When considering how to buy a side of beef, one particular story comes to mind. I was cleaning up my knives after a presentation at the Texas MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR when an elderly man approached the stage. He smiled up at me and said, “Nobody’s ever going to do the stuff you’re telling them. They’re too lazy.” I remembered his face from the audience, smiling and nodding as I butchered half an animal from nose to tail, explaining the workings of the muscles, the different types of fat, and the value of the bones, the feet, and the organs.
He went on to tell me, “When I was a boy, we were in the meat club. Once every month, somebody would slaughter a beef. After it was cut, everyone in the club would take a piece or two. There was a record of what you had received every month to make sure you got a little of everything before the year was over. Everyone shared, everyone worked, and everything got eaten. But nobody thinks about it like that anymore.”
I told him I thought that was a great idea, and that because I was talking to someone who could remember it happening, then it’s probably possible to keep it alive. To which he said, “Bless you, darlin’,” and then disappeared into the crowd.
Maybe he’s right, but it seems to me there’s too much at stake to be lazy. What we need is for our meat to have a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook. It’s a tall order, considering the obstacles toward affordable, environmentally friendly, low-stress production and processing. Plus, there are added impediments in affordability and culinary aptitude. We need buy-in from everyone, from the farmer to the guy at the grill. How do we do it?
Buying meat as whole as possible, or in bulk, is the first domino in a chain reaction that leads in a positive direction. Buying in bulk drastically reduces the cost of production, which in turn alters the price the farmer has to charge at the point of sale. It also rewards a growing cohort of artisan butchers who are aiming to bring thrift, ingenuity, artistry, and quality back into the meat supply chain.
In addition to being supportive of a sensible, sustainable food economy, buying as whole as possible will save you money, teach you new knowledge and skills, and allow you to enjoy more diversity in the kitchen. I’d bet that people are just itching to know how, and not that we’re too lazy or hopeless to learn.
Step 1: Find a Farmer
The first step to buying beef in bulk is knowing what you want and where to find it. Your options include grass-fed, meaning the animal was raised entirely on grass or hay without grain supplementation; pasture-raised, which usually means the animal had constant access to grass but also a free-choice ration of grain or access to grain during its last few months; and grain-fed, which means the animal was raised almost entirely on corn, soybeans, and other grains. Additionally, you’ll want information about added hormones or doses of antibiotics that were given to the animal to promote growth or prevent disease.
After you’ve selected the type of meat you’re interested in, do a simple online search for your area, find a farmers market, or visit your local co-op or health food store to begin familiarizing yourself with farmers in your area who are right for you. Often, a simple shoutout on social media will get you word-of-mouth recommendations. When you’ve found some farmers, visit them (be sure to call first, as they’re usually quite busy), seek them out at the farmers market, or buy a sample cut from them and see what you think. Establishing direct relationships with growers is the best way to trust the food you eat, and by far surpasses any fancy label slapped on a package.
After you’ve found your farmer match, you just need to set up the sale. You’ll want to say that you’re looking to buy whole, by the pound, based on the hanging weight of the carcass. That’s the weight after all the blood and viscera have been removed. This is distinct from the live weight, or hoof weight, which is the weight of the animal before it’s slaughtered. Expect prices between $2 and $4 per pound on the hanging weight of beef, especially on animals from smaller farms. Based on that, you’ll take a look at your budget to determine how much you can buy. Options range from a half or a side, which is generally half of the animal split lengthwise down the center of its spine. After that, in beef animals, the carcass is quartered. If you don’t want to buy a whole or side, you can choose either the forequarter (everything from the neck to the second-to-last rib) or the hindquarter (everything from the second-to-last rib to the hind hoof). There are different reasons to buy one or the other, mostly based on what you like to eat (see Sample Cut Sheets). If you want to go smaller still, many farmers would probably entertain you purchasing the next-biggest cuts after quarters, which are called “primals.” In a beef animal, primals are as follows: chuck (aka shoulder), brisket, rib, plate, loin, flank, sirloin, and round (see illustration, above).
The other term related to weight and portion that you’ll be concerned with is the cut-out weight, or take-home weight, which is the weight after a carcass or primal is butchered into usable cuts. Once you’ve purchased an animal from a farmer based on hanging weight, you’ll deal with a butcher to determine optimum take-home weight for your money.
One more thing to note about all these weight considerations is that the breed of the animal makes a difference. Breeds developed for dairy purposes (Holstein and Jersey, for example) will have a lower meat-to-bone ratio, meaning less muscle and larger bones, leading to higher live weights and lower take-home potential. Meat breeds (Angus, Hereford) have a higher meat-to-bone ratio, leading to better take-home weights. Small-framed animals (Dexter, Kerry) adapted for optimum grass-fed regimens often have the highest meat-to-bone ratio, and should provide good yield despite the fact that a grain-free diet will lend itself to less overall body fat.
Step 2: Choose a Butcher
Many farmers who sell whole will have a butcher they like to work with, and they can assist you in setting up a relationship with that person. If not, look for someone who understands the whole animal — someone who specializes in cutting meat from its whole form down into retail cuts. A superior butcher will be willing to chat with you about what you like to eat, and will suggest ways to fabricate the carcass or primal to best suit you. A good butcher with deep knowledge of the trade will be able to approach the job in several different ways, depending on the desired outcome. The butcher will likely charge a per-pound price as well; this is usually based on the starting weight of the carcass. However, some butchers price based on take-home weight. The insider term for a list of cuts that you’re interested in is a “cut sheet,” and I’ve provided two samples to get you started and to demonstrate that there’s more than one way to break down a side of beef.
As you get acquainted with your butcher, think about what your family likes to eat, and plan accordingly. Be prepared to be a bit adventurous. Buying whole often requires you to familiarize yourself with cooking techniques and cuts of meat that you might not be totally versed in. This is a great thing! Learning that no part of an animal is more valuable than another — provided that you cook it properly — is one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself, your farmer, and your planet.
If the butcher won’t provide the cuts you want, ask them why. As a skilled tradesperson, the butcher may have a good reason for fabricating the carcass or primal in a slightly different way. That said, some butchers don’t know certain cuts and won’t try to create them. If you feel particularly attached to something and a butcher won’t comply, consider another butcher, or consider trying to cut the meat yourself. Ask the butcher to break down the carcass into primals or sub-primals to make the meat easier to work with. Get some reference books, a 6-inch flexible steel boning knife, and a honing steel, and start practicing.
Lastly, if you’ve paid for the entire carcass or portion based on hanging weight, you’ll certainly want to take home every scrap of it. This means bones for homemade stocks; tallow for cooking with and making soap; organ meat (heart, liver, etc.); and trim that can be ground or made into charcuterie. If you don’t want to deal with everything you get, consider trading the cuts you don’t want, or re-selling them to family and friends who do want them.
The first time you buy meat whole or in bulk, the process is likely to be overwhelming, and it will take a bit of planning, coordinating storage, and time working with your new farmer and butcher friends. If you can make buying in bulk a habit, though, you’ll find it rewarding — and your farmer, your palate, and your wallet will all thank you.
Nose-to-Tail Ordering Tips from Readers
Consider How You Eat
I live in rural Kansas, where my family raises beef cattle. We frequently get requests for locally raised beef. Here are my suggestions.
First, consider what your family likes to eat. If you love a certain cut or dish, then order more of that. My husband and I don’t much care for beef roast, so we have our butcher grind more into hamburger.
Secondly, consider how you’ll cook each cut. This past year, my friend accidentally picked up our side of beef from the butcher, and we got hers. Because we grill the majority of our steaks and hamburgers, my husband had asked for more fat on the steaks and in the ground, but my friend doesn’t grill at all, and she felt the meat was very fatty.
Purchasing a large portion of any animal is an investment, so you want it to be a good one. We producers want you to be happy with the final product so you become a repeat customer. Every opportunity we have to sell locally helps keep our family farms afloat.
St. Francis, Kansas
From the Supply Side
I’ve sold many quarters, halves, and whole beeves over the years. If you’re looking for a farmer, I recommend you contact a local meat processor. Butchers will know area producers who sell beef in bulk, and they’ll also know which producer has the best beef. Another way is to listen to a local radio station with classifieds, because ranchers will call in to list their beef for sale.
By the time you talk to a processor, you should have answers to these questions: What kind of steaks and how thickly cut? How many steaks per package? How many and what kind of roasts, or would you prefer the lower-quality roasts be ground into hamburger instead? How many pounds of hamburger per package? A good processor will keep a detailed record of how a buyer wants the beef cut so the directions don’t have to be repeated each year.
Splitting with Friends
I’ve split a custom butchering order with friends many times, and have learned from experience the simplest ways to manage it.
Dividing an animal seven or eight ways is going to involve some serious math skills. It’s easiest to split an animal among four people or fewer. Also, tell your friends which cuts they’ll receive rather than asking them what they want, or you may end up with only hamburger! Early in the process, I like to give each person an approximate amount for the check they’ll be writing, or the price per pound of the finished cuts. If $6 per pound sounds high to your friends, remind them that that’s the average for all cuts. For that price, they’ll get expensive steaks and roasts as well as hamburger.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editor
Practicing on Primals
We’ve ordered a half hog and a quarter beef from two different farmers. We purchased the half hog in primal cuts because my husband wanted to try some butchering after seeing Meredith Leigh’s workshop at a Mother Earth News Fair. It took me a while to track down a farmer who sold them that way, but it ended up being significantly cheaper — $2.57 per pound for Berkshire pork. His butchering fees were lower because we didn’t want it all cut and packaged. We also drove to the farm to pick up the meat to avoid drop-off costs. This provided us a chance to speak with the farmer and see that the animals were pastured and happy.
We’ve gotten a quarter beef twice, with different results. The first time, I ordered from a co-worker whose price was cheaper than anyone else, but he directed a lot of it to hamburger to save on butcher fees and avoid arguments between the customers who split the animal. We still had plenty of steaks and roasts, and we enjoyed the flavor of the meat, but working through a middleman may have been a mistake.
We plan to continue purchasing our meat in bulk. The flavor is better, and we don’t struggle with the ecological impact and animal cruelty of industrial meat. We eat less meat and enjoy what we have — quality over quantity!
Advice from Customers
As producers of grass-fed, grass-finished beef who sell directly to consumers, we want to pass on some advice from our customers.
When choosing a local producer, check the farm’s website or Facebook page. Be sure the farm has an open-door policy, and then visit to see how the animals are treated and raised.
Make sure the meat will be processed at a USDA-inspected facility.
If an entire side is too much for you or your family, do a cow share with friends. Most small producers offer vacuum-packed and frozen beef, so it’s easy for groups to split up the packages among several parties.
If the farm offers beef on a seasonal basis like we do — we only harvest our steers when the grass is growing — get on its email list and reserve a side as soon as possible! If the beef is really good, it’ll sell out quickly.
Constance Ober and Carlton Brooks
Do the Math
We own a small pasture-based farm in Minnesota. We have a farm store where we sell our meat in individual packages, and we also sell to many people who want larger quantities.
When you’re purchasing an animal, it’s important to know if both the butchering and processing fees are included in the price per pound the farmer quotes. Also, your cost will be different depending on whether you’re quoted a cost per pound by live weight or hanging weight.
Let’s say you’re purchasing a quarter of a pasture-raised beef. The farmer says you owe him $2 per pound live weight, plus you’ll pay 75 cents per pound hanging weight for processing. (Remember that the hanging weight is about 60 percent of the live weight, and the take-home will be about 60 percent of the hanging weight.) You’ll calculate your costs this way:
250 pounds live weight x $2/pound = $500
150 pounds hanging weight x $0.75/pound = $112.50
Total cost to you = $612.50
Your cost per pound would be $6.80 ($612.50 divided by 90 pounds take-home).
If, on the other hand, the farmer says you’ll pay $2 per pound hanging weight plus 75 cents per pound hanging weight for processing, your costs will be:
150 pounds hanging weight x $2/pound = $300
150 pounds hanging weight x $0.75/pound = $112.50
Total cost to you = $412.50
In this case, your cost per pound would be $4.58 ($412.50 divided by 90 pounds take-home).
So, you could end up paying $6.80 per pound or $4.58 per pound for take-home depending on whether the $2 per pound quoted was on the live weight or the hanging weight.
Beth and Bruce Meyer
Listen to Meredith Leigh discuss buying meat in bulk on the Mother Earth News and Friends podcast episode, “Befriend Your Butcher.”
Explore the possibilities when ordering a side of beef with Meredith Leigh’s Sample Cut Sheet, which breaks down two different cut examples to help you decide on your beef selections, as well as assist you in easily communicating with your butcher.