Monday, March 23, 2009

Buying By the Cow

The year we began buying our beef by the cow is the year all my children decided they liked steak (even the vegetarian one). Friends raise their eyebrows when I tell them I’m buying half a cow. They’ve come to expect extremes from me when it comes to food. Buying your meat by the animal is much, much cheaper than buying it in Styrofoam cartons from the butcher. And don’t worry – it doesn’t arrive on four legs.

The first task is to find a farmer who sells their cows, hogs, or sheep whole or half. There are many that do (how do you think your butcher buys them?). Ask around at your local butcher shop, farmer’s market, or check online. Two great sites online to get you started are and Pick a farmer that raises animals without growth hormones, unnecessary antibiotics, and preferably on grass. If the farm is certified organic – great (although the price will be higher).

A half a cow will feed my family of five for nearly a year. We eat beef about 1-2 a week. The price does go down if you buy an entire cow, but I like my beef to be fairly fresh, so we buy just the half. If you have a friend to split the cow with you can both save lots. When you order you will be told the cost of the beef per pound. Be sure to ask if this price includes the butchering and packaging (most do). When you place your order, you fill out an order form telling the butcher things like how much steak you want vs. how much hamburger, how many pounds per roast, and how thick the steaks should be cut. I always feel like royalty when I direct my steaks to be cut 1½” thick and order the percentage of fat I would like in my burger. Oh, and package my burger in one pound packs with a few three pound packs thrown in for parties. Nobody grants my wishes like the butcher.

It generally takes about two weeks from when you order your cow until you are carting it home. It arrives flash-frozen and vacumm packed in plastic packages. The hamburger comes in neat little blocks that stack great in my freezer. We had an exceptionally big cow last year and some of the hamburger was in our freezer over a year but still tasted great.

All that savings and convenience is well and good, but the taste is the best reason to buy your cow local, fresh and untainted by growth hormones and antibiotics. In fact my six year old just listed steak as his favorite food on a homework sheet for first grade. Prior to our conversion to buying grass fed black angus beef, my kids refused most steaks. If they did eat it, they would chew it like gum and leave it in unsightly lumps on the edges of their placemats. But that was before they tasted “our cow”. That was before we could afford to feed them filet mignon on a Tuesday because we paid the same price per pound for the filet mignon as we did for the hamburger we grilled over the weekend. The beef they are eating is better than beef they would get in most restaurants. It melts in your mouth and is so tender it never needs a steak knife. I could go on but suffice it to say – buy your own grass fed black angus cow and you will never go back to eating plain old steak.

This past weekend we purchased our first whole hog. Very exciting. (I’ve told you it takes very little to get me excited) We picked up the pig from the farm where it was raised – a picture perfect Amish farm with turkeys that look just like the ones my kids draw using their fingers for feathers. Our pig cost $3 a pound, so the total bill was $465. The weight is the hanging weight (after the hog is drained). For that money we received 2 fifteen pound hams (OMG how will we ever eat that much ham?), four 4lb roasts (I just pulled out the grocery store circular and it had organic pork roast on sale for $4.49 a lb – boy do I feel justified!), 40 lbs of sausage (breakfast links, seasoned coils, and regular coils), 18 lbs of pork chops, 2 tenderloins, 8 lbs of spare ribs, and 18 pounds of bacon.

I know you’re first concern is –where do you put all that meat? It doesn’t take as much room as you would think. The hog fit neatly in to two big coolers when we picked it up. We have a standing freezer that is about the same size as our refrigerator and the cow and pig take up about half of it. My adorable nerdy husband plans to make up a spreadsheet showing the cost of buying by the pig and buying the same thing from the grocery store just to make a point, but I don’t need the numbers to tell me. The food is fresher, healthier, tastes better, and supports my neighbors. It’s just an added bonus that it costs less too!

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