With pink slime, mad cow, salmonella, and other industrial food supply contaminants, it’s hard finding good beef. You have two choices–source your meat correctly or raise it yourself.

If you’re a real homestead, you’re probably already raising your meat this. But if you’re a poser homestead, you may not have land, time, or the knowledge to raise and butcher livestock.

Should you raise your beef?

Raising a cow–or any meat livestock–isn’t just feeding the cow. You have to be a bit of a vet, know how to keep the area in repair, understand feeding schedules, and have connections to USDA licensed butchers. In a good year, slaughterhouses get backed up. During Covid, it was worse–months-long waitlists. You would’ve been stuck with your animals for months longer than expected.

This affects the cost effectiveness of raising your own beef, and the the quality of the beef. Expert farmers and ranchers pick the right breeds, and start and finish their cattle according to the harvesting schedule. Keeping an animal significantly over that schedule affects the quality of the beef in the end.

Unless you want to buy a barn, grow hay or buy feed, and be on call 24/7 for your animals, it’s best to leave ranching and meat production  to the experts. This isn’t a hobby-level skill. You need to understand the care and cycle of life of the animals and be able to detach from your meat animals. You need to have connections with USDA-approved butchers, have the right permits, have access to trucks and trailers. It’s far easier to befriend a farmer.

Farm-raised beef–especially grass-fed beef, can be expensive, though.  It should be–farmers put a lot of effort into their livestock. If you wanted cheap beef, you could go to the local grocery store and find factory-farmed burger on sale.

But, high-quality, healthy beef doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. If you want to start eating better beef on a budget, order a quarter or half a cow.

What do you get when you order half a cow?

Don’t worry–you’re not going to get a big slab like the freezer scene in Rocky. You’ll get labeled packages, usually frozen, and often cryogenically wrapped.  What happens is this: You order your fraction of the cow, and the farmer has it butchered. The butcher splits it up by region gives the finished weight, and you’ll either pay for the poundage, or sometimes for a fixed price for the fraction of the cow you ordered. The farmer will give you an estimate as to the end weight.

Most farmers will allow you to order a half or a quarter cow.  You’ll usually order significantly far ahead–it can be months, because small farmers are often selling the beef as they raise the cows.

Here’s where making friends with your farmer is very good–you can sometimes customize the package and the wrapping to better suit your needs.

I’m a great cook–I can cook a lesser cut flank steak or brisket like a chef. Most people prefer the expensive and easy to cook steaks, though. If you can match up with someone who wants the more expensive cuts, sometimes you can swap out cuts and get a lower price per pound.

If your farmer lets you customize the packaging of the beef, you’ll get the right per-meal size and save on waste.  In my family, the boy doesn’t really eat beef and I’m a vegetarian. I really only need meals for one or two at most–if I’m making some leftovers. There’s is generally an upcharge for smaller packaging–it’s more wrapping and work for the butcher–but it’s worth it in the end to avoid the waste.

Where do you find farmers?

Google “buying half a cow” in your area or visit farmers markets to connect with a farmer. Most farmers are not web designers, so in many cases, getting an introduction will serve you better. If that fails, there are a ton of (usually more expensive) places that sell quarter and half cows online.

Still, research any farms you find.

  • Is it grass fed or grain fed, or grain finished beef?
  • What’s the farm’s policy on antibiotics or treating sick cows?
  • How many cattle do they raise?
  • What’s the reputation of the farm?
  • Is there a long wait list?

You need to know these things.  I’d rather know a farmer treated a sick cow than euthanized it or blanket-treated all cows “in case.” That’s better for the cow. This is where knowing the farmer comes in handy. I don’t buy organic often because I know that the certification (beef or veg) is cost-prohibitive for many farmers, but I know how they treat the foods I eat, and that’s all I wanted in the end, anyway.

Feed matters

Grass-fed beef is higher quality, but some cows are grass fed for the majority of their lives, then finished on grain. A grass-grain cow is usually higher quality than a factory-all grain raised cow.  Knowing how the cow lived will help you make a decision about the quality of the beef you’re buying.

“Local” isn’t always better.  I’m a big fan of the locavore movement, but we don’t have big ranches in this area.  Don’t rule out a specialty ranch out West that delivers, has a good reputation, and has a price you can afford if you run into a local supply crunch.

Freezing and storing

This is a no brainer, but you need a good freezer and if possible, a generator. We lose power sometimes here. It’s par for the course. I wouldn’t want to lose a year’s worth of food. If you’re going to do all this work to source and buy high-quality meats, you should have a good freezer with a freezer alarm that tells you if it goes above 0° F (FDA recommendations)

I have a stand-up freezer, but a drop freezer keeps colder. The problem with this is that foods tend to get buried and forgotten. But, for a dedicated meat freezer, this may work better–just keep an inventory sheet, and organize your wrapped and frozen packages in bins.  If your butcher or farmer cryowraps your beef, you should be all set. Otherwise, whip out a FoodSaver–this is an investment that’ll pay you back because your beef won’t be freezer burned.

Then, you can enjoy your barbecue in style.