Is buying a whole cow worth it? A guide to buying freezer beef


Many sides of beef hang in a meat locker at Jones Meat & Food Services in Rigby, Idaho, May 26, 2020. (Photo by Natalie Behring / AFP) (Photo by NATALIE BEHRING/AFP via Getty Images)

Buying a whole cow’s worth of meat, or even a fraction is an expensive proposition. Whether or not buying beef in this way is worth the money depends on what factors you value most.

A few months ago, a friend posted on social media that his family’s farm had a share of a cow available for purchase. As I have long been curious about the process of buying freezer beef, I decided to go in for a mixed 1/4 cow purchase.

The price was $2.40 per pound hanging weight, plus $15 for my portion of the slaughter fee and $0.62 per pound for processing. At 224 pounds hanging weight, this means I paid $537.60 to the farmer and $158.08 to the processor, for a total of $695.68

Live weight vs. hanging weight vs. take-home weight

If you have never purchased beef directly from the farmer, you may be confused about some of the terms.

  • Live weight – This is how much the cow weighs while it is alive.
  • Hanging weight – This is how much the cow weighs after it has been slaughtered, skinned and gutted. This is the weight that freezer beef is typically sold at.
  • Take-home weight – This is the weight of the meat you take home, cut and/or ground to your specifications. Expect this to be around 60% of the hanging weight, depending on the cuts you select.

What cuts are available?

With a mixed quarter, I purchased 1/4 of the hanging weight of the beef, with cuts from both the front and back of the cow. If I purchased a half cow, I would have had a similar mix of items, just more of them.

I was given a cut sheet to fill out and return to the processor in order to specify what I want, and how I wanted it packaged.

With some cuts, like ox tail and brisket, only one per cow is available. For example, when I filled out my cut sheet, I requested brisket. I received a brisket, but it was the point cut of the brisket only, no flat cut.

I received the following cuts:

  • Brisket
  • Chuck Blade Roast
  • Chuck English Roast
  • Chuck Short Ribs
  • Ground Beef
  • Ox Tail
  • Porterhouse Steak
  • Rib Steak
  • Round Tip Steak
  • Soup Bones
  • T-Bone Steak

The meat I received seems to be trimmed of excess fat and well-marbled. Ground beef is packaged in sealed bags and other cuts are vacuum sealed. I received a little more than half the hanging weight in finished products.

How does the price compare to the grocery store?

From a strict cost perspective, it would have been cheaper to purchase the equivalent cuts of beef from a local grocery store.

Based on actual June 2021 non-sale prices for USDA Choice-grade beef at local Columbus, Ohio grocery stores, I would have spent about $40 less loading a big cart full of retail packaged beef.

What other factors are there?

So, buying beef directly from the farmer cost $40 more than grocery store beef. There are a couple other things to consider.

  • I know that what I purchased was raised locally and wasn’t imported from somewhere else.
  • Many people are of the opinion that locally produced beef purchased directly is higher quality than commodity beef purchased in a retail setting. The comparison above was made against base-level grocery store meat. A comparison against higher grade products would produce a very different comparison.
  • The meat came vacuum sealed and pre-frozen If I bought that much at the grocery store, I would spend additional time and money packaging for freezing.
  • Having a supply of freezer beef means I’m relatively isolated from volatility in meat supply and prices. A small change in the price of ground beef could flip the scales the other way.

If you value those factors more than having $40 in your pocket, then buying meat this way is worth it. It’s also important to note that a different cut selection might completely change the value calculation.

How much freezer space will I need?

You will certainly need more space than your kitchen has available. A dedicated freezer in a garage or basement is likely the way to go. Prices range from under $200 for a model capable of keeping a quarter cow, to over $800 for larger models.

When I picked up my meat, it fit neatly into a 125 (4.1 cubic foot) quart cooler. It fills a 5 cubic foot freezer close to the top. A half cow should fill 8 cubic feet, and a whole cow 16 cubic feet. This can vary based on the weight of the cow.

What questions should I ask?

There are a number of questions you should ask before committing to purchasing a whole cow, or a portion of one.

  • How much will the meat cost per pound?
  • Am I paying based on the hanging weight, or the weight of the finished products?
  • Is there a separate fee to process the meat?
  • How long will it be before the beef can be picked up?
  • How far do I need to drive to get the meat?
  • How long will it take your family to go through that much meat?
  • How long will the beef last in the freezer?
  • Do I need a bigger freezer
  • If buying a quarter, is it a mixed quarter, or just the front or back quarter?

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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