Buying Whole Animals: Not Only Tasty but Thrifty?

For the last ten years, I have bought meat directly from farmers and ranchers, mostly on an “on the hoof” basis, bringing home a half or quarter for my freezer. While occasionally challenging (I need to find a better recipe for beef heart), buying meat this way is very satisfying. My family and I get a delicious, high quality product from livestock producers we know and trust, without making them go through the logistical acrobatics of by-the-cut sales, including the uncertainty about whether they can sell the whole animal at a high enough price across all cuts to make a profit or simply break even.

We also get good value for our money. What’s not to like about $3 per pound for 100% grass-fed beef or pastured pork, locally raised, without antibiotics or synthetic hormones, and processed by a small, independent butcher shop?

Anyone who has bought meat this way knows it’s not that simple. That price doesn’t include the cost of processing, and it is based on “hanging weight,” not the actual weight of the meat you bring home.

There are other challenges to buying wholes, halves, or quarters – AKA “freezer” or “locker” meat. You (probably) need a chest freezer, which takes electricity, unfamiliar cuts, remembering to thaw out the frozen meat in time, etc. But strictly considering the cost of the meat, how does buying by the quarter, half, or whole animal compare in price with buying meat by the cut at a retail store?

We compared the total cost of buying a whole, grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef animal from a rancher in Eastern Oregon, including the cost of processing, with the retail price of the same volume of grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef bought by the cut from a retail store. The two types of beef are similar but not identical: the retail beef is not always from Oregon but from a broader western region. In each case, we hypothetically bought 360 lbs of meat – the “cut out” from a 1000 lb live animal.

The upshot? Based on the price and cut data we collected, a whole animal bought live from a rancher and processed for me at a custom-exempt butcher shop would cost $2195, See Table 1. The equivalent of a whole animal bought as retail cuts would cost $2507, about 14% more. If the animal is processed at a USDA-inspected plant, which typically charges a bit more, the difference is only 10%.

These numbers certainly aren’t absolute: producers don’t all charge the same rate, and neither do processors. If you only want to buy a quarter animal and not a half or whole, you may pay a bit more per pound of hanging weight. Table 2 on the following page shows the cost of the equivalent carcass from a retailer, by the cut.

Again, prices will vary – even daily – for retail beef. Record-high commodity prices for beef have nudged retail prices up, even for non-commodity beef. And the cut-out – the percentage of the carcass represented by each cut – will vary somewhat among carcasses (and processors).

All these caveats aside, what does our comparison mean? Some people (I’m one of them) will interpret this math as good news: I don’t have to pay extra to buy high-quality, delicious beef from an Oregon rancher. And for that rancher, selling by the whole, half, and quarter can be far easier than by-the-cut sales, especially when selling fewer than 100 head per year. By buying freezer meat, you can support a livestock producer in much the way that Community Supported Agriculture subscribers support fruit and vegetable growers. Furthermore, I like to support small, regional processors (though we absolutely need the mid-sized processors, too).

Others may see the negligible savings as not really worth the challenges of dealing with frozen meat, owning a freezer (and paying for the electricity to run it), and working with a processor directly (phoning in cutting instructions, direct payment, picking up your meat).

In the end, whether or not you think it’s worth it to buy direct from a rancher will depend on what else you value beyond the sheer cost. Buying direct is less convenient in some ways – though a trip to my freezer is much easier than a trip to the store, if I can plan dinner enough ahead to allow for thaw time.

Yet with that potential inconvenience come product choices and characteristics that aren’t easy to find at the supermarket, even one with a local-food orientation. And when you work directly with your processor, you can choose how you want your meat cut and packaged, and sometimes even how long to dry-age the carcass.

In a future issue of the Small Farm News, I’ll do the same math for pork.

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