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?

Stop reading if you’re an ethical vegetarian.

Just trying to protect you; no disrespect intended. Although, I have a feeling that if you were offended by the consumption of animals, I would have lost you long ago. With my guttural desires to shout devotion to a well-cooked pork shoulder from the tabletop of a fine restaurant, and all.

My news: we have our grass-fed cow. And although the purpose of the cow’s demise was our consumption, I feel good about it for a few reasons: 1) “Bessie” didn’t have to break a leg; her voyage ended quickly, without her even knowing what happened; 2) we have supported local agriculture by purchasing the cow and having it processed locally; and 3) we split said cow about 10 ways, involving that many households in a process that has given us an opportunity to be physically involved with each other’s food and sustenance (albeit a bit loosely).

I’m really not intending disrespect to vegetarians by the title of this post. I have (briefly) considered the practice of vegetarianism at various points in my life, and while I’ve never been fully convicted of any ethical reasons to make that leap, it has been a thought that simmered in my mind more than once. In short, I don’t take lightly the subject of eating animals (although — if you visit my house — you will walk into a living room that is covered by a cowhide rug that I purchased at Ikea; this rug has induced surprise in more than one of my guests — maybe I look like an ethical vegetarian?). I like the chapter in Omnivore’s Dilemma that addresses this debate; while I don’t agree with all of Pollan’s reasoning, I land where he lands. That, and the fact that I don’t know if I could live the rest of my life without eating bacon.

I have to say, though: I’ve loved it. The cow. The one that ate all that grass, and now partially fills a borrowed deep-freezer in our basement. Some surprises:

  • The cow was smaller than we anticipated. The “hanging weight” (I learned this and another new phrase: “on the hoof,” which refers to the total weight of the cow before, well, you know) was 614 pounds, which is a smaller steer. This just meant that all of us ended up with less meat than we anticipated, which is fine, since we can get another cow whenever we desire.
  • The percentage of ground beef to other cuts was much higher than we thought. We were expecting about 60% of the meat to be in the form of ground beef, and the rest to be roasts, stew meat, and steaks. What we ended up with was more like 80% ground beef, and very few steaks and roasts. We had so few steaks, we couldn’t split them, and are planning a grilling party for everyone to partake together (again, physically involved in each other’s food). Anyway, that’s a lot of ground beef. I’ve had to try a few new recipes to utilize, but it’s been good to stretch the ol’ menu imagination.
  • The meat (especially ground) is much fattier than anticipated. You always hear the words “grassfed” and “lean” in the same sentence, it seems. We were warned about just how lean it could be. But apparently, when processing, they added fat back into the ground beef, and our estimates put it at around 75-80% leanness. That’s pretty fatty on the ground beef scale.
  • It was a bit pricier than we thought, around $3.30/pound. That’s still cheaper than grassfed beef at the grocery, but about 50% more than we were expecting to spend.

But I have to say: so far I’ve loved the experience. The beef tastes great; we’ve only been less-than-wowed by some burgers we grilled (they are easy to burn because the high fat content causes the fire to leap up and scorch the burgers). I made a pot roast that was the best I’ve ever made, and it was from the most basic recipe in the Joy of Cooking (sear the roast, sauté a mirepoix, add some red wine to the pot, and let it cook slowly for a few hours). I’ve used the ground beef to make meat spaghetti sauce, skillet lasagna, and Pakistani Kima (a curried beef dish from the More With Less cookbook). It’s been better than comparable cuts from the grocery so far — but, I think we all think the real test will come with the steaks. I’ll keep you updated.

I encourage you to look for a similar setup in your locale, if you’ve not already. Even if you can find a local (think, within 100 miles) farm that raises grass-fed beef and sells the cuts, you can usually get a good price on a whole cow. It was work, organizing all the families and splitting it up; but you certainly don’t have find 10 families (and we won’t, next time) — and the work was worth it. You can also arrange to have a smaller ground beef ratio, which we will also do next time; for this one, we had given the instruction to get “as much meat as possible” from the cow, which is why we ended up with that high ground ratio. In the future, we’ll ask for more steaks and roasts. If you live around Athens and are interested in doing this, contact me and I can get you the info on where we got ours, and even set you up with some people that might be interested in splitting another one. Also, if you’re concerned about space, keep in mind that a regular-sized top-freezer will hold about 100 pounds of meat. Of course, that’s without anything else. But it gives you a frame of reference.

In other news, I’m taking the wee one with me to Asheville this weekend, for a somewhat-annual “girl’s weekend.” As always for this event, much discussion has centered around where and what we’re going to eat. I’m experimenting, for the first time, with freezing scone dough — I’ll bake them tomorrow morning without having to give too much pre-coffee thought to pea-sized clumps of butter. We’re planning dinner out one night, and haven’t decided if we’ll hit one of our old faves, such as Tupelo Honey or Early Girl, or try something new (to us), like Limones. And — before you ask — no, I don’t like Salsa’s, or Laughing Seed, but that explanation deserves a post all it’s own; it’s sort of like admitting that I don’t like Cecilia’s cakes.

Details to follow!