It takes a bit of calculating to purchase beef from a farmer, but once you have a freezer full of meat raised just down the road you might just never buy beef at the supermarket again.
Buying beef directly from the producer allows the customer a uniquely personal opportunity to ensure they get exactly the meat they are paying for. However, calculating beef prices using hanging weight takes a little getting used to. I get a lot of questions from buyers about buying beef this way and hope to answer some common questions and set out the basics of how buying an animal right from the farmer or rancher usually works.
What is Hanging Weight?
If you have been talking with a local animal producer or see an ad you might notice that the animal is being sold based on the “hanging weight.”
The customer, technically speaking, buys the live animal as opposed to the beef. Payment is based on a previously agreed amount per pound, but this amount is per pound of the processed animal after slaughter, not the live animal. This weight is basically the meat and bones hanging on the hook. The customer is not charged for the offal (entrails and internal organs), hide, head, or blood of the animal.
I am speaking directly about beef since that is what we raise and sell to our customers, but the basics apply to purchasing any large livestock animal such as pork or lamb.
Why Do Ranchers Sell Beef per Pound Hanging Weight?
The Federal Meat Inspection Act requires that commercially sold meat be inspected and pass certain criteria. These requirements, while providing important health and safety standards for large producers and packing companies, are sometimes difficult (or cost prohibitive) for small-town butcher shops to comply with. Smaller butcher shops have the option to develop their facilities to comply and become USDA certified, or they can process whole animals directly for individual customers without meeting some of these requirements. When each customer of the butcher shop is only having their own animal slaughtered and processed for personal consumption, the meat is not commercially sold and these requirements do not apply. These processing facilities are still under state inspection/regulation to ensure health and safety standards.
Subsequently, the decision of your producer to offer beef by the animal or by the cut is directly related. In rural areas, butcher shops offering USDA certified processing of meat can be more difficult to locate. Further, the producer is likely in the ranching business, and not necessarily direct to customer meat sales. Even when beef is processed at a USDA inspected facility, depending on the producer’s business it might not make sense for them to store, market, and sell individual cuts of meat.
Purchasing Whole, Half, and Quarter Beef
Typically when buying a live animal directly from the producer, you will specify if you want a whole beef, a half, or sometimes even a quarter. On our farm, we prefer not to sell quarters because of the practicalities of breaking down the animal. Half of the animal offers the exact same cuts of beef to two customers whereas dividing the front and back quarters of the animals does not.
The other reason we discourage quarter shares is the specific traits of our beef. On our farm, we select for a midsized cow and therefore midsized beef animals. We do so for a variety of reasons, including smaller-bodied animals develop marbling and fat without being finished on grains. We are able to produce beef with excellent flavor without the use of any grain. Other cattle operations choose a larger breed of animal. In the conventional market more pounds = more dollars. This is one of the many factors that is going to be specific to the producer you are choosing to purchase from. On our farm, we ensure quality grass-fed beef through smaller-bodied animals.
How Much Does it Really Cost to Buy Beef By Hanging Weight?
Well, it depends. You will not know the exact dollar amount until the animal is hanging on the hook. While your producer should have an estimate, there is going to be some variability. You also want to clarify up front what the cut and wrap fee from the butcher is, and who is expected to pay it. Our butcher charges a kill fee per head, plus a per pound hanging weight cut and wrap fee.
Hanging Weight x Price Per Pound + Cut and Wrap Fees = Total Price
For example, our beef steers this year were about 800 lbs per animal. They dressed out at about 380 lbs. (or 380 lbs hanging weight.) The amount of beef you put into the freezer depends somewhat on the cuts you choose, but each of our customers ends up with between 288 and 336 lbs of beef.
Buying beef in bulk allows you to have access to premium cuts of meat for the same price per pound as ground burger. While you need to be prepared for the expense upfront, like most other bulk options you end up saving money because you can buy hamburger and sirloin steaks for the same price per pound.
When comparing prices it is important to compare the same type of beef. You shouldn’t compare the price of a direct purchase of local, hormone-free, organic, grass-finished beef with a conventional hamburger from the supermarket. The product just isn’t the same.
I will caution that beef does not last indefinitely in the freezer (most recommend about a year.) Another consideration is shopping your freezer rather than a grocery store aisle might take some getting used to. When you purchase directly from the producer by the animal, you will have a wide variety of meat cuts.
Cut and Wrap Instructions
You will probably work directly with the butcher shop to provide cut and wrap instructions. Your butcher shop will want to know how many steaks you want per package, how many pounds of burger you want per package, as well as your preferences for certain cuts. For example, you can choose a bone-in T-bone steak, or that same cut of meat can be cut and packaged as New York strip steaks and tenderloin without the bone. Similarly, some people prefer more roasts, some more burger.
Tips for Buying Direct from Producer
#1- Ask for The Extras
Offal- The Organ Meats
You can more than likely request to keep the tallow and offal from the animal you purchase. Talk to the producer you are working with. Our butcher shop requires you to show up with your own bucket on slaughter day to get the organ meats. As the producer, we take care of this. We take the fat, and offal from our animals. We personally use these products, but we are more than happy to pass it on to our customers if requested. There are so many incredible health benefits to consuming these organ meats. We are huge proponents of consuming organ meats for a multitude of reasons. More to come about how to prepare these nutrient-dense cuts of meat that are seldom spoken of in our modern culture.
Request your fat! Beef and Pork fat rendered into tallow or lard respectively are the best cooking fats you can possibly come by. I am of the opinion that healthy animals have healthy animal fats. Rendering lard or beef tallow is easier than you would expect and absolutely worth the effort. (See the full how-to render animal fat here.)
Soup bones have a surprising amount of meat as well as nutritious connective tissue on the bone. I love using my instant pot to use these bones to add flavor and nutrition to my soups and beans. I also use the bones to make bone broth. (See the full how-to make bone broth here.) If you are buying high-quality proteins, don’t let those bones go to waste!
#2 Get to Know Your Producer
One of the best parts of buying direct is really getting to know what you are buying and from whom. Most producers would love to share their ranching practices and philosophies with you. We love these animals and we are happy to talk to you about our operation. At the same time, nothing beats that personal connection of the customer and the producer actually getting to know one another. On our farm, we sell directly to our friends and neighbors. It is one of our specific goals to provide high quality, grass-fed beef to our community. To us, it is about much more than just a business transaction.
#3 Specify Your Preferences
Honestly, I am incredibly picky about my beef. I was perhaps the only child in America who did not care for hamburgers growing up. After I began purchasing and cooking grass-fed beef, and then later raising the animals, I really started enjoying the beef. Without any sciency explanation at all, I can tell you, it just tastes better! It tastes more like venison or the more “natural” protein sources I have always eaten. To me, it just makes sense that animals that evolved to eat grass develop a healthier fat profile when they are harvested after living exactly the life they were designed to live. As a producer and a customer, I have a strong preference for grass-fed beef.
But here is the thing, some people want that grain fat! If you prefer grain-finished beef you can still buy directly from a local producer. Buying from local producers supports your local community. Pretty much every local producer I know, raises their animals with extreme care and attention, regardless of grain or grass-finished.
Similarly, you can talk to the producer about the specifics of the breeds they offer. They will also likely be able to select a larger or smaller animal depending on what you need.
A Note About Our Beef
It is so exciting to sell grass-finished beef directly to our customers. We purchased our first animals together over 15 years ago. A long and complicated path from that point led us to purchase our place four years ago and expanding two short years later.
The beef we sell comes from animals born, raised, and harvested under our direction. They eat nothing but grass, and grass hay. They live side by side with their mothers (with the exception of a 45 day weaning period.) The animals we harvest are the healthiest animals we can produce. Our cattle eat grass and grass hay. They are not finished on grain. We do not use growth hormone, and none of the animals we harvest locally have ever received antibiotics or been ill.