Years ago, a gal who had worked in several small, excellent processing plants in Iowa—where they really know how to cut meat—guided me through the process of buying beef in bulk. Even small meat processing plants in Iowa turn out wonderful cuts of meat. I bought my first beef in this fashion when we lived in Iowa. Iowa is the land of row crops and meat with a capital “M”. Cuts that you find in the special meat case in a Wisconsin grocery store are what you would find in foam trays in the regular meat section of an Iowa grocery store!
Now is the time of the year to buy beef and other meats in bulk directly from the producer. People buy meat this way for many reasons: food safety, a vow to buy local, to support small farmers, economy, or just because it tastes better! It is important to me that my meat comes from one animal and that I know how that animal was raised and who processed it. This has become increasingly important with all the food safety issues that are arising. Buying beef in bulk also is still cheaper than buying beef at the grocery store and allows me to have cuts of meat that I wouldn’t normally buy because the high price.
Basically, this is how it works. You contact a farmer (who has a good reputation and uses a processor with a good reputation) who agrees to sell you beef. The farmer should be able to tell you what the average hanging weight of the meat will be so you have an idea of how many pounds of meat you will be buying. Either he/she or you find enough people to buy the whole animal’s worth of beef. Then the animal is transported to the local processing plant where it is killed, dressed, and the carcass is hung for a week or more before being cut. You pay the farmer the hanging weight of the meat at the current market price or the price agreed upon, which is sometimes higher than market price if it is grass fed or organic. You pay the processor the cost of killing, hanging, and cutting the meat when you pick the meat up.
The farmer should be able to tell you when the animal is going to the processor. You may want to ask the farmer if you can pick what breed of animal you are being sold. A milking breed, Holstein or Jersey, will be leaner and have a higher bone to beef ratio. A crossbreed or pure-bred beef variety will be fatter with a greater fat and meat to bone ratio. (I prefer a beef breed myself.)
The processor should call you when the meat is ready to be cut to find out your preferences as far as different cuts and the thicknesses of steaks and the number of steaks per package, pounds of hamburger per package, and the size of roasts. Some processors will have a checklist of cuts that they will go over with you when they call. Other processors will go with a standard number of cuts that they don’t state and expect you to ask for anything “special.” Be sure to ask questions. There are usually extra charges for making hamburger patties and extra tenderizing. You can also ask for cuts that are not listed, such as brisket, flank, ribs, extra soup bones, suet, heart and other organ meats, tongue, the ox tail, rib and arm roasts, and even dog bones! You paid for most of it as part of the hanging weight—you might as well use it!
There are also things you can ask the processor to do. If you cook with a crockpot, be sure to ask that they cut the roasts so they will fit in a crockpot. Be sure to tell them to give you only the best chuck roasts (there are only so many really decent chuck roasts in an animal) and make the rest into hamburger or stew meat. You can ask that certain cuts be run through the tenderizer twice rather than once (Swiss steak is an example of such a cut). If you are sharing a half, you may need to agree with the person you share with on the thickness the steaks will be cut. (I prefer ¾ inch.) You can also request that your roasts be boneless. Be sure to tell the processor how lean you want your hamburger (I ask for 10% fat—90% lean).
There are also trade-offs. If you order a rib roast, then you are giving up rib eye steaks; if you order a whole loin, then you are giving up fillet mignon steaks; if you order T-bone steaks, then you are giving up New York strip steaks and fillet mignon steaks.
Most producers and processors are honest, but here are some things to watch out for:
- Keep track of what you order during that telephone conversation with the processor and make sure that you are getting those cuts when you pick up your meat.
- If the quality and taste of the meat you buy is uneven, don’t go back to that processor. They are probably mixing “boxed beef” and selling the better cuts of the animal you paid for! You usually can’t prove anything, but you don’t have to give them any more of your business. Definitely don’t send anybody else there to be fleeced.
- A pet peeve of mine is when the processor won’t give me the ox tail. Ox tail makes the best soup and some processors like to keep it and sell it themselves along with the more choice organ meat. I paid for the hanging weight of that ox tail, and by golly, I want it!
- If all the meat you have ordered tastes gamey, a number of things may have happened. Someone put together your entire order from boxed beef, the processor didn’t scrape the carcass carefully, or the animal was ancient. You have several options: complain to the processor; make a lot chili, taco meat, and barbeque to mask the flavor; don’t go back to that processor or farmer again, or all of the above.
- If the producer doesn’t conduct business in a timely fashion, let them off the hook and find another farmer to sell you meat.
Once you’ve bought beef directly from the producer, you will never want to buy it from the grocery store again! The quality is superior, the average price per pound is great, and the convenience of “shopping” from your own freezer can’t be beat. Begonia