First the benefits: the local movement has been singing the praises of the grass-fed cow for a while now. The grass-fed cow, which eats from a pasture and is not “finished” on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain, is said by its promoters to be better for the planet (less energy goes into growing grass than grain), better for the beef eater (less overall fat, and more omega-3s and good fats), and better for the cow (some claim feedlot practices are inhumane).
All cows do graze on pasture for the first 6 months of their lives, but most finish at a feedlot on a concentrated mix of cheap corn, soy, grains, and other supplements, plus hormones and antibiotics. This formula is the backbone of the productive US Beef Industry. A feedlot cow can grow to slaughter weight up to a year faster than a cow fed on only forage, grass or hay. This explains why conventionally grown meat is so cheap, because they’ve done everything they can to speed growth and lower the cost of feed. Be aware that USDA organic-certification rules permit farmers to fatten a grass-fed herd up with corn, soy or other grain-based feed, provided that it’s organic. Some organic farmers don’t agree with this practice, claiming that feeding grain to cattle increases the acidity of an animal’s stomach, increasing the levels of bacteria, and E. coli in their guts.
The feedlot feeding process also enhances fat marbling. Marbling is one of the factors that determines a cut of beef’s USDA rating. (Most supermarket beef is CHOICE, which is one step below PRIME, the top grade). Raising the levels of fat in the cow also affects the nutritional value of the meat — and not for the better. By contrast, grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 fats, more vitamins A and E, and up to 7 times the beta-carotene. It also has far fewer calories than conventionally-fed cows. If you eat like a normal American, you consume 67 pounds of beef a year. Switching to grass-fed beef would save you 16,642 calories a year.
Grass-fed beef tends to look different. It is darker in color with fewer ribbons of the coveted marbling you see running thru the higher cuts of meat. It also has a reputation for being chewy with inconsistency in quality. If you are not willing to adjust your cooking methods for grass-fed beef, you should probably NOT buy a grass-fed cow, as you will end up with a chewy meal every time. The general rule of thumb with grass-fed beef is to cook it hot and fast, or long and slow. I recommend buying a few cuts of grass-fed meat to practice before committing to a whole half a cow, lest the extra effort of buying it goes to waste on the plate.
Here are the things to consider when buying a cow – and by the way, you’ll probably be buying a steer.
FIND YOUR COW. There are many ways to do this. You can either contact a farmer or rancher directly (if you know one). Ask a local butcher — he’ll know the farmers and put you in touch. EatWild.com is a good resource to find listing of farmers in the area. We usually recommend Lindsey Graham from Omega Meats, who lives in Grand Rapids, OH. His website is: http://omegameatsohio.com/.
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ASK QUESTIONS —
What is the size and weight of your steer? Expect a weight of a minimum of 900 lbs.
What is the hanging weight? Are you charging by the hanging weight or live weight? Hanging weight refers to the weight after the animal has been slaughtered, insides removed, and blood drained. (This is different than the live weight). The cut weight is the amount of beef you actually take home in packages.
Has the steer been raised on grass, and if you fed him other grains, for how long? Try for an animal that has been primarily raised on grass, but don’t shy away from the animal with some grain feeding. Most ranchers will “finish off” the steer by feeding it grain at the end, either for the marbling effect on the meat, to beef it up a bit more or because there was no pasture left to graze. If it’s important to you that the animal was never fed grain, you should ask this question.
How long will the carcass be hung? Most butchers will hang the carcass after it’s slaughtered from 7-14 days. This step allows the natural enzymes to break down the tough muscle fiber and tenderize the meat. The longer it ages, the better flavor and tenderness it will have. Try to ask for at least 10 days.
What breeds are best? The breed of the cow does matter. The right answer varies by region, but Angus, Hereford, Red Hereford, British White, Shorthorn, Murray Gray gain weight best on grass. Try to taste a sample before you buy.
What’s the cost? Are you charging by hang weight or live weight? Are there any other fees involved? Find out if you are paying the slaughter fee or if the rancher is. It could cost $150.
Do you sell your steer whole, side (half), or quarter? Ranchers like to sell you the whole cow, but many will also be willing to sell you a half or quarter. Try to find someone to cow-pool with. Just remember, there are some cuts of meat that only come in singles, and you’ll have to fight over who gets it.
BUY IN SEASON — Like produce, meat has a peak season — typically mid-spring to September. Order 2-6 weeks in advance.
DO THE MATH — A half-cow will feed a family of four for almost a year and costs around $1200-$1500. The per-pound price is the hanging weight, and runs around $3.50-$5.00 a pound nationally.
FILL OUT A CUT-SHEET — Most farmers provide you with a planning sheet that walks you through what cuts of meat you want. Think about how you cook and what cuts you east most often. Do you want more ground beef or stew meat? More steaks or more roasts? The picture on page 3 can help you see what kinds of beef cuts there even are with a steer. Ground chuck and sirloin can comprise 30-45% of your take-home meat. If you have a dog, ask for the bones. You’ll get soup and dog bones. You can also ask for the heart, liver, tongue, and oxtail. And if you make soap, you can ask for the suet.
BUY A FREEZER — A half-cow, including organs and meat takes up 10 cubic feet of freezer space.
QUESTIONS THE BUTCHER WILL ASK: Paper or plastic?— Paper wrapped is the old-fashioned butcher wrap. Some claim it tastes better that way. I prefer vacuum packaging, since my freezer seems to always smell like onions and peppers. Vacuum packaging cuts down on juices running and freezer burn or odors. Paper-packed lasts about 6 months. Vacuum-packed is good for a year.
How many steaks to a package and how thick do you like your steaks?
How much hamburger and stew meat to a package — 1 lb, 1.5 lb. or 2 lb. packages?
How much will this all cost you? Here’s an example we found of a side of beef (half a steer) cost-wise just to give you a ball-park figure.
Hang weight: 300 lbs.
Price/weight (payment to the rancher): $3.00/lb.
Half of slaughter fee: $45
Butcher Fees (Payment to the butcher): $0.80/lb. cut and wrapped
Final amount of take-home/cut weight: 210 lbs. (about 70% of the hang weight)
Total: $1185 for 210 lbs. of beef.
Cost per lb. $5.64/lb.
Information gleaned from Cooking Light Magazine articles and online sites.
If you think you want to take the plunge and buy part of a cow, but can’t find someone to go in with you, we can help. We’re willing to be COW-MATCHMAKERS. Simply email us your intent, and we’ll make a list of interested parties. Then we’ll connect you with each other. Be aware, this may involve giving out your phone or email to one of our other interested customers. Contact us at: