If you have a large family, a lot of friends and a freezer with generous capacity, buying a side of beef or a whole cow makes a lot of sense. Droughts in California and Texas have pushed beef prices to their highest level in three decades. Buying in bulk allows you to pay an average of $3-$5 a pound for beef. And more people are concerned with how their meat is raised. By buying directly from a farmer, you can be sure the animal enjoyed humane conditions.
But there are issues to consider before making such an investment. Freezer space is one of them. To store a whole butchered cow can take up to two large standing chest freezers. If you’re going to buy a cow every year, it may be worth the investment.
Another consideration is understanding that you’re getting the whole cow. If you’re interested in “nose to tail” eating, you may in fact want the head, the hooves, the tail and the offal (heart, kidneys and other internal organs). But this may be a great deal of waste if you’re more interested in simply having the meat.
Another option to purchasing the whole cow is to buy primal cuts, which are large sections of meat that can then be trimmed into smaller, more recognizable cuts.
Professional butcher Bruce Atkins recommends this approach for several reasons:
- You get exactly what you do want and nothing that you don’t want. You want the steaks, the roasts and ribs. You want the ground beef. You may not want the bones and the fat. You might think you’ll use the bones in stocks. Maybe even give a couple to the dog. But there are a lot of bones in a cow to contend with and most people won’t actually use them. The same with the fat. Rendering it down sounds like a good idea until you’re confronted with pounds and pounds of it.
- Speaking of ground beef, how much of it can you eat? When you buy a whole cow, the processor will grind every leftover scrap into ground beef and that means you’ll get a lot more than you thought. Of 490 pounds of boneless, trimmed beef from a whole cow, 185 pounds of it will end up as ground beef, according to an article by South Dakota State University animal science professor Rosie Nold.
- You’ll pay about the same price either way. Yes, you’ll pay more per pound for primal cuts but you won’t be paying for the fat and the bones. Atkins says the average side of beef weighs about 350 to 375 pounds and of that 150 pounds is bones and fat. The average primal cut yields about 225 pounds of meat. So you can pay less for 375 pounds of beef with a lot of waste or more for 225 pounds of beef that’s all good eating. It all comes out about even at the end.
Bruce Atkins is the owner of The Butcher Block in Franklin, TN. He has been a professional butcher for more than 30 years.