Monday, October 5, 2009

Money Saving Madness: Ordering a Side of Beef

In my quest to save money at the grocery store I decided to order a side of beef from a cattle farmer who sells at my local Farmer's Market. I've got a house full of people to feed and I knew that if I ordered a side of beef we'd definitely use it. The problem was I had NO idea what to ask or what to look for when getting my beef so I did the smart thing and asked my network of friends. Deanne from Trying Traditional answered my plea for help and did me one better-- she wrote a blog post about it!


First a bit about me. I am a stay-at-home mother of four beautiful girls and am blessed to be married for 11 years now to my highschool sweetheart. We live in the same very small community that we grew up in, met each other, and where grandparents are only a 3 minute drive down the road. I love to cook and bake, though along the way I feel like I was thrown a couple curve balls. If anyone already reads my blog, you know that I have a child that is very sensitive to processed foods. If it comes in a box, she probably should not be eating it. With the exception of a brown rice pasta I love (Tinkyada brand) and the occasional loaf of bread when I am feeling lazy, we make it all from scratch. We make our own stock/broth, soups, casseroles, pizza, salad dressings, cereals, baked goods, and even ketchup. I can barely remember the days where I would open up a can of cream of mushroom soup or a package of mac and cheese. If the label has any form of wheat, milk, soy, sugar, or msg on the label we make it ourselves. This is what got me started on feeding my family a nourishing, whole-food diet. I hope to answer some of the common questions I am asked about ordering a side of beef. Being that I always order a side instead of a split side, from here on I will talk mainly on ordering a side of beef. If you are interested in a split side, ask your butcher for more specifics about what cuts you will be receiving (seeing as you will be buying either the front or hind quarter) or buddy-up with someone and split the roasts, steaks, and other cuts as evenly as possible.

What exactly is a side or split side of beef and why would I want one?
A side of beef is half of a cow, with a split side being a quarter of a cow. There are many reasons people buy a side of beef. For us the reasons are part economical and part quality. While I would love to buy a side of organic beef, that is simply not in our budget. I have found a farm that uses antibiotics sparingly, allows their cows out into the sunshine and to chew grass to their hearts content, but also feeds them some grain as well. We will get to cost later, but for now this is the best I can afford to feed my family and I know the farmers personally and am pleased to help support their family. When I order grocery store meat, I know nothing about it but the grade assigned to it by the USDA. What I do know is that it has been injected with a sodium solution to make up for the lack of marbling. Let's face it, fat means flavor and with the popularity of reducing fat in our diets tough, tasteless meat wasn't selling either. These solutions help to flavor the meat and plump the weight as well. Think about the last time you paid $5.99 a pound for beef, you were also paying that much for salt water. While it is possible to find meat without the sodium solutions, it can be pricey and hard to find.

Other reasons people buy a side of beef could be: trying to eat more local foods, wanting organic meats, preferring to know where the meat originated from, and it just tastes better.

You mentioned economical, how economical are we talking?
This is where it gets tricky. Costs vary widely. I can give you an example of what we pay. We will usually spend around $650 on a side of beef, before you click on to the next blog keep reading as I will give you an approximate tally of what you get for that kind of money on down the post. If you are working direct with a farm, they will give you a per pound hanging weight price and the processors will give you a per pound processing price. Say the hanging weight of your side of beef is 300lbs and your farmer is charging you $1.50 a pound. You will be writing them a check for $450. Then say your processor is going to charge you $.75 per pound for the cutting and wrapping of you side of beef. Do you see how this adds up? And, just to make it more confusing, you will not be taking home 300lbs of meat, in fact, about 20-35% of your hanging weight is waste (fat and such that that is trimmed away.) When all is said and done, we average a little over $3 a pound for the meat we take home. Imagine paying that for T-bone steaks at the store! I said it before, but will say it again, this is just an example of what we pay. Prices vary greatly due to local economy, organic or not, and so on. A good source should be able to give you a loose idea of what you will be paying.

What cuts of meat will I be getting?
This is where it gets fun. The first time we ordered a side of beef, you can imagine the crickets chirping in the background when the butcher asked me how I wanted it. Umm, how about cooked and ready to reheat, is that an option? What on earth was I supposed to tell the guy and why didn't anyone warn me? Thankfully, he was took the time to explain many a thing that I was clueless about. He started by asking me if we were particular to roasts, steaks, ground or any other certain cut. From there he started asking if wanted -bone steaks or strips and a tenderloin. I communicated to him, that we weren't big steak eaters (turns out we love steaks now that we are getting quality meat) and that I used a good bit of ground beef and he obliged. Now when I order, I tell them that we prefer our ground beef in 2 pound packages and that I prefer our roasts to be about 4 pounds. We do not have them make any of our ground beef into patties, though this is an option that some places charge a little bit more money to do. I also instruct that we will eat nearly anything and to please include soup bones, liver, heart, tongue, etc. in our order. (Don't cringe, if you eat hot dogs than you are likely eating all kinds of unknown meat pieces and you know it!)

When you order your side of beef, you can expect to get the following (this is not a precise list, just an estimation):

* 4 chuck roasts
* 2 chuck steaks
* 3 arm roasts
* 10 pieces of short ribs
* 8 soup bones
* 6 pounds of stew meat
* 1 rib roast
* 10 rib steaks
* 2 sirloin roasts
* 8 sirloin steaks
* 2 rolled rump roasts
* 8 T-bone steaks
* 8 porterhouse steaks
* 6 round steaks
* 12 cube steaks
* 60 pounds of ground beef
* 3 packages of liver

Keep in mind that these quantities change with the size of cuts you prefer. The average cut for roasts is 3 pounds. We do 4 because there are more of us and I can throw leftover roast in soup or fried rice for an easy meal. You see, there is flexibility here, you can get the sirloin steaks instead of roasts, same with the rib section. Instead of the T-bone steaks you could get a tenderloin (have the tenderloin cut into filet mignon if you like) and strip steaks. This all affects the cuts you get, but in the end you still get about the same weight of take-home meat.

That was a bunch of information, can you simplify that for me?
Sure, your will be getting a huge amount of meat cut into steaks, roasts, ground meat, and more. Here is what you are going to need to tell your butcher in regards to your side of beef:

* how big do you want your roasts
* how thick do you like your steaks and how many to a package
* how much ground beef per package
* if you want some of your ground beef in patties, how big do you like your patties
* do you want the rib section to be steaks, roasts, or both
* do you want the sirloin tip as steaks or a roast
* do you want the top round as a roast, steaks, or London broil
* do you want cube steaks and if so how many to a package

Okay, I'm going to do it...what now?
Once you order your beef, you should be given an approximate date of pickup. The butcher will likely call you when it is ready for pick up. One thing you should know is that you will need coolers and or boxes to pick up all this meat. Think about it, we are talking about 200 pounds of frozen beef. Even if you did manage to bring enough grocery bags for that much meat with you, can you imagine that rolling around in your mini-van after a sharp turn or stop? We usually use either boxes or milk-crates unless it is a hot day, then I borrow all the coolers I can fit.

When I get my meat, I try to start sorting it as I put it into boxes as I put it into my vehicle. The butcher has my meat stored in carts in his freezer, they roll them out to me and I start loading up. Ground beef is stacked like bricks all into a couple milk crates that will stack one on top of another in my chest freezer. Roasts go into another, steaks another, etc. This helps me keep my freezer organized so that when I want to make liver I am not digging through 150 pounds of ground beef, roasts, and steaks tossed into the bottom of the freezer.

Do not be afraid to ask questions, you will be paying quite a bit of money up front for a large quantity of food...might as well do your best to get exactly what you want for your family. Ask others that have ordered a side of beef, ask the farm or ranch you are getting your meat from, or ask your butcher. Most of these people are proud of the work they do and are more than happy to help you in the choices you have.

Denise: I think if you are a person who strictly buys your beef when it's on sale at the grocery store and price is your primary focus, ordering a side of beef probably isn't for you. But if you get a lot of different cuts (steaks, roasts, etc) then ordering a side is something you should investigate. I was also interested in it because I could get meat that was organic or as close it as possible without having the official organic seal (which takes farmers a lot of time, money and energy to get.)

When I ordered my side of beef it was already butchered, processed and boxed up waiting in a deep freeze to be sold. I paid $3.50 a pound for my half side of a 630 pound cow. (However, I only received a little over 200 pounds of processed meat, so I really paid more than $3.50 a pound.) I met the farmer in the Farmer's Market parking lot on a weekday and he transferred the meat into my van. (His farm is about an hour and half south of where I live.) I took home 5 boxes of beef, set them in my garage and began to inventory what I had.

I kept hearing how hard it was to keep track of the beef in your freezer but my new chest freezer has built in compartments so I made a chart of where I put everything. I also made a list of every package of meat that I received and planned to check off what we got out to use. This is a great plan and might work for someone else but not for us. We just aren't that organized but I think with my chart showing what compartment the specific cuts are in is organization enough for us.

I have to say that I didn't expect that big of a difference between grocery store beef and my farmer's beef, but even the ground beef is better. The farmer's ground beef is a deep red instead of the grocery store's pink tones. (That's one of the two packages of ground beef we're having in our chili tonight.) We've also tried out the steaks and they are incredible! I can't believe beef can taste that good.

It takes a chunk of money up front and a lot of freezer space but buying a side of beef just might be something for you.

And no people, I'm not dressing up like a cow.


Anita said...

Thanks, I've considered this! We don't own a freezer and I'm not even sure where we would put one, but in the long run I know it would be much better on my budget and for taste!

Anonymous said...

Years ago when we were raising our children we always bought beef and pork from the neighboring farmer. It was wonderful. I'm a pork lover and I thought the pork was even better than the beef. Now I'm alone and only have a refridgerator freezer but if I had somewhere to put it I would order it again even if it took me years to eat it all.

Brandy said...

I like this idea but I fear that it would be a lot for just the 3 of us. I would definitely consider it though especially if someone I knew wanted to "split" one.

Kat said...

My parents used to do this when I was little - back when it was about $150 :-)! I would love to do this - we actually have a chest freezer - but it's full of all kinds of crap (like meat, frozen pizzas, waffles, and the ice cream maker). We'd need to either empty it out or buy another one. I wonder how long all that meat will actually last...

Cindy said...

HI Denise!

We raise Angus cattle for beef! The meat is so great to cook with, it doesn't have the fat to drain and the stew meat is my favorite over noodles, put in the crock pot and you're set! I recommend this to anyone, it is healthier and really does save in the long run! The steaks and hamburger cannot be beat for quality. We put our hamburger in 1.5 pound packages, our meat is wrapped in white paper after plastic and labeled w/ cut and date and boxed when we pick it up. Good luck! Let us know how this turns out for your family!

Enjoying that you are back to blogging, missed ya! Hugs!

LenaLoo said...

I have been considering this as well, but ordering organic... I don't think that we would be able to until we buy a house an a MUCH bigger freezer (ours is only 5 cu. ft.) but I am bookmarking this for when we finally do! Thanks!

Kelly Wolfe said...

I am so glad you posted this. My hubby and I have wanted to do this for years but never knew how to go about it without looking like idiots. I just sent him a link to this!! Thank you again!!

JD said...

Thank you for sharing this information!! I've always wondered how this worked, the ballpark price, and the logistics of it all. I wouldn't have had three sweet clues on what to tell them as far as cuts!

This is great!

Bren said...

Thanks for the information! There are only 2 1/2 of us (my daughter is 2) but it got me to thinking of locally grown beef. I just ordered a "sampler pack" of 25 pounds of meat. Maybe I can talk a family member into splitting a 1/4 side of beef someday!

Jill said...

I think our large family would eat this up in good time!

So, when are you inviting me over for steaks??

Lindsey's mom said...

Steve went out and shot our side of beef LOL! It came in teh form of a moose...we have a freezer full as well. Looks like you did good!

Kristy said...

You crack me up!!! This stuff is all so normal to me , growing up we always and still do have our own cattle to butcher so I guess I just take for granted that everyone does it. Your gonna love having all that meat in your freezer, and it will be a HUGE money savings!!! Enjoy!

Love, Kristy

Sandy Toes said...

We have friends who do this and SWEAR by it! The meat is good and fresh!

sandy toe

thecurryseven said...

Thank you for posting this. I have ordered sides of beef before, but I never feel as though I know what I'm doing. It's so nice to have it all written out.

The Gotch 5 said...

Ok so I am catching up on all of your posts since I am home sick today. I will say from the home of a farmer. Almost any farmer would be happy to do this. Right now the livestock market is not too good so we are much happier to be giving it to family than a packing plant. Also make sure you locker hangs your beef for at least two weeks. Your meat is much better that way!! You can do this with pork as well and honest you DO NOT get H1N1 from eating pork I promise. None of us have had it and we eat it all the time since it comes from our backyard :o)!

ted said...