Buying the cow?

Growing up in a family with working farms on both my maternal and paternal sides, it wasn’t rare for me to have previously made acquaintance with the animal I was eating for dinner. The idea of this might freak out some people, especially those who like to imagine the meat they consume is grown in a sterile lab (see, Better Off Ted, season one, episode two). For me, however, it was just the way it worked.

After the animals would go to slaughter, my family would receive a quarter, half, or whole chicken, pig, and/or cow that my mom would butcher and put in our chest freezer. It wasn’t until both of my parents’ farms became grain farms that we started buying meat at the grocery store like the non-farmers did.

When my husband and I bought our first house, I brought up the subject of talking with our favorite butcher about buying a cow. Since this wasn’t the way my husband was raised, he was a little uneasy with the idea in the beginning. But, he eventually changed his tune after I showed him the numbers and did a little persuading.

Ordering a cow

The process of ordering a quarter, half, or whole cow can be extremely simple: you tell your butcher you’re interested, and he makes it happen. A little less easy, but not much more difficult, is to find a farm and contact it directly. I like to get the cow from a farm I can visit and inspect the environment where the animal was raised, medical treatment it received, and food it ate. This is easy to do in Virginia where we have a number of organic cattle farms and they’re accustom with working directly with consumers. If a farm in your area doesn’t work with consumers directly, they almost always use a CSA or small butcher shop as their coordinator.

The costs of buying a cow

Once you order a quarter, half, or whole cow, you’ll need a place to store the meat. A small chest freezer (under 10 cu. ft.) will fit a quarter or a half cow and the freezers retail anywhere between $200 to $350. The Energy Star website reports that a small chest freezer manufactured between 2001-2008 costs about $45 a year for electricity to operate and $38 a year for a newer model. Crunching the numbers on this, the first year to run the freezer you will pay around a dollar a day and less than 15 cents a day in the following years.

Quarter, half, or whole cows that you butcher at home, vacuum seal in meal-size portions, and freeze are about $3.50 per pound. This is in comparison to $5 to $30 per pound of store-bought, already butchered, small-servings from the butcher’s counter. The price of half a cow, a small chest freezer, and the energy to run a small chest freezer is still less than buying the store-bought, butchered, small-servings a couple times a week.

One thing to note is that if you buy half a cow (or a quarter or a whole), you’ll also want to purchase a meat grinder to make ground beef. I like the food grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, which was $45. A steel one that attaches to your counter will work fine, too. If you have a food processor and don’t mind inconsistently ground meat and don’t plan to make sausages, you could probably use it, too.

Also, if you aren’t excited by the idea of butchering the whole, half, or quarter cow you plan to purchase, for a little extra money the butcher will usually cut it up into steaks, roasts, ribs, and ground beef for you (which mildly increases your cost per pound). If you’re uncomfortable with offal, your butcher and/or farm can also leave these out of your cuts.

Conclusion

Even though it’s financially beneficial to consume beef this way, and in many ways more environmentally friendly, these weren’t the reasons my husband eventually came around to the idea. His motivation came after reading an article on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). He realized that his chances of getting the infection are greatly reduced if he’s eating from just one cow over a six month period instead of dozens of cows. This never weighed into my decision-making process, but I thought it was worth mentioning in case other people have similar concerns about BFE.

7 comments posted

  1. Posted by Jen - 05/19/2011

    I have an odd question… if you buy less than a whole cow, are you able to specify which cuts you want? My family is addicted to flatiron steaks (part of the shoulder), and would definitely want our cow portion to include that cut. Can you make special requests like this (assuming you keep your requests to a bare minimum)?

  2. Posted by Erin Doland - 05/20/2011

    @Jen — Yes. At least we’ve been able to do this.

  3. Posted by Tiffany - 05/20/2011

    Mad cow isn’t the only horrifying illness that can be reduced this way- e. coli spreads when meat from multiple cows is ground up together at the processing plant; it only takes one contaminated piece of meat to spoil thousands of pounds of ground beef.

    We’ve been buying both our beef and our pork in this way and love it. We’re not ready to take on the butchering ourselves, so we’re happy to pay the processor to do it. Having them produce the bacon and sausage for us has vastly improved our weekend breakfasts. :) Though I think the next time we buy the pig we’ll ask the processor not to cure the hams for us- I think I could do better myself.

    One caveat on requesting particular cuts- of course the flip side of all this is that you are limited to the cuts available from the single cow. There’s only one brisket per cow, for example (though they’re often cut in half to handle them more easily). We just take this as a reason to expand our cooking skills to include cuts we weren’t in the habit of using.

  4. Posted by RadiomomRhetoric - 05/20/2011

    I love this–especially since we just purchased our very first 1/4 cow! We are so excited about it-I even did a blog post on it! :)

    ours cost just under 550 total-after paying the butcher and the farmer. We were able to pick our cuts too! Can’t wait to NOT buy grocery store cuts!

  5. Posted by Tricia - 05/20/2011

    I have ordered a half a cow before, but it is always through a family member who knows the farmer personally and I have never had to do it myself. I have been wondering for a long time if I can get chicken this way too, but I don’t personally know anyone who raises chickens. Do I just find a local butcher shop and ask? Is there some way to search for local farmers in the area?

  6. Posted by Erin Doland - 05/20/2011

    @Tricia — A family-owned butcher shop is a great place to start (not a butcher’s counter in a grocery store). Also, you can do a search for CSAs in your area. So, for example, if you were in Washington state, you might check out: http://www.swwa-csafarms.com/FarmListings.php

    Some of those farms might be grain farms, some might be vegetable farms, and some might do chickens and beef, others might be a dairy …

  7. Posted by Josh - 05/25/2011

    Other options for eating local and finding stuff to help you eat local are:

    http://www.localharvest.org/

    and

    http://www.eatwellguide.org

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