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Meat Buying Guide   arrow

Values & Costs of Buying Meat Directly From Producers

Sources: Colorado State University Extension, Iowa State University Extension &
Cornell University Cooperative Extension


    Commonly Used Claims & Definitions for Meats
    What Does It Cost?
    Understanding Weights & Pricing
    Common Cattle Breeds
    Retail Cuts of Beef
    Retail Cuts of Pork
    USDA & Colorado State Regulations
    10 Common Reasons People Don’t Buy Meat in Halves, Quarters or Bundles

Introduction to Buying Meat

Just a few decades ago, many Americans put up whole animals every year. Professional butchers traveled door-to-door, helping families cut and preserve the meat. Those folks who did not have their own animals to butcher contracted with a butcher shop, usually purchasing meat in quantity and storing it in a freezer locker to which the buyers had a key and access throughout the week. Meat counters in grocery stores replaced this system, making it possible to purchase fresh meats week by week. But today, as more and more beef and pork producers return to the marketplace to sell directly to consumers, it is again common for individuals to buy meats locally and in quantity—typically by quarter, half, or whole animals.

Buying beef or pork in quantity allows you to choose not only what quality of animal you would like—how the animal is raised and fed, what breed—but also exactly how you want the meat cut and packaged. How thick do you want your steaks, for example? Do you want ground meat in one-pound packages, two-pound packages or made into patties? Do you want fajitas, bratwurst, or breakfast sausage?

Meats can be complicated and confusing for consumers and commodity meats are associated with a number of concerns including sources of animal feed, antibiotic and hormone usage, humane treatment, food safety, and health benefits /detriments. Consumers feel intimidated and distrustful of the range of claims like “natural” and “grass-fed” and consumers are less familiar with livestock farming and choosing meats than they are about vegetables. With this background of demand for local foods, we seek to teach consumers more about local meats, including information on pricing, label claims, various cuts, yields, and weights, and the importance of knowing your farmer’s claims and definitions.

Commonly Used Claims and Definitions for Meats (Back to Top)

Natural: The USDA’s definition is only “minimally processed”. The term is commonly used on products raised without antibiotics in the feed or hormone implants.

Organic Certified: Organic meats require certified organic feed, certain humane treatment of the animals, and the processing must be done at a certified facility. Antibiotics and artificial growth hormones are not allowed.

Grass-fed/pasture raised: Use of these terms varies widely. The USDA defines “grass-fed” as: “grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Despite this definition, use of the term may include animals which are fed some grain. In an effort to differentiate from grain-fed products, the term is sometimes prefaced by 100% or “strictly”.

Humane/free range: The definition also varies widely. Some programs offer their own definition as “certified”. Generally, these terms imply that the animals have access to the outdoors and are less confined than conventional commercial production.

Certified Operations are subject to specific protocols and third party inspections. For example, “certified organic” or “certified humane”.

Hanging Time (aging): The length of time a beef carcass hangs in a cooler before being processed. 7-14 days is typical which helps muscle fibers to stretch and meat to increase tenderness.

Cure is the term used for smoking, cooking, or preserving a product. Most bacon and hams are cured but you can also request these be not cured. Cured meats will have a longer refrigerator life.

What Does It Cost? (Back to Top)

Most of the time, buying a whole animal or part of an animal will be cheaper than if you were to buy the same meat as individual retail cut. If one has the money and space, there is an economy to buying in bulk. To estimate the cost of buying directly from a farmer, consider the following:

How much does the animal itself cost? Many producers estimate costs on the weight of the animal’s carcass before it is cut into packaged meats—called the “carcass weight” or “hanging weight”, however some producers charge based on the live weight of the animal. Be sure to ask the producer how you will be charged. Prices may vary widely depending on the animal.

How much is the processing? This cost depends on the types of cuts you request, the amount of further processing requested (such as bacon or jerky), and type of packaging. For example, it is less expensive to leave roasts whole than it is to process them into tenderized steaks, ground beef patties, or stir-fry beef. Also, it is generally less expensive to wrap your meat in freezer paper than it is to have it vacuum-packaged.

If needed, what does storage or delivery cost? If you are unable to pick up all of your meat at once, you may be charged for freezer storage. Or, if your meat is to be delivered or shipped, be sure to ask how much extra the service will cost.

Do you need to invest in a freezer? As a general guide, 50 pounds of meat will fit in 2.25 ft3 of cooler/freezer space. A ¼ of beef or whole hog will generally require 5.0 ft3 of space. Many freezer (upright or chest) types are available on for less than $500 and generally can hold between 5-15 ft3

The farmer or rancher and butcher who you contract with can help answer these questions and guide your purchase.

Understanding Weights & Pricing (Back to Top)

Farmers may discuss three different weights with consumers: Live weight, hot carcass weight (HCW) (also called hanging weight), and Final weight (also called retail weight and take home weight). Some farms base their pricing on HCW, which confuses some consumers, but may be the easiest way to obtain a reliable market weight.

Live weight is the weight of the entire, living animal. (Includes variable amounts of gut fill)

HCW is the weight taken immediately after slaughter, but before final trim (includes bones, kidneys, internal fat deposits, etc.) HCW ≈ 60% of live weight

Final weight is the “take home” weight after trim and cutting into useable portions. Final weight ≈ 65% of HCW. or Final weight ≈ 42% of Live weight

Weight Example: If an animal weighs 1100 lbs, then its HCW will be ≈660 lbs and you will receive ≈430 lbs of actual meat.

Pricing Example: If you pay $2.00/lb HCW and the HCW=660 lbs. then the 430lbs of meat will cost you $3.06/lb.

Processing Cost: In addition to the above costs, most processors charge a slaughter or kill fee (≈$50) and a processing or cutting fee (≈$0.50/lb HCW). This brings your total cost for the 430lbs of meat to $3.95/lb. Obviously, all prices and weights will vary.

Common Cattle Breeds (Back to Top)

Consumers may wish to be aware of the various breeds of livestock that are raised by local producers. For information on these breeds, visit the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science, which maintains comprehensive descriptions of livestock breeds.

Some local Gunnison Valley Breeds are: Angus, Hereford, Shorthorn, Gelbvieh, Highlander, and Jersey.

Storage (Back to Top)

Frozen beef will keep a very high quality for up to 12 months, after which quality will begin to slowly degrade. (Meat will remain safe to eat indefinitely if kept frozen). Properly frozen meat, when correctly thawed, should have the same taste and quality as fresh meat. Tight packaging is a must; “freezer-burn” is caused by dehydration whereby Oxygen is allowed into the package and water molecules escape the meat. Meat when frozen can have hard edges; make sure you handle packages so that they don’t tear the wraps and allow air to penetrate. Meat from one-eighth of a typical beef will weigh roughly 50-60 pounds and meat from one-half of a typical hog will weigh roughly 60-70 pounds. The empty freezer compartment of a new, average-size, home refrigerator is about 4.8 ft3 Therefore, if you only get one-eighth of a beef or a half hog, you should be able to fit it in a mostly-empty home freezer. You may want to shop for a small stand-alone freezer to allow for more storage space and keep the meat colder for long-term storage. Stand-alone freezers can maintain temperatures between -5 and -10˚f, whereas the temperature of a refrigerator freezer is usually kept near 0˚f. Some meat processors will store meat for you in their walk-in freezers for a monthly fee of $5 to $10.

Processing (Back to Top)

This is the fun part. Buying meat in bulk allows you the opportunity to decide how you want your meat processed.

There are many options available and all processors offer different choices. If there is something in particular that you would like, always feel free to ask the processor if they can accommodate. With a little bit of research on cuts and processing you can go a long way in making your purchase more enjoyable. Think about your meat preferences, what do you buy at the grocery store? Follow the motto; if you don’t buy it– grind it. If you don’t want to be stuck in six months with a bunch of roasts and short ribs, then have the processor make hamburger out of them. Maybe you would like your fajita meat sliced before packaging? Hamburger (beef) or sausage (pork) can be seasoned or made into patties. Below are some examples of retail cuts available.

Most processors will provide you with a “CUT” sheet. This is a form which they will use when processing your meat. If filling out for the first time, be sure to ask questions.

Retail Cuts of Beef (Back to Top)
Retail Cuts of Beef

Retail Cuts of Pork (Back to Top)
Retail Cuts of Pork

USDA & Colorado State Regulations (Back to Top)

USDA Inspected facility: Processed livestock (beef, pork, sheep, goat) meat can be sold to the public. Every carcass is inspected, live and post mortem, by a USDA inspector who labels a carcass as a wholesome/safe product. USDA assumes liability for the product’s safety.

State Inspected facility: Can kill & process livestock for consumers (can’t sell the beef retail). So, if you buy a live animal or a share of a live animal from a farmer, it can be processed for your consumption. State inspects the facility and operation but not the meat. Consumer assumes liability for the product’s safety.

** Most halves & quarters are processed under “custom exemption” (meat has not been inspected) and processor will need to be paid by the person who owns the animal.

Ten Common Reasons People Don’t Buy Meat in Halves, Quarters or Bundles(Back to Top)

Reason 1) I don’t know how much or what I’d get.
Response: Meat from a typical ½ beef (from a 1,000 – 1,200 lb. live animal) consists of approximately:

14 Tbone steaks (3/4” thick)
14 rib steaks (3/4”)
8 sirloin steaks (3/4”)
8 round steaks (3/4”)
2 sirloin tip roasts (3 lbs.)
6 chuck roasts (4 lbs.)
4 arm roasts (3 lbs.)
2 rump roasts (3 lbs.)
8 packages of stew beef (1 lb.)
4 packages of short ribs (1.5 lbs.)
4 packages of soup bones (1.5 lbs.)
80 to 100 lbs. ground beef

(Variety meats, if desired, such as heart, liver, tongue, and oxtail)
For a ¼ divide the above by 2.

Reason 2) I don’t know how to order cuts from a half or quarter.
Response: No worries, many beef producers or your processor will offer friendly suggestions. Very few customers know all the options available, so ask lots of questions. You can always call your local CSU Extension Agent for some helpful guidelines.

Reason 3) I don’t know how or where to store it all.
Response: Meat from one-eighth of a typical beef will weigh roughly 50-60 pounds and meat from one-half of a typical hog will weigh roughly 60-70 pounds.
The empty freezer compartment of a new, average-size, home refrigerator is about 4.8 ft3. Therefore, if you only get one-eighth of a beef or a half hog, you should be able to fit it in a mostly-empty home freezer. You may want to shop for a small stand-alone freezer to allow for more storage space and keep the meat colder for long-term storage. Stand-alone freezers can maintain temperatures between -5 and -10˚f, whereas the temperature of a refrigerator freezer is usually kept near 0˚f. Some meat processors will store meat for you in their walk-in freezers for a monthly fee of $5 to $10.

Reason 4) I don’t know how to cook all the cuts.
Response: There are many educational sites that offer cooking tips. Here are some cooking examples:

New York strips Ideal on the grill.
Rib Eyes Ideal on the grill.
Boneless Sirloin Ideal on the grill.
Ground Beef Whatever your favorite way to fix ground beef. It will always taste better knowing the source of the meat.
Ground Beef Patties. Put on the grill frozen and they will be done in minutes.
Beef Roasts Place the frozen roast in the crock‐pot with a little water and seasonings and you will have a perfect roast for supper. Cut up any leftovers and combine with BBQ sauce for great sandwiches.

Reason 5) Too Expensive or too much cash up front.
Response: “Cowpooling” is a great way to share the cost with another family who has similar interests. Sharing a purchase with one or more families can be very economical. In most cases, when priced out, the retail store meat will cost more than when buying wholesale. But remember the product; local farmers take the extra time and that extra time costs money. Most farmers and ranchers are very up front about their extra costs in raising local. When a producer asks for a premium it’s usually directly associated with higher feed costs. It’s not rocket science to figure out why industry feeding operations are located in the Midwest and close to efficient feed sources.

Reason 6) What if I don’t like it?
Response: Many Producers will offer a refund or guarantee if you’re not 100% satisfied. Ask for references and talk to others who have bought the product. Also, if an animal has been fed a certain way, the meat may have a different flavor than you’re use to. Research or taste the product before you commit.

Reason 7) It’s more convenient to buy at the store.
Response: You will find once you become accustomed to having meat on hand, the “MOST” convenient source of meat is your own freezer.

Reason 8) I prefer buying Fresh Meat.
Response: Too often people have had bad experiences with frozen meat because the meat was not properly frozen or old before it was frozen. Freezing is nature’s best preservative for meat products. Meat that is vacuum‐packed or double wrapped tightly and frozen at the optimal freshness will taste just as fresh as fresh meat cuts.

Here are some ways to thaw meat: 1) Take meat out of the freezer and place in a refrigerator at least 24 hours in advance
2) Place vacuum‐packed meats in cool water and they will thaw very fast (paper wrapped meats can thaw in water in a leak‐proof plastic bag). Change the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages may thaw in an hour or less; a 3‐4 lbs. roast may take 2-3 hours.
3) Many find the microwave to be a fast and acceptable way to thaw meat, but be careful, thawing correctly in a microwave can be challenging.

Reason 9) We don’t eat that much meat.
Response: A family of 4 will get between 100 and 130 meals of beef from a half beef, 50‐65 from a quarter. Eating beef 2 times per week it will take a family approx 1 year to eat a half beef, or 6 months to eat a quarter.

Reason 10) I am a vegetarian.
Response: Cows eat nothing but vegetables…

Sources: Colorado State University Extension, Iowa State University Extension, Cornell University Cooperative Extension

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