Beef by the quarter: The costs by the numbers

If you’ve ever thought about buying beef by the quarter or half — or even a whole beef for larger families — the pricing may have seemed daunting.  I recently picked up my quarter of beef and I thought I’d break down the numbers for you. Remember, prices and policies vary widely among farmers, so this is just a guideline.  Also your breakdown on the cuts of meat you get will depend on the instructions you give the processor.

Quoted cost per pound: $4.75
Carcass weight for 1/4: 119 pounds = $565.25
Processing: $82.47
Gross cost: $647.72
Net cost per pound: $7.32

Seem expensive?  Well it is.  But this is for 100% pasture-raised beef.  It’s technically not “organic” since my farmer isn’t certified, but those are the methods they use.  Retail cuts are simply not available here except for a few selected items in our local “natural” grocery chain, so to compare to what it would cost to purchase the same quality beef and characteristics, I had to go to the internet.  On the spreadsheet image below, the column is blue is the cheapest price I could find.  I didn’t include shipping or handling — but I also didn’t include any volume discount.

The column in green represents grocery store pricing for a good quality, but conventionally raised, beef.  The pricing is mostly gleaned from the USDA Weekly Beef Retail Activity (PDF) for my region, with a few prices collected locally, shown in italics.

beef breakdown

It should come as no surprise that the conventional beef is cheaper, but the savings compared to ordering individual cuts of pasture-raised beef is significant.  However, cows are not all steak.  You can turn roasts into ground beef or stew meat or “minute steaks,” but they aren’t going to turn into filet mignon.  (My filet mignon is divided among the pinbone sirloin, porterhouse and t-bone steaks.)  If you want steaks and a bit of ground beef, stick with purchasing retail cuts when you see them for a good price.

Why would I pay 50% more for grass-fed beef?  Aside from supporting my local farm, contributing to a healthy use for grassy pasture unsuited to other agriculture, and knowing the quality of beef I will get, grass-fed beef has known health benefits.  It also, in my opinion, tastes better.  But if cooked improperly, grass fed beef can be tougher since it does not have the fatty marbling that is characteristic of grain-fed feed lot cattle.

Buyer beware: not everything sold as “grass fed” truly is.  This is why I know my farmer: those prices I found on the internet might be for feed lot cattle who got fed hay the last couple of weeks before slaughter.

If you aren’t sold on pasture-raised meats but want to purchase in bulk to save money, you can probably find a local farmer or butcher that can provide that for you.  And cows are still cows — the above spreadsheet should be able to help you understand what meat you will likely get for your purchase and how to compare it to grocery store prices.

(By Nicole Castle)


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