On choosing a beef farmer

Well, it’s that time of year again. The deep-freezer is empty of most everything except a few jars of frozen stock and the organ remnants of last year’s beef quarter that I’ve never gotten around to trying to serve my family (heart or liver, anyone?). We’re transitioning from a summer of grilled brats and fresh-vegetable-heavy dinners to the wonderful season of hearty soups and stews, roasts and meatloaf. In other words, we’ve gotta get that freezer filled back to capacity with a fresh beef quarter.

I’ve had a few conversations with friends in the past few weeks, wondering: where is the best place to purchase freezer beef? Well, we’re making that decision again, too — and the answer to that question basically comes down to three factors that must be placed into some sort of priority rubric: type of beef, flavor, and price. Every family will end up with different priorities, often weighing different preferences within families (what we must contend with in our house, though my husband admits I get final vote since I cook it all). Not to mention finding a local farm who can meet your priorities once they’re set. It’s not an easy task — but once you find a solution, the money saved is well worth the effort.

  1. Type of beef
    We’re not talking breed, though that might be important to you (watusi, anyone?) — we’re talking about what the cow ate. Was it grain-fed, grass-fed, or grass-finished? Here’s the breakdown of what those mean:

    • Grain-fed beef has been raised on soy and corn. This makes for quickly-growing steers that end up with lots of extra fat. For many of us westerners, this is the beef we grew up eating — it’s the flavor we’re used to. The drawback to this type of beef is that research shows that it’s not a very healthy beef. Cows aren’t supposed to eat corn — they are ruminants, designed to eat grass. When fed grain regularly, they are often more likely to get sick, and that can mean more antibiotic use.
    • Grass-fed beef eats grass its entire life — 100% grass-fed is never given grains at all. This means leaner beef, but also many more micro-nutrients and a heart-healthy balance of omega-3s-to-omega-6s (grain-fed beef has no omega-3s at all). A farmer who chooses to feed grass-only is often also very conscientious about not using hormones or antibiotics, as well as giving the animal good, natural living conditions.
    • Grain-finished beef ate grass for a portion of its life, but was finished on grain to add fat. This can be a fantastic option for those wanting the benefits of grass but the flavor of grain. But be careful: there is no regulation for what “grain-finished” means. A local farm in Indianapolis that sells to many markets is labeled “grain-finished,” but when I called the farm I was told that the cows spend just 8 months on grass, and then about 14 months on grain — so almost 65% of their life on grain (perhaps they should use the term “grass-started” instead?).
  2. Flavor
    This is also dependent on what the cow ate while roaming the earth — and will likely play a part in your decision.

    • Grass-fed beef is much leaner than grain-fed. Often this is given as the sole reason that grass-fed is healthier: fat is bad, so less fat means healthier. I actually believe that it’s more the chemical make-up of the fat that’s still there (see info above re: omega fat ratios), and often wish our grass-fed beef had MORE fat. Grass-fed can be more difficult to cook for this reason: fat means flavor and moist texture, and there is less of it.
    • Grass-fed beef can have a slightly gamey flavor. This depends on the grasses it ate, and a single farm’s beef can taste different from one year to the next.
    • Grain-fed beef will often have more classic fat marbling, which again is what our western palates are accustomed to.
  3. Price
    This is often a huge part of the decision. And what a range it is!

    • Grain-fed beef portions can be unbelievably reasonable — I’ve heard prices ranging from $2-$3/pound of finished beef.
    • Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, can be twice as much. The lowest price I’ve found for 100% grass-fed beef was $5.70/pound, which is what we paid last year. Grain-finished beef is often cheaper, but again — ask how long the cow was on grain.
    • One last note on price: figuring out price per pound can be SO VERY CONFUSING. Many farms tell you a price/lb for “hanging weight.” Which can look deceivingly low — just $3/pound or so. But the hanging weight is much higher than the weight of the animal once processed — so that $3/pound can easily become $5/pound once the beef is processed. Ask the farm how to accurately estimate the price per pound of processed and packaged meat.

In my ideal world, I would find a local farm that truly “grain-finished” their beef — as in, let the cow eat grain only for the last few weeks of life. We have not found that yet in our area — and so I instead have opted for 100% grass-fed options. But they are very pricey, and my larger half wasn’t so crazy about the flavor (objection overruled, but here’s hoping we can all be happier with the flavor this go-around).

Have you bought a beef quarter? If so, what are your preferences, and have they changed since the last time you filled your freezer?

21 thoughts on “On choosing a beef farmer

  1. This is like when The Pioneer Woman’s husband does a guest entry! I swear as I began, I thought, “I think Marlboro Man said he feeds his cattle grass but then finishes them up the last few weeks on grain” and then BAM! you say “Grain finished beef.” I now know more about beef than I ever have in my life! šŸ™‚ My parents used to split a cow with my aunts and uncles. Our deep freezer was full of butcher paper. But we always had great Sunday meals. I’d love to go in on one with someone, but I don’t know where we’d put it all. Do you do the whole cow or do you go in with another family?

    1. We only get a quarter, which (supposedly) can fit in a top-freezer (with no extra space for anything else). We store it in our basement deep-freezer.

  2. Are you willing to share your research with us locals? I’d be really interested in know what you’ve learned about the meat that the local butchers are selling…

    1. The farm that does mostly grain-fed is Fischer Farms — they supply Goose the Market & local restaurants. Totally great farm — amazing product. But they do spend just 8 months on grass, then grain until slaughter, which is usually around 2 years old (this is what I was told when I called the farm a year ago — you might re-check to see if their policy has changed?).

      As far as other butchers: I’ve only been to Kincaid’s once, and when I asked the guy he said all their beef came from a big operation in Nebraska, that they couldn’t find a local source (????!!!).

      The 100% grass-fed farm we bought from last year was Homestead Heritage — they have a booth at the Binford Farmer’s Mkt, and at the IWFM in winter months.

      And that’s all I know. You just have to ask questions. Sometimes people can be surprisingly grumpy about it — but most times they’re happy to tell you all the details, if they know them (and I think they should!).

  3. Awesome! Many thanks! We purchase the vast majority of our meat from Moody’s (http://moodymeats.com/), as they own everything from the farm, to the processing facility, to the retail store.
    Here is what their website says about their beef:
    LPF Beef
    LPF Beef is Beyond Organic
    There are no added hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO grains, no wormers*, no supplements*, no vaccines*, no feed lots*, no high stocking rates, and no animal by-products in our feed.
    *Allowed in Certified Organic Beef Production
    The only items bought off the farm to feed the animals are salt and kelp, which contains essential minerals in their natural form.
    Here is a list of what is raised on the farm to feed the animals: lush pastures with high quality grasses and clovers, whole ear corn ground on the farm, oats (yes, we raise oats),spelt, and soybeans.

    1. great to know! I’ve heard of Moody’s but have never been there, as it’s in a part of town to which I rarely venture. I’ll be taking a second look for sure!

  4. We get our beef by the quarter from Seven Sons Meat Company, which is not too far from Indy, and has delivery points up near us.

    The first year we had our freezer, we got beef from Ancilla Beef and Grain farm, which was grain-finished. It was fine and delicious, but we learned it doesn’t take much grain to eliminate the benefits from the grass — I don’t remember how much. So we switched to all grass.

    I haven’t noticed much difference in cooking or flavor, other than that it’s really good! And that I like it less well-done than regular store beef — store beef I want no pink at all, but I can eat a seared grass fed steak and not really mind it.

    We don’t know what to do with the organs either… I tried making a pate which was awful, and we’ve sometimes made liver dumpling soup, which would be tolerable if only I could be out of the house until it’s time to eat it.

    1. Marcy, do you remember what you paid for your quarter from Seven Sons? I remember researching them last year — but I have this memory that it was over $6/lb for the finished product. Does that sound right?

  5. I had to laugh at your post when it showed up in my email because my family IS a Grass Fed Black Angus Farm! So I was reading your info going “yep, yep” and then when I saw the cost (even the hanging cost) I went “Holy Canoly!” Our “hanging weight” is nearly HALF of the cost you mentioned! We charge just $1.75 hanging weight–which I think ends up working out to be just a bit over $3 a lb finished. No WONDER everyone comments on our great prices! LOL! But really, we have very little overhead added into our cost because we WANT people to be able to afford our beef because we believe it IS the best.

    As for taste. Yeah, we get that sometimes. But then even that changes depending on which of our pasture grasses were the most abundant! Same thing with the fat content. We’ve found that the years when our alfalfa has been super thick, the beef is fattier. A year of good clover makes the taste change too! So yes, grass fed can taste different even from one year to another!

    You gave a very good explanation of the differences in the type of beef! One of the easiest to understand that I’ve ever read.

    One of the other things that you will find about grass fed beef is that because of it’s low fat content–think almost 95/5 or even 98/2–you use less of it! Our customers tell us all the time about how they can make MORE burgers because they don’t have to “pad the patty” to allow for shrinkage! LOL!

    oh and as for the organs. yeah. We have a freezer with a side full of packages of them. Only one person will eat them, but no one will cook them! LOL!

      1. We are located in Kentucky about 2 hrs from Cincinnati. We deliver to anyone within 100 miles of our 41179 zip code, but most of our customers are in Cincinnati. I would direct you to our website, but just found out that the hosting site expired it without us being notified. LOVELY to have to rebuild it. šŸ˜¦

        Anyways if someone IS in the area near where we are and would be interested in placing an order for beef, please send us an email with any questions to jdmfmaster@hotmail.com or call my husband at 606-541-4686! We are currently taking orders for 2013!

      2. My in-laws are in Cincinnati, so maybe we’ll get on your list for next year ; ) When do you harvest in 2013?

  6. We usually do about 2 yearlings per month starting in February and ending in June.

    The number of yearlings we will beef depends on the beef market itself. If they are worth more alive at the stockyards, then we will go that route with some of them…and with the drought this year brought, it’s entirely possible that beef will be at a premium next spring because so many farmers had to sell their herds this year. So expect an increase in most store bought organic/grass-fed beef as well as that sold many local providers. Most adjust their prices depending on the beef markets. So you would have to pay more to get it from them into your freezer.

    Just a little heads-up from the “inside”! LOL!

  7. Thanks for all this great info! I would also like to add to this wonderful list another source for grass fed beef.

    I buy my grass fed to finish beef, heritage pastured pork, free range pastured chicken/eggs from Schacht Farms located in Bloomington, IN. Mandy is terrific!

    Schacht Farms has a booth at the Broadripple Farmers Market, Bloomington (IN) Farmers Market and Louisville Farmers Market.


    1. Oh, I do know Mandy! We bought eggs from her before we got our chickens, and I still buy ground beef from her when she has it at BRFM.

      I want to say I looked into her bulk program, but it was a little above our price range — totally worth it, she has a great farm. But I’m trying to get us closer to $5/lb for finished beef.

  8. I ground my liver in the food processor and froze it in ice cube trays. I pop a couple of cubes in whatever else I am cooking…meatloaf, taco meat, meat sauce, etc. Not a single member of my family has noticed yet, and I have some very discerning palettes at the table. It may take a while to get through all of my cubes, but better than letting it go to waste, right? And I have a friend who claims she just made really delicious heart….I’ll ask for the recipe.

      1. Yup, just put the whole bloody thing in and pureed it. It filled about 1 ice cube tray fully and part of another. I figure even a cube’s worth of liver has got to be good for something, right? I’ll keep you posted on the heart. It’s a friend who has heart issues, so she’s trying the whole Chinese concept of “eat what ails you.” So I’m not sure if it’s actually delicious as she claims, or if she’s telling herself it is because she wants to get herself to eat a lot of it šŸ™‚

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