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 bulk meat?
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 it cheaper to buy meat in bulk?
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 bulk meat 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.
Here’s a rule of thumb to use when buying freezers: You need 2.25 cubic feet of space per 50 pounds of food. A quarter of a cow (about 125 pounds of meat) requires 5.6 cubic feet of space, according to the Ohio Beef Council.
Where can I can buy meat in bulk near me?
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 about buying meat in bulk online?
Yes, there are options to do that. Here are some ideas if you’d prefer to buy online.
What cuts of meat can I expect when buying freezer 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!
Terms You Should Know When Buying Meat in Bulk
Lyndsey explains some of the lingo you may hear when ordering bulk meat:
- Live Weight: The weight of the live animal as it arrives at the processor.
- Dressed or “Hanging” Weight: This is the weight after the animal has been killed and gutted at the slaughterhouse.This is a very frequent way that a farmer will sell shares of an animal. Feet, head, skin and certain organs may or may not be included in this weight depending on which processor is used.
- Retail or Cut Weight: This is the weight of the actual cuts of meat that arrive at your door, sometimes sold in bundles with a range of sizes.
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
I would also add that getting a sample of the meat can save a lot of heartache. I once bought a quarter cow from a farm in W Oh and ended up throwing it all away – there was a minerally-quality to the meat that was so offensive I couldn’t even cook it in my house, much less eat it. I’ve had good beef share since then, so I can’t put my finger on the cause. So if you can even get your hands on a pound of the farm’s ground beef, and a reputable farmer should be able to accommodate that, you could save yourself from being in those shoes.
Emily–that’s a great point. Thank you!
As you mentioned, when you buy meat in bulk, you will always have some on hand. My sister is wanting some fresh meat for a party that she is throwing. I will have to suggest to her that she buys in bulk from the butcher.
Thank you for all of this information I’ve been wanting to get involved and to learn about buying my meats in bulk directly and reading all of this information has helped inform me of just about all I need to know about buying directly and in bulk thanks again Cynthia Clark
I like what I hear my sister is getting married we need the meat also but I’m glad I got an information now..
Hi I bought quarter cow from locust
Grove pastures in Hanover county va,
They said their butcher will hang their meat as it was so tender.
Is this common?
Yes, that’s part of the process!
Which Is best and have better flavor grain fed vs field grazing cows? Everything I buy in the grocery store from steak, chicken, roast seem to be tough and not much flavor. I used to buy chicken breast in bulk but they got so tough and I couldn’t eat them. I feel like it’s all the steroids they use now but not sure. With coat of meat going up so high and being on disability I can’t afford to buy there. I want to try to split a cow with my family if It Is going to save money as seal in vacuum seal bags to help them last longer.
Is a younger cow better too?
Lastly how do you locate a farmer that sells to individuals
Hi Carol–Grass-fed beef does have a slightly different flavor (some people think it is slightly gamey) and it can be a bit tougher because it tends to be leaner. But my family has happily eaten both kinds. The texture of chicken is actually a problem in the industry called “woody chicken” and we’ve experienced this too. I have read the poultry industry is trying to figure out what causes it. I agree that it’s so tough, I can’t even eat it! To find a farmer in your area who sells bulk beef, you can ask at your local farmer’s market, butcher shop, or University extension office.
Low cost: When you buy in bulk, you will often save money on the price per pound. This is because farmers and butchers can sell the meat at a lower cost than retail when they offer larger quantities. You also have savings compared to going to restaurants to eat ribeye, chuck, or shoulder steaks.