Quality Beef For Less?


(Another Cheap vs. Healthy Post)

Sometimes, when choosing between nutritional value and expense, we have to wonder if there’s a middle road.

Is there a way we could somehow get decent quality beef without paying $4.50/lb. or more for it?

Yes, there is. But as with most lesser known options, this one takes a little bit of effort.

This time of year, most cows are on green grass. They may be supplemented with other feeds, but it sure beats the quality of feed-lot beef in the average supermarket which contains who knows how many different animals per pound, lots of highly processed parts, and carbon monoxide to keep it pink on the shelf longer.

This is also the time of year that farmers are sending their cull cows to the sale barn. Cows that didn’t calve for whatever reason (too old to breed back is a common cause), or had trouble calving, weren’t good mothers, and the list goes on.

Quality Beef For Less
Photo Credit

What I’m saying is, if you can arrange transportation, and get a timely appointment with a nearby butcher, you can go to the sale barn and buy a cow yourself, saving all the fees of a “middle man”.

No, the beef won’t be quite the high quality grass-fed, grass-finished beef that you’d get from a dedicated farmer, but if that’s not feasible for you, this might be a better option than Walmart.

There is a catch though, and for some, it might be pretty big.

You pretty much have to take the whole thing as ground beef. After all, the cheap cow is the canner, or cull cow. The older, not so tender cow.

Last year, when Gabriel took an old dairy cow to the processor for my dad, he requested it all be ground except the brisket. (If your from Texas, you know that you can’t simply grind the brisket with everything else.) He (Gabriel) ended up cooking the brisket for Thanksgiving dinner last fall, and after twelve hours of cooking in the slow cooker, we weren’t sure it would ever be tender enough to chew. Fortunately, another twelve hours did the trick, and his brisket got rave reviews at the Thanksgiving table. So you can ask for cuts, but it’s a risk.

A few expense estimates:

  • Current canner cow price: Looking at last week’s auction results from our local auction, it looks like on-the-hoof price is between $0.55 and $0.90 per pound depending on the condition of the cow (leant-fat).
  • Cut out weight: A typical 1200 pound cow’s hanging weight will be around 750 pounds, with a take-home beef weight of over 550 pounds.
  • Butcher fees: These can vary to a large degree from butcher to butcher, but an end cost of $1.50/lb of meat is what we paid on our last beef which was very small (=higher price/lb.), and was processed with a USDA inspection rather than just a state inspection which costs quite a bit more.

I’ve estimated that if you pay $0.75/lb at the auction for a 1,200 pound cow, and you do pay $1.50/lb of take home meat, your final expense should be about $3.00 per pound. Again, that’s a very high estimate on the butcher fees, but I’d rather estimate high than low.

350 pounds pretty much fills up four feet of our
six foot long freezer

Obviously, most people don’t have room in their freezers for a whole beef. Fortunately, most of us have friends with whom to split both expenses and beef with.

A few tips for buying a canner cow at the sale:

  • Stay away from the dairy breeds – their cut-out rate is usually much poorer, which means you’d be getting less beef back compared to what you paid on the hoof.

Also, dairy cows tend to get a lot more grain and medication supplementation, neither of which is desirable.

  • Most cows get really nervous and upset at the sale barn. It’s really *not an animal friendly environment. So if you looking at a cow and thinking she’s a crazy wild thing, the odds are, she’s really not, so don’t let that scare you off bidding – unless she’s foaming at the mouth or something.
  • Fat or thin? – an excessively fat cow may be a sign of a grain-heavy diet. Then again, it could be that the cow just hasn’t had to support a calf in a couple years, and is doing really well. Excessive thinness can be a sign of poor health and/or old age (remember, older cow = tougher meat), so you might want to go more middle of the road – but use you own judgment.

So there you go. Buying at the cattle auction may be a little hit and miss, and you can’t be entirely sure of what you’re getting, but the odds are high – very high – that it’s a lot more healthy than feed-lot beef which is being slowly killed by consuming too much grain. This method of beef buying is certainly not for everyone, but it’s definitely something to consider.

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