Buying a Whole Animal
You may feel seduced by the old-timey-sounding prospect of buying an entire side of a steer (or pig, or lamb) and splitting it up with your friends. Check out the story of one CHOW writer who did it last year. Though this model is the most effort-intensive on the part of the consumer, it requires virtually nothing extra on the part of the rancher, so in that sense, it is the easiest to pull off. It’s also the most economical. Unlike joining a club or subscribing to a CSA, this may be a one-off deal.
Do you have enough friends to split up 30 steaks and 60 pounds of hamburger?
First, shop around, because you’re going to be eating a lot of the animal you buy. You can cull at least a partial list of local producers from Eatwild.com. Ranchers will usually be happy to give you a sample before you commit. Ask for one at the farmers’ market, if the farm has a stand there, or drive out so you can see the operation and feel good about how the animals are raised. You can compare prices, too. Most ranchers have set rates for bulk meat sales. However, the price per pound given to you may be for the “hanging weight,” meaning the weight of the animal before it’s been butchered. If that’s the case, you won’t be able to compare it directly to the price per pound you pay for supermarket meat.
Once you’ve settled on whom you want to buy from, decide how much meat you want. Though it varies according to the size of the animal, a side of beef will yield roughly 200 pounds of meat. Do you have enough friends to split up 30 steaks and 60 pounds of hamburger? Or too many, so that somebody’s going to end up with all hamburger and no steaks?
Know how you want the animal to be butchered. Though the producer will probably have a relationship with a butcher, and will send the animal there after you’ve paid for it and it’s been slaughtered, you should let the butcher (or the rancher, who will pass it on to the butcher) know which cuts you want. “There’s some stuff foodies are into, like short ribs or hanger steaks, that these old-fashioned American butchers don’t necessarily cut unless you tell them to,” says CHOW contributor Daniel Duane, who has bought several whole animals with friends. You can also specify whether you want things the butcher might toss, like soup bones, or offal, or fatback (see our sidebar on rendering lard). Once the meat is cut, packaged, and frozen, you may have to pick the animal up from the butcher or the ranch, but in many cases the ranch will deliver it to you.
Find somewhere to store it. Jo Robinson, grass-fed beef advocate and creator of Eatwild.com, says a cheap box freezer from Sears will do. “You don’t need a top-of-the-line KitchenAid,” she says. In some parts of the country where there are a lot of hunters, you can also find meat-locker space for rent.