Go halve a cow
Or go whole hog when buying local bulk meat
It was the pink slime that pushed me over the edge.
I’m sure you all remember the news reports about “pink slime,” a term coined by former USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein to describe lean, finely-textured beef. Basically, this product is made of waste trimmings that are processed and treated with ammonia gas to kill bacteria and mixed with ground beef as filler.
According to news reports, Zirnstein estimated that 70 percent of grocery store ground meat contains pink slime.
Combine that with reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in January that we now have the lowest number of cows in the nation since 1952, continuing drought in many cattle-producing areas, and increasing feed costs.
After a 10 percent increase in retail beef costs last year, consumers can expect the price to rise at least another 5 percent this year.
That expensive pink slime convinced me to fill our freezer with half a hog and a quarter of a steer.
I learned a lot, saved money and would definitely do it again.
Whether you’re driven by economics, social responsibility or your inner carnivore, buying bulk meat is a different sort of animal than going to the grocery store and throwing Styrofoam-nestled pink hunks into your cart.
For people who want to know where their meat comes from, buying bulk meat is a great way to connect with growers and make sure you know your meat’s origin.
My beef came from a steer named T-Bone. He had a gorgeous view of Mount Garfield and he was grass fed and finished his life eating grain.
I don’t want to seem extreme (like that episode of “Portlandia” where they rabidly trace a chicken dish from the restaurant back to the farm), but I feel like when I buy the meat from the person who raised it, I’m taking more responsibility for the safety and quality of that meat.
I also feel like I’m contributing to local agriculture by paying the people who invested their time, energy and resources in growing my food.
It is an investment, but in the end you can save money. Expect to pay a per-pound price to the grower and then a per-pound price to the meat processer for cutting and wrapping. You may or may not also incur a fee for the actual slaughter of the animal, commonly referred to as a “kill fee.” Smoking bacon and hams costs a bit extra. But in the end, I paid less than $3 per pound for everything from ribeye steaks to roasts.
Compare that to grocery store prices, and you get premium steaks for less than the price of pink slime ground meat.
This isn’t one-stop shopping. You have to plan ahead and there are a few steps.
First, you definitely need a large freezer to store your meat. If you already have a freezer, it’s a great time to clean it out and get ready for meat. Consider this a one-time purchase for your meat-eating needs for the next year or so.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many pounds of meat you will get, since each animal weighs more or less, but you can generally figure on needing 5 cubic feet of freezer space for one-quarter beef and about the same for half of a large hog.
This process takes time. The grower knows when their animal is ready to be butchered. Aging your beef or smoking and curing pork can take a few weeks, depending on your situation. Don’t expect to find a grower with a live animal today and have your freezer full tomorrow. Plan ahead at least a month, unless you happen to find meat through a processor that is ready to be cut and wrapped. The processor basically takes the sides of meat and butchers them into neat cuts of meat ready for your culinary adventures.
January through August is a good time of year to try to source meat and have it processed. It’s wise to avoid trying to have meat cut during hunting season, since many processors focus on wild game during that time.
How do you find available meat from local growers? Well, start by asking around. Someone you know might have a connection. If that doesn’t work, call a meat processor and ask if they know of anyone who is butchering soon who would like to sell you part of their animal.
“We are kind of the middle person, although we don’t sell meat,” said Michelle Gillilan, who owns D&M Meats in Grand Junction with her husband, Dan. “We try to hook people up with farmers.”
Don’t expect to order just a few pounds of meat. Meat growers are not in the grocery business. You will probably need to invest in a quarter or half of an animal. If you don’t want that much, find friends to split it with you. Think of it as cow-pooling (har, har).
I’ve created a Facebook group dedicated to connecting people who would like to learn more about buying bulk meat. Growers, processors and buyers alike are welcome to join. Go to the Grand Valley Local Meat Market Facebook group online and ask to join. There are several documents posted that list local meat processors and tips on buying bulk meat.
Let’s say you found meat and now you want a processor to cut and wrap it for you. Be ready to know what you want in your freezer. Processors use what is called a “cut sheet” to record directions for what you would like them to do. A word about cut sheets. They are pretty confusing for those of us who aren’t that familiar with livestock anatomy.
The bottom line is, know what you want to cook when you order your meat. There are only so many steaks in a cow, and by choosing some cuts, you sacrifice others. For example, if you want New York strip steaks and filet mignon, you forego T-bone steaks, because they’re from the same cut of meat. Would you braise a brisket, or would you rather have that piece cut into stew meat?
Keep in mind whether you are more of a steaks, chops and burgers cook, or a roast and shortribs kind of cook. You can have some of each, but there are decisions to make.
But the first, most important decision to make is: Are you ready to save money, support local agriculture and get a little closer to your food?
I thought so.