We’ve all learned how quickly our normal lives can turn on a dime. Who would have thought that trying to find fresh steaks or hamburger meat at the local grocery store would be so difficult? It may have you wondering if you are better off purchasing all or part of a cow from a beef farm.
A cow can produce a large amount of meat, but it will only be a percentage of its weight before slaughter. When processed, a cow will produce meat weighing about 40 percent of its live weight. It is important to learn all aspects of the beef sharing process before you make that initial deposit on a cow.
You may have never even considered the idea before. Suddenly, buying beef in bulk, straight from the farm, seems like the best way to make sure that you and your family have plenty of meat in the freezer.
While it seems like a simple process at face value, purchasing a cow or part of a cow for processing from a local farm is more complex than it seems.
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Beef sharing is the process of purchasing either a whole cow or a fraction of a cow that has been raised specifically to be butchered and processed for meat.
Local beef farms are essentially offering to serve as the middleman, raising the cow and handling the no-so-pleasant aspects of processing it for beef. This allows the buyer, a regular customer like yourself, to purchase a farm-raised cow and have it turned into a boatload of steaks, roasts, ribs and ground beef.
Most farms offer the option of buying a whole cow, half of a cow or quarter of a cow. Some farms may call the process beef sharing, while others call it farm-to-table, cow sharing, beef program or bulk beef purchasing.
When venturing into the world of beef sharing, there is some terminology you should know to make sure you get the best bang for your buck.
Some farmers may charge per pound based on the live weight, hanging weight or cut weight.
Hanging weight seems to be the most common, but it is important to always double-check before placing a deposit. You do not want to be shocked by the final price.
This is the weight of the live cow when it goes to the processor. The live weight will give you a relative idea of how much meat to expect once the cow is butchered.
Cows will typically weight at least 900 pounds when sent to the processor, sometimes more depending on cow’s age and the farm’s feeding program.
Hanging weight is how much a cow weighs after it is slaughtered, and everything have been removed except for the bones, remaining fat and meat. Many farms charge per pound by the hanging weight.
This makes a difference in the final cost calculations per pound because the final processed meat will weigh noticeably less.
Cut weight is the weight of the beef after the cow is processed by the butcher. This is the weight of the meat that is processed and given to the buyer.
Cut weight will always be less than the hanging weight because that weight includes excess fat and bones that will be removed.
Buying a Whole Cow
How much meat will a whole cow or steer produce when butchered?
Many people unfamiliar with processing practices mistakenly believe that if they buy a 1,000-pound cow processed, they will get nearly a 1,000 pounds of meat. Unfortunately, that is not the case, by a long shot.
A significant part of an animal’s weight comes from the weight of its bones, fat and hide, not just meat.
While the exact figure varies depending on the cow’s weight and fat content, most cows will produce meat weighing the equivalent of around 40 percent of their live weight. This means, that a cow that weighs about 1,000 pounds at slaughter will produce about 400 pounds of meat. (source)
Typical Breakdown of Meat Cuts You Will Receive
When purchasing a whole cow for processing, you will receive the best variety in cuts. Unless the farm gives you a choice to specify otherwise, you will most often receive a variety of cuts including ground beef, ribs, roasts, various steaks, brisket, rump roasts, London broil and possibly some cubed steak.
If given an option, you can ask for more ground beef or other cuts. Keep in mind that any variation from the typical cut selection will mean there will be less of certain cuts to make up for what you requested.
There are also a limited amount of each cut that can come from a single cow, such as ribs or steaks.
Buying Half A Cow
How much meat is half a cow?
For some, 400 pounds of meat from a whole cow is a little much and you may not even have that much freezer space. Another solid option that some farmers offer is to let you purchase half a cow.
In this scenario, instead of 400 pounds of meat, purchasing half a cow that had a live weight of 1,000 pounds would bring you approximately 200 pounds of meat.
Typical Breakdown of Cuts Received
When you purchase half a cow, as opposed to a whole one, you will get similar cuts of meat, unless you request otherwise. You will get mostly ground beef, along with various steaks including sirloins, rib eyes, and t-bones as well as beef stew meat and short ribs. You may even be able to opt to have it all processed into ground beef if you prefer.
Buying a Quarter Cow
How much meat is a quarter cow?
A quarter of a cow will produce half of the amount of meat that purchasing half a cow would get you. In this scenario, a 1,000-pound cow will produce around 100 pounds of meat. This is an excellent option if you are looking to add a significant amount of quality beef to your freezer without breaking the bank.
Typical breakdown of cuts received when you buy a quarter of a cow
Even though you are purchasing less meat, you will often get an even quarter of the final product, including a fair variation in cuts. Unless you make a special request, you will still receive mostly ground beef along with various steaks along with some roasts, stew beef and possibly some ribs.
Where can you buy a full cow, half cow, or quarter cow?
You can usually find a local farm in your state that offers the chance to purchase a whole, half or quarter cow for beef. Thankfully, today many local farms have the option to purchase the cow or portion of a cow locally online and they may even bring the meat to you. There are some options to purchase from out of state, but many of these have much higher costs than a local farm will have.
Some farms include these additional fees in the advertised cost, but it is important to ask about them so that you do not have any unexpected fees.
This is the cost for slaughtering or killing the cow. Many farms include the cost of slaughtering a cow in with the per pound fee, however, some farms do not. Be sure to verify whether there is an additional slaughter fee or not. If you are purchasing a portion of a cow, this fee will be only a portion of the full slaughter fee.
This is the fee for the butcher to process the cow. It is usually a per-pound fee. Many farms include this fee in the final cost of the cow, however, some do not and will expect it when you pick up the meat.
Average Cost of a Full Cow, Half Cow, or Quarter Cow?
The average cost of buying a cow for meat depends on the farm you are purchasing from and the quality of their meat. Some farms raise only grass-fed cattle, meaning that they are not fed grain or other processed foods that introduce man-made products. Grass-fed beef often costs a little more per pound than grain-fed beef.
It is also important to know that you often will get the best deal per pound when purchasing a whole or half cow as opposed to a quarter.
When purchasing a whole, half, or quarter of a cow, the average cost, when factoring in any additional fees, is somewhere between $5.00 and $9.00 per pound.
Here are a few examples of prices for various farms around the country that offer beef sharing programs.
Goffstown, New Hampshire
Grass-Fed, Hormone Free Beef
Half or Quarter: $5.25 per pound
Meadow Haven Farm
Quarter: $5.40 per pound on average
Half: $4.10 per pound on average
Blue Rooster Farm
East Waterford, Pennsylvania
Grass-Fed Beef Cattle
Whole or Half: $7.90 per pound
Salisbury, North Carolina
Half: $5.50 per pound
Quarter: $5.75 per pound
Whole/Half: $8.11 per pound
Quarter: $9.24 per pound
Beef Sharing Program vs. Buying Beef at the Store
Whether or not buying beef in bulk from a farm is better than buying it at the grocery store all depends on your specific needs and situation. Not everyone will find that beef sharing is the best choice for them, but some people may see it as a life saver.
You can come out cheaper buying in bulk
If you compare the cost per pound, you find that you come out a little cheaper buying ground beef, stew beef, and cubed steak at the grocery store.
You will, however, pay significantly per pound for steaks, ribs at the grocery store when compared with buying in bulk through a beef sharing program. Why? When you buy a whole or portion of a cow from a farmer, you pay for the meat by the pound, not by the cut.
You are not charged any more or less for steaks like filet mignon, rib eyes, and t-bones, all of which can cost a pretty penny at the grocery store.
You will find higher quality meat on farms
While some grocery stores do carry grass-fed beef, most farms that participate in beef sharing only sell grass-fed beef. The ground beef from beef sharing programs will also be leaner than many options you see at the grocery store as well.
Often, you will even have the option to visit the farm and see how well the cows are cared for, something you will not see at a grocery store.
You will have to pay lump sum through a beef sharing program
The one thing that most often deters people from investing in beef sharing is the fact that you have to pay for a lot of meat at one time.
Many of us live paycheck to paycheck and do not have $800 to $3,000 to pay upfront for a couple of hundred pounds of meat.
Buying beef from the grocery store may be a more convenient option.
You have more options at the grocery store
Some farms that offer beef sharing do not offer the customization of cut selection. This means that you may not get to choose what cuts of meat you get.
If that is the case, you may end up with certain cuts of steaks that you just do not eat! Many people prefer to select their own cuts of meat weekly at the grocery store instead of being stuck with such a large variety of cuts.
You can get better deals at grocery stores
If you are the main shopper for your family, you probably enjoy shopping for deals. In fact, that is often part of the fun of shopping. If you buy all your beef at one time from a farm, you will not get find great deals on beef like you do at the grocery store.
Freezer Size Recommendations for a Cow
Many people who purchase a portion of a cow for the first time will be surprised at the amount of meat they come home with. Before you pick up your meat from the processor or the farm, make sure you have a freezer that will hold it all.
Deep freezers, also called chest freezers, are the best choice for storing large quantities of meat in these situations. Here are some common cow portions and a minimum recommendation for the size of freezer you will need to store that cow.
|Portion of Cow
|Size of Freezer (cubic feet)
Should You Just Raise Your Own Cow?
Often, once you learn how the whole process works, you may think that you are better off buying and raising your own cow or steer and having it processed.
You may think, why not just cut out the middleman and do it all myself. Well, in some situations, you may be better off raising your own cow, but often, you will find that raising your own cow for processing costs far more than you could ever imagine.
The cost of setting up a small farm to raise even one cow can be shocking to a newbie. Fencing supplies alone can cost thousands, not to mention that if you intend on raising a grass-fed cow, you will need at least 10 or more acres of land.
You will also need to prepare your grass, investing in fertilizer and grass seed. Add to that the cost of the cow, any medical treatment and feed for 6 months or more.
At this point, you will be thousands of dollars in the hole, before you pay a butcher to process the cow.
Unless you own a farm and have all the supplies already or have a close friend or family member who does, you will come out much cheaper purchasing a cow through a beef sharing program.
If you want to make sure you have plenty of beef for the new few months or even the next year, you should definitely look into purchasing a cow in a beef sharing program. You do not have to take the plunge and purchase a whole cow the first time.
If you are on the fence, consider purchasing a half or even just a quarter of a cow to get your feet wet. Be sure to ask about any additional fees, make sure you have plenty of freezer space, and enjoy having plenty of meat for the foreseeable future!