freeze over and over again. For meat storage of just a couple months, this is fine. But vacuum sealed meat will last much longer in a non-defrosting freezer, at least up to a year, maybe longer.

My advice – get a non-defrosting chest freezer. They’re cheaper than you think. We have a 8.0 cu ft freezer that we only paid about $280 for brand new.

Whole or Half?

A half of a cow is PLENTY for us and will last us a year with no problem. But, the farm usually sells cows as a whole, so your best bet would be to find a friend who is also looking to buy some beef in bulk and split it.

We LOVE our beef. It’s healthier, it supports local business, and we prefer the flavor. Best of all, it is a bargain compared to buying it in the grocery stores.

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