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How To Order A Full (or Half) Cow

Updated: Jan 10

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So, you're looking to upgrade your food habits, be more supportive to local agriculture, or just want to save money on your meat but you don't know where to get started. You're in the right place. This post contains everything you need to know to knowledgably order a full or half cow from a local rancher.

If you have spent any time searching google for local ranchers and come across their websites, you'll notice that ranchers are typically really good at raising cattle, and less so at UI/UX design for online shops which leaves you confused about the lengthy order form, live vs hanging weight vs packaged weight, and "what's a sweetbread?". We will answer all of your questions below.

What Is Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef

In order to clear up confusion between the different definitions in this industry, we need to start by understanding the process of raising a cow from a high level. In the broad cattle industry, cattle are typically raised for 6-8 months on pasture before being weaned off their mothers milk and moved to a feed lot. At this point, they are fed a diet consisting of up to 90% grain in order to gain as much weight as fast as possible. This allows them to gain 2.5-4 lbs per day for around 8 - 12 months, at which point they are sent to the slaughter house. This method is primarily driven by economics - the cost of feed is easily known (and minimized), the life of the cow (thus the cost of holding) is minimized, and the weight of the cow (thus, the revenue per head of cattle) is maximized. With that in mind, here are the definitions:

Grain Fed - Cattle are pastured until they are old enough to wean from their mother's milk, then moved to a feed lot to eat mostly grain until they are large enough to slaughter.

Grass Fed - Cattle are raised on pasture for the duration of their lives, with the possible exception of over winter. See below for elaboration.

Grain fed cattle that only live on feed lots are typically not healthy animals and thus fed a consistent diet of antibiotics and hormones, and even produce less nutrient dense, albeit lower cost meat. This is not ideal and some people would rather pay extra to get meat from a cow that was fed grasses, which is the natural diet of the ruminant animal. This method of raising cattle involves allowing them to graze on natural grasses for their entire life. It typically takes longer for cattle to gain enough weight to slaughter, hence the higher price. This meat has been meticulously studied in comparison to grain fed meat and the results are clear that it is more nutrient dense and healthier for humans. In fact, Carter Country Meats from Wyoming claims that their beef is 64% more nutrient dense than other companies.

Enough demand existed for "Grass Fed" beef that the USDA created a certification process for labeling meat "Grass Fed". From the USDA website, this is the requirement:

" This program requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.  Animals certified under this program cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season".

This may sound great, but many people believe it's not good enough because the cow can be fed mostly hay (not ideal compared to living plants) over the winter, pumped full of antibiotics, and still qualify. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what type of meat to purchase. At the end of the day, it's still better to eat grain fed beef than fast food and twinkies, and it's better to buy that beef directly from a rancher vs. the grocery store.

If this makes things sound even more confusing, don't worry, the remainder of this guide will help clear things up and provide you specific questions to ask your rancher.

What is Hanging Weight?

There are three different weights that are used to describe a cow at different stages of the butchering process. Definitions below:

  • Live Weight: this is the weight of the cow prior to slaughter.

  • Hanging Weight (aka Dressed Weight or Carcass Weight): this is the weight of the carcass as it is hanging in the butcher shop prior to being butchered. They typically drain the fluids and remove the hide to get this number.

  • Packaged Weight (or Cut Weight or Net Weight): the actual weight of the product you take home. This usually includes meat, bones, organs, and fat.

Every cow ends up a little bit different but a general rule of thumb is the following:

Hanging Weight is ~55%-60% of Live Weight

Packaged Weight is ~55%-60% of Hanging Weight

You may also be asking "How much meat will I get?" According to these estimations, a 1200 lb steer will yield approximately 432 lb of meat, fat, bones, and organs for your freezer.

How much does it cost?

Most ranches will charge based on the hanging weight. This is due to the live weight being altered by the animal eating or drinking water and the weight of the hide. Once the animal is harvested and these are removed, we get a better idea of how much the animal will net. How much it costs depends a lot on where you are, and the type of beef you're buying. For regeneratively raised, grass fed, grass finished cattle expect to pay around $13 per pound hanging weight. Keep in mind that's for EVERY pound of the animal so although it seems expensive for ground burger meat, it's quite cheap for a fillet.

Since you don't know the hanging weight until the cow is slaughtered, most ranchers charge a deposit (usually about $500) to reserve the animal, and bill the rest prior to shipment. Due to this process, you won't know the final price until you've actually signed up to buy the cow which can throw some people off. This is standard for the industry.

How to find a farm near me?

Your first stop should obviously be google, however there are some information sources that provide more specific information. For example, will allow you to find farms in your state that produce regeneratively raised agriculture. There are some questions that you'll want to ask the ranchers that you call, so we will summarize them below.

  1. Are your animals raised using regenerative practices? If so, what kind?

  2. Is your cattle grass fed and grass finished?

  3. What do you charge per pound hanging weight?

  4. What is the normal net weight percentage of your cattle? Hanging Weight?

  5. Do you ship or do I need to pick up the meat?

  6. What is the delivery timeline?

Let's go through the reason for each of these questions.

  1. "regenerative agriculture" is a new buzz word that currently still has meaning, but is at risk of losing it the same way that "organic" and "free range" have.

  2. Ranchers will typically send cattle to a feed lot prior to slaughter where they put on weight to maximize the net yield. Sometimes the cattle are fed grass for the majority of their life, but "finished" on this feed lot with grains. This method will provide better marbling, but the best possible beef for your health is grass fed, and grass finished. So, it's up to you which you choose but the point here is that 'grass fed' doesn't always mean that the cow only ever ate grass.

  3. You want to know what you're going to pay.

  4. Ranchers will know a fairly accurate estimate of what the hanging weight will be as a percentage of live weight, and the packaged weight as percentage of hanging weight. This will allow you to estimate the total price you pay for the total amount of food you end up with.

  5. Some ranchers will ship the food frozen and some require you to pick it up, best to check first based on your preference.

  6. Ranchers will usually harvest twice per year - once in the spring and once in the fall. You may need to wait to allow the cattle to finish fattening up before you receive your food but then you'll be stocked (depending on how much you purchase) until the next harvest.

A lot of times you will be able to find some or all of the above answers on the website or with a quick email.

This should get you started with ordering a full or half cow. Sign up to our email list and stay tuned for when we release Part 2, which will be a guide on how to order custom cut cow, where each cut comes from on the animal, and which cuts you can choose between. Right, you wanted to know "What's a sweetbread?" Sweetbread is the organ meat from the thymus and pancreas. They are usually fried and served as an appetizer. Now you know!

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