This step-by-step guide walks you through how to buy a cow from a farmer — from finding a local farm to knowing what questions to ask. Plus, the steps you need to take when you get home with hundreds of pounds of beef.
With beef prices on the rise, many people contact our farm asking if it’s worth it to buy a cow. The short answer is yes! When you buy a cow, you get quality beef at a fraction of the price.
But, we know there are lots of other questions you need to ask too. We’ve been selling beef from our farm for over a decade, and we’ve answered hundreds of questions from customers.
In this step-by-step guide, we’ll explain how to buy a cow from a farmer. Here are a few things we’ll cover:
- How do you find a farmer to purchase from?
- What questions should you ask before you buy a cow?
- How do you make sure you’re getting a good deal on beef?
- What type of beef should you get? grass fed? grass finished? grain? organic?
- How much beef will you actually get?
- How do you buy a cow from a farmer? Where do you start?
- Will you really save money when you buy a cow?
- What cuts of beef do you get when you buy a cow?
- Can my family really eat a whole cow? How much beef does a typical family eat in a year?
- Should the beef be inspected?
- Should the beef be certified organic? Grass fed? Something else?
- What’s a cut list? How should the beef be cut when you buy a cow?
- What about T-Bone Steaks?
- What’s the difference between live weight, hanging weight and boxed weight?
- How should the beef be packaged?
- How much freezer space is needed for a cow?
- How long will the beef last?
- What do you do once you get the beef home?
- One more thing!
- Pin it for later!
How do you buy a cow from a farmer? Where do you start?
Believe it or not, buying a cow is just like any other purchase. You make a decision by getting feedback from friends and family, local experts, and the internet.
First, talk to family and friends and see if any of them have purchased a cow from a local farmer. If yes, did they have a good experience?
Second, visit your local farmers market. You’ll likely find several beef farmers there, and you can talk to them and try a few steaks and ground beef before you purchase from them in bulk.
Another great resource is contacting your local Extension office or USDA office. You can ask for a recommendation of a local farmer that sells beef directly. If you’ve never heard of these offices before, do an online search for the closest one to you. You’ll quickly see that these offices often partner with local universities and they offer lots of free information on a variety of topics — like buying a cow, planting a garden, running small business, and so much more.
And of course, there’s always internet searches. Some sites aggregate local farmers, like EatWild or Local Harvest. These sites can be great, but keep in mind that farmers have to pay to be part of these sites. Therefore, the lists aren’t all-inclusive.
Will you really save money when you buy a cow?
Yes! Depending on where you usually shop for beef and what type of beef you buy, you can save over $2,000 a year on beef.
What cuts of beef do you get when you buy a cow?
- Steaks like filet, sirloin, ribeye, strip, skirt and flank
- Roasts like chuck, sirloin, arm
- Ground beef
- Stew meat
- Kabob meat
- Soup bones
- Organ meat (if desired)
- And the list keeps going on and on!
Depending on who you order your cow from, you’ll get the option of customizing your cut list. More on that later.
At Clover Meadows Beef, if you order a quarter or a half beef, we use a standardized cut list since you’re splitting the cow with other people and the entire cow needs to be processed the same way. If you order a whole cow, you can have it custom cut however you want.
Can my family really eat a whole cow? How much beef does a typical family eat in a year?
It varies by family. On average, our customers with a family of four eat about a half cow every year. Here’s an easy formula that will help you figure it out:
My family usually eats ______ meals a week with 1 pound of beef
52 weeks a year
My family eats ________ pounds of beef per year.
Should the beef be inspected?
All meat for public consumption in the U.S. must be inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). In some states, like Missouri, you can also have an inspector from a state inspection agency inspect meat, but state-inspected cannot cross state lines for sale.
USDA inspectors are very thorough, and the U.S. has the safest food supply of any country.
The USDA inspectors check the live animal to make sure they’re healthy from head to hoof and treated humanely. They also inspect the slaughtering process, the animal’s organs, the temperature of the meat, and make sure the carcass stays as clean as possible during the entire process.
If beef doesn’t pass inspection, it is removed entirely from the food supply. When beef does pass inspection, it is stamped or labeled with the USDA inspection stamp, and that means it is fit to eat.
Should the beef be certified organic? Grass fed? Something else?
Having beef certified as organic or grass fed requires the farmer to have additional government inspections, file tons of paperwork and pay additional fees. It’s a very expensive and long process.
Many farmers, like us, choose not to go through the process of having our beef certified as grass fed or organic. However, the beef often meets these qualifications.
When you’re talking to the farmer you’re considering buying beef from, ask them how they raise their cattle and if there are any standards they follow raising their cattle. How they raise their cattle is more important than a government label. Another way to ask this, is “what would the label say if you purchased their beef from a grocery store.”
What’s a cut list? How should the beef be cut when you buy a cow?
The answer to this question varies by farm and beef processor. On our farm, we offer a standard cut list for sixteenth, quarter, and half orders, since it makes things sooooo much easier on our customers.
If you’re working independently with a beef processor and butcher, there are a few things to keep in mind as you decide your cuts.
First, and most important, you have to remember a cow’s anatomy, and that there is limited beef on a cow. Please stick with us through this section, because you need to know this to understand how your beef should be cut.
Eight Primal Beef Cuts
The USDA divides a cow into eight regions. These are known as the primal cuts, or the main cuts. Here are the eight primal cuts:
- Short Plate
Numerous different cuts can come from each of these sections. But if you’re buying a quarter or half a cow, you’re going to have to choose how that section is cut.
For example, at the grocery store you’ll see “round” sold as ground beef, round steak, eye of round, tip steak, tip roast, top round and bottom round roasts. But, all of these round cuts come from numerous animals. When you’re talking to the butcher, you’ll need to choose a few ways to have the round cut. You can’t do all of them that you see at a grocery store since there is a limited amount of beef on each animal.
Here are the beef cuts we recommend:
- Steaks: We like cutting steaks into 3/4-1-inch thickness. If you decide you want a thicker steak and your beef processor allows it, keep in mind you’ll be getting fewer steaks. For example, if you order a quarter beef, you would usually get approximately 6-7 sirloin steaks if they’re 3/4 -1-inch thick. If you have them cut to 1 ½ -2 inches thick, you may only get 3-4 steaks. It’s the same weight of beef, but how you have it cut makes a big difference on the quantity of steaks.
- Roasts: Arm, Chuck, Round, Rump cut into 3-4 pound roasts.
- Ground Beef: Packaged in 1 pound packages
- Short Ribs: You could have this ground into hamburger, but we don’t recommend it. Short ribs are awesome.
- Stew Meat and/or Kabob Meat: These cuts are typically the trimmings from the steaks.
- Brisket: You could have this ground into ground beef, but please don’t. Brisket is so good and there are lots of ways to cook brisket.
- Soup Bones: We love soup bones. They make the best bone broth. We highly recommend them.
- Organ meat: This is up to you, but we recommend it, especially liver.
What about T-Bone Steaks?
A comment we sometimes hear is that people want more unique cuts, like T-Bone, Porterhouse Steak, Delmonico Steak, Club Steak, etc.
The reason you don’t see some of these cuts is two fold.
First, some cuts have different names based upon the region. For example a KC Strip and a NY Strip are essentially the same thing.
Second, other cuts are a combination of cuts. For example, a T-bone steak is a strip steak on one side and a tenderloin on the other. If you decide to cut the bone out, you would no longer have a T-bone. Instead, you would have two distinct cuts — a tenderloin (or filet) and a strip steak. And if it’s an extremely large T-bone, it would be called a Porterhouse Steak, not a T-bone. According to the USDA, if the tenderloin section that is at least 1.25 inches across at the widest section, it’s a porterhouse steak.
What’s the difference between live weight, hanging weight and boxed weight?
At Clover Meadows Beef, our pricing is all-inclusive. We tell you what you’ll get for a specific price, and that’s what we deliver. We avoid terms like hanging weight because we think it’s extremely confusing to those that are familiar with cattle.
However, if you’re not in the St. Louis area and can’t buy from our farm, you will likely be told an amount based on the weight of the animal or from one of the processing stages. Here are the terms you need to know so that you can calculate your actual cost:
- Live weight (or “on the hoof”) is how much a cow weighs when it’s alive and walking around.
- Hanging weight (or “on the rail”) is after the animal is slaughtered and all the unusable parts are removed (like head, skin and hooves), Hanging weight includes bones and meat. Typically, the hanging weight is about 60% of the live weight.
- Boxed weight (or packaged weight) is the weight of all the packages of individual cuts of meat that you will put in your freezer This is typically about 60 percent of hanging weight.
An important thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to figure out how much beef you’ll actually get is that some of the weight is lost during each step of the process.
So, if you’re trying to do math with a farmer that talks in hang weight – if they say it’s $3.75 per pound hanging weight, then expect to pay $6.25 per pound ($3.75 / 0.60) PLUS the butchering fee, which is usually about $600.00 for the entire cow (you’ll split this fee if you’re sharing with another family).
If talking about hanging weight makes your head spin, order from us if you’re in St. Louis or find another farm that prices beef as all-inclusive. It’s much easier for everyone and you will know exactly what you’re getting.
How should the beef be packaged?
Most farmers will give you an option between paper, shrink wrapped, or vacuum sealing packaging. We recommend vacuum sealing because it will keep the beef fresh for longer.
Here’s what a rib eye steak looks like from our farm.
How much freezer space is needed for a cow?
The rule of thumb is 1 cubic foot of freezer space for every 30-35 lbs of cut and wrapped meat.
To help you visualize it, here’s what our refrigerator looks like with a half a cow, about 220 pounds of beef.
A new 9 cubic foot chest freezer has a one-time cost of about $400-$500, and its yearly running cost will be approximately $40. So, as long as you continue to use your freezer in the future, buying one is a good investment for your beef, as well as whatever else you keep in your freezer.
Whatever you do, make sure you get one with a lock and key. This is very important for child safety reasons (children have climbed into freezers and suffocated) and because a physical lock will make sure your freezer is securely closed. You can also purchase an aftermarket lock.
How long will the beef last?
What do you do once you get the beef home?
- Organize the beef in your freezer. We like to organize our beef by cut using plastic bins.
- Get a freezer alarm. Your freezer needs to stay at 0-degrees Farenheit to maintain the quality of your beef. Unfortunately, incidents like power outages, equipment failure, and improperly shut doors can lead to a freezer full of thawed and unsafe meat. A Freezer Alarm will notify you if your freezer is at the incorrect temperature so that you can respond appropriately, before the meat goes bad. Our freezer alarm comes with a smartphone app and WiFi connectivity, which allows us to constantly monitor the temperature of our freezer from anywhere at any time. It also sends alerts to our smartphones if the temperature reaches a dangerous level.
- Date your beef. If you purchase beef regularly, it helps to write the date on the beef so you know what beef needs to be eaten first. Organize the beef in your freezer so that you eat the oldest beef first, and avoid food waste.
- Freezer Inventory sheet. A freezer inventory sheet is a helpful log that keeps tabs of what’s in your freezer. You can make a paper log on Excel or download one online, or we like to use a magnetic white board on the front of our freezer that we update as needed.
We have a free tip-sheet to help you ask the right questions. There are 9 must-ask questions to make sure that you get the best deal, every time.
One more thing!
So, do you feel more prepared on buying a cow. We hope so! If you’re in the St. Louis area and you want to order, let us know. Were here to help!
Do you want to learn more about beef? Here are a few other beef posts and recipes you may like. Plus, we have an entire ebook about beef that goes through purchasing and preparing beef from a farmers perspective.
And here are a few other blog posts you may like:
- What everybody ought to know about beef cuts
- Buying a Cow. How Much Beef Is It?
- Is It Done Yet? The Best Meat Thermometer
- How We Raise Our Grass Fed Beef
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