Buy A Cow
You’ll have your freezer stocked with an animal that grazed in lush, green pastures and gained weight naturally on grass. Compare that to the cattle who was prematurely separated from his mother, lived in cattle-lined stock pens, fed corn, protein supplements and growth hormones, sold at the auction and slaughtered at a young age.
Now that you know why you want to buy a happy cow, let’s discover how to do it. By the way, a distinction you should be aware of: although I’ve been referring to cows (female), you’ll likely be buying a steer (male).
How to Find Beef for Purchase
Local online connections
We’re part of a local homeschool Yahoo! group of over 400 families. We’ve purchased lamb and beef several times from a few local families this way, as members will post when they have an animal for sale, or when they know of others who do.
Ask a rancher friend to raise it for you
When our friends with a large piece of ranch property were thinking of adding farm animals, we went in on it and they raised two hogs, one for them and one for us. Our kids got to feed the hog acorns.
Ask a local butcher
We’ve purchased chickens, turkeys and beef from our local CSA, who had extra farm animals on hand for purchase. (Note: chickens and turkeys will not be cheaper than the regular prices of non-free-range poultry at your store).
Online Ranch or Farmer’s Market
This is a more expensive route because the store or ranch is selling you meat, not a live animal, but you could still benefit by buying in bulk. Check http://www.localharvest.org/
After our first successful experience with buying a full steer, we asked the rancher (a fellow homeschool mom) if she’d be willing to raise another steer for us. She bought two calves, sold us one at a price lower than if he was full-grown, and then she raised our steer on grass. The lower, up-front cost allowed us a huge savings in the end (and we accepted the risk that something could have happened to the calf growing up) and it benefited both families, as cattle prefer to live in groups rather than alone.
Still Can’t Find Local Meat?
If you do all of these and can’t find beef, it may not be in season where you live. To supplement buying local, I get organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised meats shipped to my door from Butcher Box!
Terms to Know and Questions to Ask When Shopping Around for Quality Beef
Size of Steer
It’s tempting to get hung up on the age of the steer but it comes to the size when it’s time to slaughter. Expect a weight of a minimum of 900 lbs and the age around 1-2.5 years old. What is the size and weight of your steer?
The weight after the animal has been slaughtered, insides removed, and blood drained. This is versus the actual, or live, weight .The cut weight is the amount of beef you actually take home in packages. Are you charging by hanging weight or live weight?
Grass Fed vs Grain Fed
Try for an animal that has been primarily raised on grass but don’t shy away from the animal with some grain-feeding. Grass fed meat is naturally leaner, and if you’re new to fresh, naturally fed and non-hormone-fed beef, you may prefer the taste of some grain-feeding beef. Many ranchers will “finish off” the steer by feeding it grain at the end, either for the marbling effect on the meat, to beef it up a little more, or because there was no grass left to graze on. Has the steer been raised on grass and if you fed him grains, for how long?
Aging Beef (hang time)
Most butchers will hang the carcass after slaughtering, from 7 to 14 days. If you have a choice, ask for at least 10 days, 20 if you can. This longer aging gives a better flavor and increased tenderness. Butchers sometimes prefer a shorter hang time to free up freezer space and keep the hang weight higher. How long will the carcass be hung?
These ranchers have raised their animals with great care, and are happy to tell you all about it. You may hear “Angus,” “fed on spring grass,” and “antibiotic-free.” You don’t have to understand it all; just take notes. Tell me about the steer you’re selling.
Whether or not you pay the slaughter fee or the rancher does, find out. It could cost $100-$200 dollars. What’s the cost? Are you charging by hang weight or live weight? Are there any other fees involved? What’s the best arrangement for payment?
Ranchers prefer to sell the entire steer but will occasionally break it up to sell a side (half) or quarter. I recommend finding a friend who will commit to a part of the steer. If the steer is not yet ready for slaughter, they may ask for a deposit. Are you selling a whole, side or quarter?
Buying Cow from Field to Butcher
Anybody selling you an animal will likely allow you to visit it before it heads to the butcher. By our choice, we’ve only seen one of the many animals we’ve purchased over the years and that was the hog our friends raised for us. In fact, we’ve only met about half of the ranchers in person – everything else was taken care of online or by phone.
Here’s how it works:
- The rancher will know when the animal has gained enough weight to send to the butcher. He will give you the timeline for that. (Be flexible: we had one lamb we thought we’d have for Christmas that became our Easter lamb instead. That type of patience usually isn’t required, but don’t plan your Fourth of July BBQ until your steaks are safely in the freezer.)
- The rancher will communicate with the butcher on the slaughtering. You might be expected to pay the slaughter fee, but you won’t be expected to bring the slaughtered animal to the butcher. They handle all that.
- The rancher may decide to grain feed the animal before butchering, even though you’re buying a grass-fed steer. As long as the steer has fed predominately on grass, our family prefers some graining at the end as it does give it some beautiful marbling (extra fat).
- Once the steer has been slaughtered, it is “hung” to age.
- Some of the savings come in from bypassing the USDA inspector guy. You are buying the animal before it goes to butcher, so there’s no “grading” on whether he’d get the USDA grade of choice or prime. If that’s a critical part of the process to you, choose to purchase your meat from a company that sells the beef cut and ready for the freezer.
I don’t mean the guy at the grocery store, but look for a free-standing butcher shop. He’ll know who the farmers are and put you in touch. We’ve purchased our pork this way.
When the county fair rolls around, this could be a good time to keep your ear out for animals who may not have qualified for the fair. The 4-H student who raised the animal would still like to make money on the animal (the qualified animals are usually sold at a high cost at the fair, where businesses pay top dollar to reward the student for his or her work).