Buying a share of a cow or hog can save money and time (and you’ll know exactly where your meat came from!). Here’s what you need to know about buying meat in bulk.
For several years, I’ve purchased beef in bulk from local farmers here in Central Ohio. And a few years ago, I started buying pork from a local farm family as well. I get a lot of questions about how the process works and whether it’s worth it. I’m sharing the details, so you can decide if it’s right for your family.
To help answer the biggest questions I get about buying meat in bulk, I consulted two of the farmers I’ve ordered from: Lyndsey Teter of Six Buckets Farm, where I get bulk pork, and Dee Jepsen of Dusty Rose Farms in Amanda, Ohio, where I’ve ordered freezer beef.
What are the advantages of buying meat in bulk?
You know a lot more about your meat: “When meat is purchased in small quantities at the grocery store, most folks have no idea who raised it, how it lived or died, or the conditions where it spent its life. These things are more and more important as people start paying attention to our food system,” says Lyndsey. “People enjoy knowing that the animal produced for their table was raised by the same people who drop it off at their door, and they enjoy knowing their money will support the local economy.”
You can talk to the farmer directly: “People can get direct answers from the farmer that are not always on the meat label at the grocery store to questions about grass versus grain fed diets of the animal, types of grain used to feed the animals, how the farmer vaccinates his herd, or the type of medical program the farmer uses to treat animals that become sick,” says Dee. “Many of the misconceptions about eating meat can be asked to the farmer who raises the animal, and the customer can establish trust in the way the animal was raised.”
You always have meat on hand: You can’t beat the convenience of having so much in your freezer. When you want to make a meal, you’ve got a main ingredient on hand.
What are the downsides of buying meat in bulk?
You need extra space. Even sharing a quarter-cow or hog with another family can mean a lot of meat. If you have a small freezer and it’s already packed, buying in bulk may not be right for you.
It’s an upfront investment: You pay for 6-12 months worth of meat all at once, and some families don’t have the budget for a one-time payment. That inventory is so valuable that Dee says some families actually add their freezer and contents to their homeowners insurance plan. (My bulk meat stash is the first thing I think of if the power ever goes out!)
|You might also like: What You Should Know About Grass Fed Beef|
You won’t know the exact price when ordering: Because the Retail Weight is so different from the Live Weight (see the box “Terms You Should Know” at the bottom of this post), you won’t have an exact figure when you place your order. But the farmer should be able to give you a ballpark.
You get many different cuts: This is either an upside or a downside, depending on how you like to cook. If you only want certain cuts (say, boneless pork chops or a specific kind of steak) bulk meat isn’t for you. When you buy a portion of a whole animal, you get lots of different cuts, some of which may not be familiar to you. “A few folks were disappointed when I denied their request for an all-bacon pig,” jokes Lyndsey. You may need to Google how to prepare new-to-you cuts of meat–or better yet, ask the farmer directly. They likely have loads of good recipes and tips.
How much meat should I order?
The farmer should be able to tell you (roughly) how many pounds of meat you’ll get in a quarter- or half-share. For my family of four, I’ve typically split a quarter-cow or quarter-hog with a friend or two. That gives us each enough meat to last many months, and we split the cost.
- According to Lyndsey, a quarter-share is typically 30-40 pounds of pork, a half-share is 60-80 pounds, and a full is 120-160 pounds.
- According to Dee, a 1,000-pound steer translates to about 150 pounds of beef for a quarter-share, 300 pounds of beef for a half-share, and 600 pounds for a full.
Keep in mind that those weights include the bone and fat on the meat too.
Is buying meat in bulk cheaper than buying it at the grocery store?
In some cases, yes. Let’s say the price for your bulk beef order averages out to $4 a pound–that’s higher for typical ground chuck but a great price for steaks. “The law of averages works out for the customer in the end,” says Dee. You’re only paying the farmer and the processor, no middle-man costs of transportation or grocery store mark-ups, so that can mean savings.
In other cases, buying in bulk may not save you money over grocery store sale prices, but the value lies in knowing exactly where the meat came from and in supporting local farmers directly.
Does buying meat in bulk require a separate freezer?
Not necessarily, but it’s helpful! A chest freezer definitely makes buying anything in bulk more manageable. But if you only have a standard fridge-freezer, you can split a quarter-share with two or more families, so you still get local meat, just in a smaller amount.
Where can I find a farmer who sells freezer meat?
Ask at your local farmer’s market, butcher shop, or University extension office. When you reach out to a farmer, ask when they’ll have meat available. Unlike a grocery store, farmers don’t have meat ready year-round. For example, beef farms may only have calves born once or twice a year, and those animals won’t be ready until the following year, says Dee. So be prepared to wait for your bulk meat, in some cases several months.
What questions should I ask the farmer?
- Are processing fees included in the price or are they a separate cost? The farmer supplies the animal, but it’s processed into cuts of meat at another location. When I buy bulk beef, I pay the farmer one fee and the processor another. When I buy pork from Lyndsey, I pay her one fee that includes both.
- How are the animals fed and raised? If grass vs. grain fed is important to you, inquire about that (read: What You Should Know About Grass Fed Beef). Ask about antibiotics and hormones or time spent on pasture versus a feedlot or confinement. Don’t be shy–farmers want their customers to have the right information.
- Can you make special requests? When ordering beef, I can tell the processor whether I want ground beef formed into burgers, how thick I want the steaks to be cut, and what size (in pounds) we prefer the roasts. Lyndsey has her customers fill out an online form that asks about things like size of roasts, type of seasoning for sausage, thickness of pork chops, and whether we want some of the fat rendered into lard (raises hand).
- If you don’t have someone who can split a share with you, are there other customers who might?
- Do they deliver or do you need to pick up the meat?
- Can you visit the farm?
What cuts of meat can I expect when buying meat in bulk?
When I’ve split half- and quarter-shares of cows with friends, here are some of the cuts we’ve gotten:
- Ground beef and burger patties
- Steaks including ribeye, sirloin, T-bone, and flank
- Roasts including chuck, arm, and rump
- Stew meat
- An option to get items like liver, tongue, and soup bones
The shares of pork have included cuts like:
- Pork chops
- Roasts including bone-in loin, Boston butt, and shoulder
- Spare ribs
- Option to get items like liver, heart, soup bones, and lard
What else should I consider before buying meat in bulk?
Since the quality or grade of beef can vary between animals, there’s no way for the farmer to know the exact grade the meat will be (that’s done at the plant when the meat is chilling). The farmer can typically tell you whether the animals will grade Select, Choice or Prime, but cannot guarantee or label his animals when they sell it live, says Dee.
“If you want heavier marbled meat, you can ask the farmer to help select that for you. Some animals will never grade Prime based on their genetics and feeding program, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect Prime graded meats from certain types of animals, or from certain types of farms. Most farmers can give a range of where their animals will grade. They might say things like ‘high choice to low prime’ or ‘somewhere in the Choice range’.”
And FYI: According to Dee, her customers regularly wish they had ordered more burgers and ground beef, so keep that in mind too!
How long can I keep meat in the freezer?
According to the FDA, frozen foods can keep indefinitely (I’ve used my freezer meat stash for up to a year), but here are their guidelines for best quality:
- Bacon: 1 month
- Sausage: 1-2 months
- Pork Chops: 4-6 months:
- Steaks: 6-12 months
- Roasts: 4-12 months
At the time of this post, Dusty Rose Farms is not taking any orders for freezer beef.
Photos of Six Buckets Farm courtesy of Six Buckets Farm