Buying Bulk Meat – What you Need to Know

I’m so excited to bring you this first guest post by reader Auburn in southern New Hampshire.

Buying Bulk Meat – What you Need to Know

There’s a lot of info online about “freezer meat” or “bulk meat” and many people blog about their experiences buying 1/4 or 1/2 cow, though most focus on the meat itself (quantity and quality), having to buy a second freezer and the many “new” cuts they get to try by purchasing meat this way.

So I thought it would be useful to write about the buying process, from my own experience.

I started reading FAQs on freezer beef, pork, lamb and goat and, while some of the information was very useful, some of it was also inconsistent and, at times, downright misleading.

So I decided to contact the beef and pork farmers in my area (Southern New Hampshire), asked a lot of questions and, surprisingly, most of them took the time to reply with the answers and an invitation to visit their farm. Nice. :)

Then, when I was sure I knew everything I needed to know about buying bulk meat, and was about to place an order with the “farmer” who offered the cheapest deal for pastured beef ($3.25/lb hanging weight) and pork ($2.40/lb hanging weight), by chance, I happened to find out that she was a middle person. Aha! And this lady is not the only one who does this in my area – a greedier middleman wanted $4/lb for the beef and $3.50 for the pork!

Guess what? The farmer these middlemen buy from also has an internet presence but he doesn’t list the prices. You have to call, which I did. He charges $2.50/lb for beef and $1.80/lb pork, hanging weight, butcher fees included. See?

Also, the hanging weight the middlemen “estimated” was 50 pounds higher than what the farmer quoted me – they both claimed that a side of beef would be about 350 pounds. This is very important for you to know because when you deal with a middleman, you may not get the invoice from the original farmer stating the actual hanging weight of the animal.

So be sure to do your homework and ask the right questions because that can save you a lot of money and headaches.

Buying from the cheapest middlemen, a side of beef would have cost me $1,137 ($3.25/lb) with an “estimated” hanging weight of 350 pounds and about 210 pounds dressed weight (what you take home).

Buying directly from the farmer I paid $750 ($2.50/lb) for 300 pounds of beef which yielded 240 pounds of dressed weight.

The middlemen “cut” would have been almost $400 plus 30 pounds of dressed weight. Yep. :(

And how do you know when you are dealing with middlemen? When you land on a website and read something like “I purchase steers from another local farmer who also raises his animals humanely and naturally” or “I raise my own lamb and chicken here but I do not have the facilities or hay fields to raise beef and pork. I buy from a friend who raises them the way I would if I could.”

Buyer beware.

Other things I’ve learned:

You will get a lot more for your money if you tell the farmer that you want:

- All cuts “bone-in.” This will get you plenty of roasts and steaks with bones that you’ll then use to make wonderfully nutritious stock.

- A thick “fat cap” on all cuts. You want them to trim as little fat as possible. You can use that fat to cook with or you can feed it to your birds, chickens and other animals.

- No ground meat. Instead, you’ll want all scrap meat packaged in 1 lb or 2 lb packages. This way you don’t end up with 80 pounds of hamburger but with scrap meat that you can grind yourself as needed or shave/cube it for use in dishes like quesadillas, stir-fry, etc.

- Flank and skirt cuts whole. You can make delicious recipes with them.

- All bones: dog bones, lower leg bone/heels and tail which you will use for stock (braised beef tail is exquisite, by the way).

- All organ meats. If you don’t cook these, you can feed them to pets or give them to people who appreciate them.

If you decide to buy half a side (1/4 of the animal) ask if they’ll include cuts from the front and also the back of the animal, otherwise you’ll end up with all roasts or all steaks.

The standard thickness, at least in this area, for steaks is one inch. If you happen to like thinner steaks (say, 3/4″) you can ask for this at no extra cost.

This is very important: Be sure to ask if the meat will be vacuum packed and if it will be fresh or frozen. This you really need to know because 200+ pounds of fresh meat is a lot more than what you can safely freeze at once in a regular freezer. Non commercial freezers can only adequately freeze no more than 3 pounds of fresh meat per cubic foot of freezer space within 24 hours.

Here’s a nice beef cuts chart, very helpful to have at hand when you are going over the cut sheet with the farmer over the phone.

Thanks Auburn for the great meat buying tips!  We saved a lot of money by buying a local 1/4 cow and 1/2 pig this year as well.  And now I don’t have to frantically check the freezer for bar codes every time there is a meat recall.

This also popped up in my google reader today about buying in bulk.

22 Responses to Buying Bulk Meat – What you Need to Know

  1. Thank you so much for this very helpful post! I’m visiting a local grassfed beef/pork farmer next weekend to buy some of his product. If we like it, we’ll be looking into buying in bulk so this will definitely come in handy.

  2. Very informative and useful information! I used to buy directly from a good friend – who’s family owned a large cattle ranch in central Washington. Since we moved from the area, I no longer have my supplier and have never found anyone locally to do business with in that same way. I really should try and connect up and do that this year.

  3. This is a great informative post. Thanks, Auburn. I plan on buying in on a pig from my friend who has it processed at a place that I don’t think did a great job. You make some good points about what to clarify!

  4. Becky, KitsapFG and Julia, I’m glad you found the post helpful. :)

    A few more things I should’ve included in the post:

    - A few of the farmers I contacted would charge extra for the tail, tongue, liver, kidneys and heart. In my opinion this is completely unfair.

    - Most butchering facilities in my area are now using Cryovac (plastic airtight packaging) instead of paper. This is very good because the meat packed this way lasts much longer, however, be sure to check cuts with bones that stick out because they can puncture the plastic and the air will get in. If you don’t own a FoodSaver, then just remember to place the cuts with exposed sharp bones where you can easily see them, so that you’ll use them first. If you do own a FoodSaver, re-bag placing a folded paper towel over the exposed bones.

    - If you are buying “grain finished” beef, ask what type of grain the animals are fed and, if it’s corn, whether it’s silage (the entire plant, not just the grain) and if they grow it on their property. If not, is it organic and non-GMO?

    I’ll comment again if I remember something else.

  5. Thanks so much! We have shopped 5 & 7 cu. ft freezers for around $200. I’ve been told the key is to buy the non frost-free for storing beef up to 1 yr. and also the energy usage is much less. Plan on placing our first order for grass-fed beef in a couple weeks & will be looking for chicken.

  6. Sheri,

    About the non frost-free freezers, that applies only if you buy beef that’s wrapped in paper because frost-free freezers tend to dry food out. If the beef you buy is vacuumed packed (cryovac) a frost-free is fine (and meat packed that way can be stored for longer than a year).

    If you are buying a half a side (1/4 cow) 5 cu.ft. will do but you’ll need at least 8 cu.ft. if you buy a side (1/2 cow) with a hanging weight of 300 lb.

  7. Excellent info!!! It might also be helpful to know when to order beef or pork…is there a season to place orders and deadlines to be aware of? Thanks so much–this gives me confidence to take this on.

  8. Cindy,

    This may vary by region but, in my area, some farmers take orders in early spring (they ask for a deposit) for steers and hogs which will be slaughtered the following fall.

    But many farmers sell beef and pork year round, they usually ask for a couple of weeks notice.

    When I asked what the best season for freezer pork was, I was told that during the winter the pigs tend to be leaner but this does not affect flavor or quality of the meat.

    For what I’ve been reading online, buying freezer pork in winter benefits the buyer more than the farmer (they get less money per animal, because the pigs weight less, while you still get all the cuts, albeit a bit smaller, for less money).

    The freezer pork I have was part of the six-month CSA share I bought last summer. The farmer slaughtered three pigs in November, two of which he divided into eight CSA shares. Those were forest-raised pigs and not very large.

  9. Great post! It is so important to call the farmer directly. Also, one thing farmers are doing to help out urban customers is selling freezer bundles. Anywhere from 30 – 100lbs of beef. Makes it easier if you don’t have a deep freeze.

  10. Wow. I read this twice. Husband the Carnivore has been asking me to do this, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Need to get moving.

  11. Diana,

    The thing is, these middlemen happen to be farmers themselves. So even when you *are calling a farmer directly*, you have to make sure that they actually raise the animals you are buying from them.

    If they grow chickens, goats and lambs but are selling you beef that’s grown by other farmers, then you will be paying a few **hundred** dollars extra (as much as the cost of a brand new upright freezer!) that don’t go to the actual grower.

    BTW, what they are doing is not illegal, but I think it’s rather dishonest, particularly when they don’t disclose that they are only providing an intermediary service and the customer is not provided with an actual invoice from the slaughter house stating the hanging weight of the animal.

    So, while anyone with a piece of land can claim to be a farmer, it is wise to buy only from those who actually raise the animals.

    LeAnn,

    Once you eat beef from a local farmer, you’ll never want to eat supermarket/wholesale club meat again. And the savings are huge!

  12. We purchased half a grassfed beef from a wonderful local Amish farmer last year. He delivered it to a local meat locker where it was custom cut for us. The butchers called us and asked us all sorts of questions like: how thick do we want the steaks, how big do we want roasts cut, do we want the tail or any organ meats, do we want the stew meat and soup bones (of course, sillies!) It was a great experience for us and we will definitely be doing it again. But it was fun- buying from an Amish farmer, we have to send him a letter- no internet or phone. And we got our invoice nicely printed in pencil. But paid him a deposit but paid the bulk of the fee based on the actual hanging weight at the locker.
    For us, we paid the farmer per pound for the beef and paid the locker 40 cents/pound for processing. So, we had to pay two different people but it was very clear exactly who was getting what money for which service or product.
    Thanks for the great post, I just discovered your site.

  13. Thanks for the information. Very helpful.

    I do wonder about your suggestion of feeding fat to chickens and birds, though. I am increasingly concerned with persistent environmental toxins, things like DDT, flame-retardants, PCBs, heavy metals, et al. It doesn’t make sense to me to take the fat from an animal that has already, in all likelihood, at least some of these toxins stored in its fat and turn around and feed that to another food animal, thus concentrating these compounds even further.

    The days when we could assume that even grass-raised and finished beef are raised in environments free of these toxins has passed. Doesn’t it make sense to mitigate this by not further concentrating these substances in our food supply?

    I’ve wrestled with this for a while now. I come from a long line of farmers and butchers, and I am increasingly concerned about the quality of animal protein and the problems associated with it. As a result, we’re personally eating far, far less animal protein these days.

  14. Hi Richard,
    which suggestion to feed chickens fat? I do agree it’s harder and harder to find farms that aren’t encroached by neighborhoods and that toxins are certainly everwhere.

  15. Once again, amazingly perfect timing. I was just looking into my local options for grass-fed meat and was completely at a loss as far as cuts were concerned.

    Also, I have totally seen those “middlemen” red flags in descriptions, but didn’t realize that would likely mean a big price difference. That’s so good to know. Thank you so much!

  16. Great info! We are thinking of buying a cow if we can find a few people to split it with us, and it’s good to know about seeing if the slaughterhouse can freeze it before we take it.

  17. I was referring to this from the main post:

    “- A thick “fat cap” on all cuts. You want them to trim as little fat as possible. You can use that fat to cook with or you can feed it to your birds, chickens and other animals.”

  18. That is a great point Richard. I was also thinking a good question to ask the farmer is how close they are to developments or conventional farms. Farmland is snatched up at alarming rates by developers these days and those McMansion towns for sure are spraying those lawns and parks and gold courses.

  19. Richard – your website is exquisite. It was a treat for the eyes and the ears. And that one cat reminded me of a cat I had when I first left home. That cat had the devil inside but we adored each other. She just didn’t like anyone else.

  20. I live in SW NH! Can you tell me your source?

  21. I live in Hampton, VA and would like to find the best sources for organic meat down here – any ideas?

  22. I live in southern NH and am looking for a good source for a whole or half cow… Any recommendations?

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