This year, we ordered two pastured, exclusively grass-fed, drug-free cows (a ½ for us and the rest for family members) from Nature’s Choice Farm, which I described on the Local Grass-fed Beef blog post. We purchase our beef yearly, in the Fall, in order to last us the year. Buying beef ‘by the side’ is very different from purchasing packages in the grocery store. I find myself explaining the process often. So, here’s what it’s all about.
Butchering in the Fall
Like wild animals, grass-fed cows fatten according to the seasonal cycle. In the spring, they revel in lush, protein-rich grass, which strengthens them for reproducing. Over the summer, they build fat stores in preparation for the harsh Ontario winter. So, in order to get nicely marbled beef from grass-fed cows, you want to butcher in the Fall, when the cow has the most fat stores. Hence, the yearly purchase cycle.
Calculating Cost by ‘Hanging Weight’
When you purchase a cow directly from a farmer, you pay by ‘hanging weight.’ The farmer will tell you the price per pound (these days, expect $3-$5/pound hanging weight plus butchering fees for grass-fed beef). The weight of the animal is calculated after the animal is killed, the head and innards removed, and the carcass is hung in preparation for butchering. The carcass is weighed and the cost calculated based on that weight. When the carcass is butchered, you can expect some waste.
This year, the hanging weights for our two cows were 602lbs and 710lbs.
Some farmers include the cost of the butcher in their fee and others expect you to pay the butchering fees. We pay the butcher directly. Expect to pay about $450/cow in butchering fees.
This year, taking into account all costs, we calculated that our beef cost us about $6/lb “real” weight. Considering that price applies to the T-bone steaks and prime-rib roasts as well as the ground beef, that is a very economical way to buy the highest quality beef available.
The Steps in the Butchering Process
First, the animal must be taken to a regulated abattoir to be killed. There, the meat is hung and aged, and then transferred to the butcher.
Unfortunately, current government regulations dictate a farm animal must leave the farm to be killed. This process inevitably causes the animal stress. A good farmer does his/her utmost to limit that stress in several ways. First, he/she sends several animals at one time—cows are herd animals so traveling together comforts them. Second, the farmer chooses an abattoir as close to the farm as possible. Third, a good farmer will choose their abattoir carefully and will go with the animals to ensure they are treated with the utmost respect right to the very end. And, after the end, to ensure that their carcasses are treated hygienically and not contaminated by the remains of other less-healthy animals.
Immediately after killing and cleaning the animal, the organ meats (liver, kidney, heart and tongue) is separated out and transported to the butcher. Since these parts travel separately, it is important to let your farmer and your butcher know that you want them, otherwise, they are often left at the abattoir and discarded. (We believe that these parts are very healthy and that it is important to eat the entire animal that we have killed for our use so we always take them.)
Since beef is aged a specified period before cutting, the carcasses are hung in a refrigerator unit to age. Once that process is complete, the carcass is transported to the butcher for cutting.
Note that this system of transporting the animal to an abattoir and then transporting the meat to a butcher is not optimal! There are some combined abattoir-butchers but they are hard to find. There is a movement afoot to bring mobile butchering facilities to southern Ontario. Killing the animals right on the farm spares them the traumatic trip to the abattoir, limits the possibility of contamination from lesser-quality animals being processed on the same day, and lessens the possibility that meat could get mixed up in transport between the abattoir and butcher.
Aging beef is a natural process that breaks down the fibres and makes it more tender. If aged in the right conditions (a refrigerated compartment), the beef does not ‘rot.’ The more fat the beef has, the longer it can age. Since grass-fed beef tends to have less fat, it is aged for less time, typically around 1 week. But, aging is an art—a good facility will monitor the beef to ensure it is aged optimally.
A Good Butcher is as Important as a Good Farmer
It’s fair to say that we’ve ‘been around’ when it comes to buying meat directly from farmers and experiencing different butchers. And, I can tell you that finding a good butcher is extremely important. After all, you are trusting the outcome of your valuable meat to the butcher who you have to trust to handle it hygienically and to cut it well.
Good butchering is an art-form. The butcher must ‘read’ the lay of the beef, in order to cut the meat to make the most of its unique characteristics, limiting sinew and ensuring even cuts. We used to purchase beef from a farmer that we were very happy with but the butcher cut the meat poorly (T-bone steaks thick at one end and paper thin at the other, for instance). We ended up changing sources due to the butcher, not the beef.
We now use J-Mar Custom Meats in Wallenstein and have found their service and cutting exceptional.
Your butcher will contact you with a ‘cutting list’ to ask you how you want your beef cut. For instance, here are some questions they will ask:
- Do you want as many roasts as possible or more steaks?
- Do you want stewing beef?
- How thick do you want your steaks? (We like our meat rare so we want thicker steaks.)
- T-bone steaks with the bone or steaks without bone?
- Do you want soup bones? (We believe that bone broth is extremely healthy so we want as many soup bones as they will cut for us.)
- Do you want the organ meats, heart and tongue? (We believe it is important to eat all of the animal possible, so we always choose to take these parts.)
Clarify with your butcher how your meat will be wrapped. Most butchers wrap in butcher paper but some will put ground beef and organs in plastic bags. We prefer to avoid the plastic bags so always request everything wrapped in paper, preferably without tape so we can easily put the paper wrap in the green bin.
Separating & Boxing
If you share a cow among families, the butcher will separate out the meat for you into ½ a cow or even a ¼ cow. This saves you a great deal of effort attempting to equally distribute the meat from one cow. Our butcher allows us to provide separate cutting instructions for each quarter, divides out the meat for us, and carefully makes the boxes appropriately so we cannot mix them up in transport.
We once used a butcher who refused to supply boxes or separate out meat. We had to stop at a local grocery store to scavenge boxes and then, when we arrived at the butcher, we had to pack the boxes ourselves from trays they brought from the freezer, which is very uncomfortable work without gloves. Needless to say, we were not impressed. J Mar Custom Meats, our favourite butcher takes care of all of that for us!
Transporting Your Meat
When you pick up your meat, it will be frozen very solid. (We always leave the meat at the butcher for several days to ensure it is frozen solid in their deep freeze.) So, your meat will be frozen solid enough to give you plenty of time to transport it from the butcher home, sort it and have families come pick it up. For our 2 cows this year, we filled the back of my aunt and uncle’s large pickup truck.
Storing Your Meat
Obviously, storing a year’s worth of meat requires a lot of freezer space. We started with a small cube freezer and then added a large upright freezer to our home. The combination of these two freezers provides us with ample space to store enough meat for our family for the year plus other goods. We sort all of our meat and record what we have received. Then, we store it strategically in our freezers so we know how much we have of each cut and where to find it.
About J-Mar Meats
J-Mar Custom Meats
Grey Road 109 Mount Forest, ON N0G 2L0, Canada
About Nature’s Choice Farm
Find out more about Nature’s Choice Farm on the Local Grass-fed Beef blog post.