If your meat-eating family has ever been on a budget, doubtless you’ve asked yourself “How much does a cow cost?” All joking aside, you might be on to something. Does it actually save money to buy a half or a quarter of a cow and stow the cow cuts away in an extra freezer, using them periodically throughout the year?

Since my family does live on a budget, I set out to find how I can save the most when buying meat. Here’s what I learned:

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1. When it comes to beef price per pound, expect to pay $4.45 – $6 per pound (hanging weight).

When you buy a half cow, you’ll get a side of the cow, split right down the midline, not a front or back end. A quarter cow is more of a crapshoot and in most cases, you’ll get less choice when you go that route. So, a quarter cow purchase is not for you if you want guaranteed cuts of meat.

So, what’s “hanging weight” and why does it matter when we talk about buying a cow?

When you’re shopping for a cow, the price per pound you see on a farm’s website is based on the hanging weight, which refers to the unfinished cuts of meat on a cow. That means that all the stuff on the cow you don’t eat, like entrails, hooves, etc. is still factored into the price.

So, let’s talk about calculating prices based on hanging weight and fees. Your local farm will set these prices; they will vary based on a lot of factors, so these are approximations:

  • Half- or full-cow prices: $3.95 – $5.50 per pound
  • Processing fee: $0.50 per pound
  • Kill fee: $50

How to calculate the hanging weight price for a full 460 pound cow:

Step 1: $3.95 price per pound + $0.50 per pound processing fee = $4.45 per pound
Step 2: $4.45 per pound x 460 pounds = $2,047 hanging weight price
Step 3: Add $50 kill fee
Step 4: Total fee: $2,097
Step 5: Divide total fee by 460 pounds
Step 6: Final Price: $4.55 per pound hanging weight

 

2. Expect to pay an average price of $6.36 for finished cuts of beef.

“Finished cuts” are the actual processed and packaged beef that you eat. With this number, you can compare prices with what you’d buy at the grocery store.

I’ve found that you’ll get an average of 60 – 80% of the hanging weight in your finished cuts. This means you’ll lose 20 – 40% of the cow (and nobody is crying too hard about this — it’s the head and entrails).

More math — stay with me. Using 30% as an average loss amount, here’s how to calculate your hanging weight full price against your new, lower quantity of meat.

Calculating the finished cut weight:

Step 1: 460 pounds hanging weight x .30 loss = 322 pounds finished cut weight
Step 2: Divide $2,047 hanging weight total fee from above by 322 pounds: $6.36 per pound finished cut weight

The price per pound, $6.36, is the number you’ll compare with grocery store prices. Speaking of which…

 

3. Only compare your cow price with organic, grass fed grocery store beef. (Or dry-aged!)

When you buy a cow, you’ll get grass-fed, organic, and local meat. So you have to create an apples-to-apples comparison. (Yes, you can also buy a grain-fed cow, and yep, it’s cheaper. But since most local ranches sell grass-fed cows, we’ll only look at that.)

Purchasing grass-fed or organic beef at the grocery store is expensive, which is why you’re here reading about how to buy a half cow or more! Now let’s look at half-cow finished cut prices compared to grocery store prices on organic, grass fed beef. I’ve also included a comparison with retail prices on dry-aged grass fed beef:

Ground beef:

Half-cow finished cut: $6.36 – $8.57 per pound
Kroger: $6.99 – $7.99 per pound
Dry-aged: $9.45 per pound

Brisket:

Half-cow finished cut: $6.36 – $8.57 per pound
Whole Foods: $9.99 per pound
Dry-aged: $9.58 per pound

Ribeye steak:

Half-cow finished cut: $6.36 – $8.57 per pound
Kroger: $19.18 per pound
Dry-aged: $21.88 per pound

Strip steak:

Half-cow finished cut: $6.36 – $8.57 per pound
Kroger: $20.78 per pound
Dry-aged: $26.68 per pound

Filet Mignon:

Half-cow finished cut: $6.36 – $8.57 per pound
Walmart: $20.82 per pound (for grain fed)
Dry-aged: $29.23 per pound

I hope you’re seeing a trend! The more expensive meats are the same price per pound as the cheaper meats when you buy a cow!

 

4. Pay an average of $7 per pound for expensive cuts of meat like filet mignon (that’s $14.42 per pound in savings!).

While ground beef prices are in the same ballpark as grocery store prices, cuts like steaks and roasts offer big savings when you buy a cow.

Why? Because ranchers offer a lump sum price on the hanging weight of the cow or half-cow.

When you break it down by price per pound, you don’t differentiate between different cuts of meat. Meaning you’re getting around $7 per pound for ground beef, which is around the same price as at the grocery store, but you’re also getting $7 per pound for strip steak, which is $14.42 less than the grocery store price!

So if you’re a steak or roast eater, buying a cow is absolutely worth the savings.

 

5. Buying a whole cow or half a cow (not a quarter cow) will get you the best deal.

A whole or a half cow is comparable in price when you break down the hanging weight and finished cuts price per pound.

But a quarter cow is more expensive than both, running between $7.07 – $9.28 per pound. That’s $0.71 more per pound when you go with a quarter cow.

If you can’t afford a whole or half cow (or you don’t think you’ll eat that much meat), the price is still better than grocery store prices overall. But if you’re looking for the absolute most bang for your buck, avoid the quarter cow.

 

 

6. Where in the U.S. you live determines how much your cow costs.

When it comes to buying a cow, where you live affects the price you’ll pay for a cow and “local” isn’t automatically the cheapest.

According to the U.S.D.A. National Monthly Grass Fed Beef Report, if you live in the Central U.S., you’ll pay the most. Why? The cost reflects the effort it takes to produce grass fed beef. In the midwest, flat areas of land are prioritized for crops like corn. Compare this with the topography of the western U.S., which is more mountainous, restricting what sorts of crops can grow. In the west, ranchers can graze cows on hills or land that otherwise isn’t useful, agriculturally speaking.

Additionally, a cow you buy in the Central regions of the U.S., even if it is grass fed, will probably be finished on grain to make it more economical (cheaper for ranchers). This isn’t necessarily bad, but you should know what you’re getting.

The good news is you might have options. Consider buying your cow from a less expensive region if you live in the Central U.S. Of course, you’ll need to calculate the cost of driving to pick it up, but in some cases you may save money. It’s worth calling around outside your locale to see what prices are like!

 

7. You won’t get a guarantee on the lean fat percentage of your ground beef.

Most farms will not offer you a choice of lean fat percentage in your ground beef, because a promise like that requires a verification process that many smaller outfits simply aren’t interested in.

Your ground beef will hover around the 70/30 – 80/20 mark. If you want your beef closer to the 70/30 ratio, ask the butcher not to trim the fat off the cuts of meat as much as they would otherwise. If you want leaner ground beef, ask for a closer trim. Realize, though, that you might pay slightly more for the time it’ll take them to trim more carefully.

Another option might be to simply request the butcher not throw the fat back into the ground beef when they go to grind it. Talk to your butcher to see what your options are.

 

8. Store your side of beef in the freezer for up to one year.

Make sure you’re up for eating all this low-priced, grass-fed, humanely raised beef before it goes bad!

You’ll have one year to consume it if it’s vacuum-sealed and put in a chest freezer. Figure out how much meat you’ll have to eat in a week based on your family’s size to decide how much you’ll need.

If a half-cow averages 240 pounds of hanging meat, that’s 144 – 185 pounds of finished cuts of meat. This means a family of four would need to eat about 3 – 4 pounds of beef every week in order to get through all the meat in one year.

 

9. Be willing to eat all cuts of meat in order to make buying a cow worth your while.

If you’re buying a whole cow, you’re buying the whole cow quite literally, and different parts of the cow yield different kinds of meat.

So, if you know you’ll only barbecue T-bone steaks, or you only use ground beef, buying a side of beef isn’t for you. A half-cow purchase typically includes:

  • Tenderloin Steaks (Filet Mignon)
  • Ribeye Steaks
  • NY Strip Steaks
  • Sirloin Steaks
  • London Broil Steaks
  • Flank, Skirt & Hanger Steaks
  • Short Ribs
  • Shoulder / Rump Roasts
  • Chuck Roasts
  • Briskets
  • Shanks (soup bones)
  • Liver
  • Stew Meat
  • Ground Beef
  • Top & Bottom Round Roasts

 

10. Don’t have the freezer space for a whole or half cow? Get select cuts of beef directly from a farm.

You don’t have to buy the whole cow in order to get meat directly from the farm. But when it comes to steaks and roast, you’ll pay more to buy it a la carte style.

When you buy specific cuts of meat from a farm, you’ll pay more like you would at the grocery store. Steaks and roasts will be more expensive than ground beef. If you’re only interested in ground beef, this can be a great option. But if you want steaks and roasts, it’ll get spendy.

 

 

11. How do I find out how to buy a cow near me?

Look into resources and websites that will help you get in touch with a local farm.

You can reach out to your local farmers market for information or check out these websites to find a farm near you:

 

12. Ask your rancher if they accept E.B.T.

Oregon Valley Farms, located in my area, takes E.B.T. Unfortunately, they don’t ship nationwide, but it’s an example of a rancher willing to take this form of payment.

Never hurts to ask!

That’s all I’ve got. What are your best tips for buying a cow? Do you go in with friends for the whole animal or do you buy a half-cow? Tell me in the comments.

Buying a Cow: Are the Cost and Cuts of Beef Worth It?