Learning about meat buying has definitely been a process for me. Lesser cuts, finer cuts, hanging weight, finished weight…. it was all Greek to me when I first embarked on eating red meat.
As I slowly started eating meat (while Dan embraced the Paleo Diet full on), I of course had to start buying a lot more meat to cook at home. It was important to us that the cows were pastured and grass finished, having led happy natural lives. We wanted to know the producer personally, be able to ask questions and visit the ranch. As for the finished product, I loved knowing that my meat, especially the ground, all came from a single animal and was free of any weird additives and not overly processed (Pink slime? No thanks!).
At first, I mainly bought cuts that could be slow cooked until they were really tender and “shreddy,” ie falling off the bone. I got a lot of rump roasts and stew meat for myself. Dan loves burgers, so I also bought a lot of ground beef. And I got a few different steaks to try out just for fun. Our 6 year old daughter quickly developed a taste for them: flat irons, rib eyes, and — her favorite — T-bone! (I still laugh at her love of T-bone now that I know that the T-bone is the tenderloin and the New York steak all in one. She has some expensive taste in steaks!)
Buying meat by the cut is, however, the most expensive way of doing it. You can of course save a bunch of money by buying a whole animal at once. If a whole is too much you can split it with friends and just get a 1/4 or a 1/2 and still enjoy the lowest price possible.
Our first 1/4 beef
This past December when I went in on a whole cow from Pat N Tam’s Beef with a few friends was the first time I ever bought meat this way. Figuring it all out was a learning process, and I hope sharing what I learned can help some of you too.
Aside from by the individual cut, here are the different ways meat can be priced:
- on the hoof – this means you pay $x per pound for the weight of the entire living animal
- on the rail/hanging weight – this means you pay $x per pound for the hanging carcass at the butcher after the head, feet, innards and hide have been removed. Typically, from live weight to hanging weight, you lose about 40-45% of the weight of the live animal. The remaining 60-65% is called the yield.
- finished weight – this means you pay $x per pound for the final cuts you get to take home. Typically, from hanging weight to finished weight, you lose appx 45% again. The remaining 55% is called the cut out.
On top of the dollar per pound of meat you pay, there is also the butcher’s fee and “cut & wrap.” The butcher’s fee is usually a flat fee and the “cut & wrap” is an additional charge per pound. Sometimes these fees are rolled into the hanging weight price.
But how do you compare prices??
Knowing the yield and the cut out rates will let you figure out the final cost per pound for the individual cuts. It also helps you compare different prices from different sources when offered on the hoof, on the rail or by the cut.
Here are the basic formulas to use:
Hanging weight / live weight = yield and should be appx 62.5% (For example, 750 lbs hanging weight / 1,200 lbs live animal = 62.5% yield.)
Finished product / hanging weight = cut out and should be appx 55% (For example, 415 lbs finished product / 750 lbs hanging weight = 55% cut out.)
So, if someone quotes you $2.95/lb hanging weight and the animal weighs 750 lbs, you can quickly figure out that you’d pay $2,212.50 for appx 415 lbs worth of finished product, or a final price of $5.33/lb.
If someone else is charging $1.85/lb for an animal on the hoof, you can calculate that a 1,200 lbs animal would cost $2,220, which is about the same as the $2.95/lb hanging weight example above.
What affects the final weight?
The above are pretty good estimates of yield and cut out, but the final cut out can be increased or decreased depending on the cutting instructions you give to the butcher. To increase your take home weigh, try asking for all the bones (use them for bone broth), short ribs, tongue, cheeks, offal, tail and fat. If you don’t want to eat the organs just as is, you can ask the butcher to add the liver and heart into some of the ground meat to make very nutrient dense burgers. You can also ask for the fat to be added into the ground beef (for example, 10/90 or 20/80 are common ratios of fat to meat). If you don’t want the fat added into the ground, you can take it home and render it into tallow, which is excellent for cooking or making pemmican with.
The aging process also affects the final weights. The longer the meat is aged, the more moisture (and therefore weight) the carcass loses. Some producers like to only age their beef 14 days while others let it age for 21 days. This affects the final weight as well as flavor and tenderness. I have personally not tried beef aged in many different ways, so I can’t speak to the differences between, say, 14 days versus 21 days aged beef, but I think it’s something to keep in mind so you can ask relevant questions as you start shopping for beef that you like before you commit to an entire side. Not all beef is the same. Different ways of producing and aging it results in different flavors and you may find that you prefer the taste of 21 days aged over 14 days.
By the way, our 1/4 beef is almost all gone now, appx 4 months later. This is good to know because it tells me a whole cow would last us a bit over a year. We would have to buy a second chest freezer to fit just the beef, but how nice to not have to think about meat once that one large purchase is squared away! It might be something to think about for the future.
This is what I have learned so far about buying artisan produced beef by the side. I am sure I am forgetting or just unaware of other important considerations. What would you add to the list?
Leave a comment!
This post is part of Frugally Sustainable Wednesdays.