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How to Buy a Whole or Half Cow for Beef | Buying Guide 2023

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This article is part of our Raising Meat on the Homestead series.

Buying a half or a whole cow has many benefits, including better-tasting cuts of beef, knowing where your food came from and how it got raised, saving a big chunk of money, and making the world a more humane place for meat-providing animals like cattle.

So, as a modern homesteader, what’s the process for buying a cow or half a cow? We can’t just show up at the rancher’s farm and expect everything to be ready. Nope, it doesn’t work like that!

So how does it work?

That’s the purpose of this article. We’ll reveal the best practices for buying a cow to stock your freezer.

This article is for meat eaters, of whom I am one.

I’m also a huge plant lover. And I eat far less meat than plants, especially those associated with long-proven health benefits.

However, it’s hard to deny that there’s anything quite as enjoyable to consume as a rare T-Bone Steak!

That’s how I feel about it anyway – and I’m not sorry.

So here we go – a journey into the process of getting farm-raised beef to your freezer to enjoy.

Are you ready?

Then Let’s Get Moooving!

The Advantages of Buying a Half or Whole Cow

Two farmyard cows posing for an epic photograph.

I knew it the first year I worked on a stock farm in Frazeysburg, Ohio. Fresh, farm-raised beef tastes superior to what you typically buy in the grocery store. It’s the same with the pork as well.

So, at least for me, one of the best things about buying a half or a whole cow from a rancher you have an established relationship with – is that the meat tastes better. And better-tasting food is delightful!

And, importantly, there’s an excellent benefit of knowing that the animal now in your freezer had a lovely life, grazing in green, sunlit pastures of tall grass and sweet clover.

It gained its weight naturally from non-toxic plants, as nature intended. It wasn’t prematurely taken from its mother, stuffed in a stock pin, and fattened with steroids and growth hormones, only to be shipped off to a slaughterhouse at a young age.

Another good advantage is that when you buy a whole or half cow, you’ll have as many different cuts of meat as you want, depending on what you order from the butcher.

That allows you to experiment with more than the mundane hamburger, occasional steak, and meatball recipes we’re familiar with. And, since I am a wannabe cook, this means a lot to me. I get to explore more recipes and culinary styles with a greater variety of meat cuts!

Before we go into the step-by-step instructions on buying a cow to stock your freezer with, let’s quickly go over how to locate cattle for sale in your local area.

Here we go!

How to Find Cows for Sale In Your Area

There are several ways you may not have thought of to locate cattle for sale where you live. For instance, you can talk to your online friends in agricultural social media groups, search Craigslist, ask your local 4H chapter, or even question the neighborhood butcher.

Oh, and by the way, when you buy a cow, which is the name for a female Bovidae Bos taurus, you’re most likely getting a steer, which is a male. That’s usually the way it goes.

Now you know!

Ask Your Family and Online Friends

Call your Mom. Contact your second cousin you haven’t spoken to in three months. Get on your Facebook, Twitter (X), and other social media accounts and talk to your online friends. Ask them all about whether or not they know some local rancher who offers pasture-raised beef for sale. Likely, it won’t take long to make contact, and then you’ll be on your way to a more sustainable, humane lifestyle.

Local Butchers Know

One effective way to locate the beef for sale in your area is to talk to your neighborhood butcher. I’m not talking about the guy who stocks the meat shelves at Walmart. I’m talking about a real butcher. Butchers commonly maintain various relationships with ranchers, so they’re likely to know where you can forge a relationship with a pig or cow farmer.

Check With Your Local 4-H Chapter!

If it happens to be around County Fair time this year – you can make contacts there. Or go to the 4H chapter in your area and start asking questions. Country folks like myself and my wife are always happy to help a neighbor to save money, live healthier, preserve the environment, and enjoy even tastier T-Bone Steaks!

Search on Craigslist

Craigslist is a powerful resource for finding anything you want for sale. Zone in on your particular town as a reference point, and set your search radius however far you’re willing to travel.

Fast Fun Cow Fact #1

Cows have panoramic vision, meaning their vision is full and broad, able to scan from side to side without the need to turn their head.

However, they also have low depth perception, and therefore, they are typically only focused on the small field of view that’s directly in front of them.

That’s sad, but (I guess) it doesn’t matter a lot when all you do is eat grass and chew cud!

Now we should examine some of the most vital factors when buying a cow to stock your freezer. Size, health, diet, special certifications, hang time, and the rancher, all matter.

Let’s learn more now!

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Factors to Note When Buying a Cow for Freezer Meat

Various factors contribute to whether or not you get a good deal when you buy a cow. You’ll need to consider how much meat you’re getting, the animal’s health, any hidden fees, how long the animal hung before final processing, and the size of the ranching operation where your cow got raised.

Let’s look closer at these considerations that affect the quality of the beef you purchase – and the degree that you get what you want instead of what you have to accept.

The Size and Age of the Cow

To beef farmers, the longer a cow has to be cared for, the more it costs. As with all business operations, there comes a point of diminishing returns, where continuing to feed and grow the cow eats away at profit margins. That’s why it’s common for many ranchers to raise their steers to only about two years of age – and a minimum of about 900 pounds of beef.

I work with a rancher friend of mine on a bartering system. I always have a cow in his pastures, eating the lush grass and enjoying a sunlit lifestyle for at least three years. The cows I buy are typically sent to the butcher between 30 and 36 months old. And at that age, they usually have an average weight of about 1,300 pounds.

While talking weightage, it’s good to know the difference between living, hanging, and cutting weight.

  • Living weight is what the animal weighs when it’s alive.
  • Hanging weight is the weight of the animal after the inedible parts, the hide, and the blood get removed.
  • And cut weight is how much the beef weighs after it has been dry-aged. This weight is typically about 14% less than the hanging weight due to evaporation, saw cuts, and gristle, ligament, and tendon removal.

The point is that it’s wise to have a clear understanding with the rancher about the real-world amount of beef you will be taking home in packages after butchering completes. All it takes is a simple conversation to develop a clear understanding.

Find out how much freezer space you need for half a cow!

However, if there’s any confusion, you might need a cowculator for this step.

Get it? A COW-culator!

HA – Gotcha!

Cow and Beef Butcher Terms You Need to Know

Cartoon vector depicting meat beef cuts from the butcher.

Buying a quarter or half-cow is confusing if you’ve never done it before.

The following terms will make things much more straightforward.

Living WeightLiving weight refers to the living and breathing cow’s weight as it grazes in the field.
Hanging WeightHanging weight, or hot carcass weight, refers to the freshly-slaughtered cow’s weight before final processing. (Usually around 60% of the living weight.)
Final WeightFinal weight refers to the cow’s final weight after processing. In other words – it’s the amount of beef the buyer takes home. It is the most vital number to know! (Usually around 65% of Hanging Weight.)
Dressing PercentageHanging Weight divided by Living Weight.
Common Beef Cow Butcher Terms All Homesteaders Should Know

Do not panic if the above figures confuse you. Remember that final weight matters most. It represents the total beef weight you bring home and stuff inside your freezer.

Unique Characteristics of the Cow

My parents, Ethel and Hoyt, bought half cows in the early 70s when I grew up in Fredonia, Ohio. (Back then, it was pretty much all grass-fed beef. Sadly, not now.)

And today, I continue that practice in my own life. It’s natural to me at this point. Of course, occasionally, I’ll find myself in the local grocery store and maybe purchase a cut of meat from the meat counter that looks appealing. But, in general, my freezer is full of excellent beef all the time!

My point is that every rancher I have ever known has been a friendly, talkative person. In my experience, if you’re dealing with a rancher who raises animals with extra care and love, they will be all too happy to tell you about it in great detail!

So, don’t worry too much about learning the jargon of the cattle industry. Just say, “Tell me about the type of steers you’re selling here at your ranch.”

What the Cow Ate

Like humans, what cows eat matters (they don’t just eat grass!). You want a healthy cow that’s been cared for and raised diligently. And, at least for me, I wish for the animals I eat to enjoy a healthy diet.

I don’t want to eat beef loaded with steroids, antibiotics, “vaccines,” and other poisonous chemicals not intended by nature.

So, inquire about what the rancher feeds the cattle. Are they grass-fed, grain-fed, organic, or otherwise certified? Will the cow you buy have been fed grass in a field or protein pellets in a stall?

Many ranchers will fatten their otherwise pasture-raised cattle out with grain before sending it to market to increase the marbling in the meat, which is very important for flavor. And that’s acceptable to me. But it must get done in a sustainable, organic manner.

Just be sure to inquire about what the rancher feeds his cattle. What a cow eats, it becomes, and then you eat that cow, becoming the same.

So choose wisely!

Hanging Time

Hanging time refers to the period that a cow suspends (hangs) after slaughtering to age. Usually, the longer that a freshly slaughtered cow’s carcass hangs in a meat cooler before final processing, the tenderer it will be.

That’s why many butchers only hang their beef after slaughter for up to two weeks because they want to free up space in their freezers and turn profits faster.

However, longer aging promotes higher quality, better-tasting beef. So, if that’s important to you, you might want to work with a butcher who will accommodate that need. And, of course, you should be willing to pay a bit more for this luxury service.

Slaughter Fees

When buying a cow, ask the rancher about hidden fees or extra costs not reflected in the stated pricing. It’s not wrong to want a fair price per pound!

For instance, the slaughter fee can cost a couple or a few hundred bucks, depending on the size of the cow. Also, be sure whether you get charged by hanging or live weight.

Just take a minute to ask so that there are no surprises down the line about your cow costs. Also, it’s good to address the best payment arrangements during this time.

Size of the Ranching Operation

As I mentioned, my wife and I work with our friend, Smokey, a cattle rancher, to keep a young steer in the pastures at all times. Our meat freezer is always well-stocked, and there’s always another happy and well-treated cow in the field waiting to replenish its supply.

That said, we have no concerns about what our cows eat, any chemicals they get exposed to, and how they get treated while they live. We would have less control if we bought our cows from a large ranching operation. Because Smokey is my close and personal friend, my cows get special treatment.

So, unless you have an arrangement with a rancher that you know on a personal level, it’s vital to ensure proper communication, ask the correct questions, and truly understand all of the variables that pertain to the cow that you may be buying.

Fast Fun Cow Fact #2

The word cattle originated in France a long time ago. Its Old French translation means possession. SPOOKY!

Holy Cow – you sure know a lot about cattle now!

The Process of Getting Your Cow From the Rancher to the Butcher

Small cow family lounging on a lovely farmyard pasture.

Unless you know the rancher where your cow will be raised personally, like I do, you most likely will never even meet them. Almost all logistics, payments, and other necessary considerations can get addressed over the telephone, e-mail, or the rancher’s website.

Further, most ranchers already maintain relationships with butchers. So it’s not like you must deal with that by yourself. Everything will likely be clear before you arrive – because the ranchers and butchers have been doing this for a long time!

However, here’s how the process works – in general:

  1. You work out a deal for a quarter cow, half cow, or whole cow with the rancher
  2. The rancher raises the cow
  3. When the animal is of the proper weight, the rancher will contact you, and the butcher
  4. The butcher and the rancher arrange for transportation of the animal to the butcher
  5. The butcher slaughters the animal and hangs it to age
  6. After aging, the butcher performs the final processing on the steer
  7. The cuts of meat get packaged, labeled, and put in a meat freezer
  8. You show up to pick up the beef or decide to have it shipped to your home

That’s it. That’s the process. As stated, almost every step of this can get handled via telephone or the Internet. For you? The meat-buying procedure is as hands-off as you want it to be.

Some people like to visit the rancher and meet the cow they are paying for, which is impractical if you’re dealing with a large ranching operation. Other half-cow buyers prefer to avoid seeing the cow they will be eating in the future.

Read More!

A Few More Things!

The editor's (Elle) meat cut choice sheet. This is what her butcher gives her to fill out when he drops off the cold room to hang her cows. Elle raises her own cattle, so the process is a little bit different to buying a cow at a ranch, but the choice sheet will be similar.
The editor’s (Elle) meat cut choice sheet. This is what her butcher gives her to fill out when he drops off the cold room to hang her cows. Elle raises her own cattle, so the process is a little bit different to buying a cow at a ranch, but the choice sheet will be similar.

You will need to consider the specific types of cuts you would like. Communicate with the butcher, and let them know if you want more roast than steaks, extra ribs, or ground beef.

Here are some of the choices you’ll have when you buy a cow or a half cow instead of purchasing single packages of grocery store beef:

  • London Broil
  • Organ Meats
  • Sirloin Steak
  • Chuck Roast
  • Rump Roast
  • Flank Steak
  • Skirt Steak
  • Stew Meat
  • Rib Steak

Is your mouth watering yet? Mine too!

Okay, you’ll also need to let the butcher know whether you want your meat vacuum-packed in plastic or individually wrapped in traditional paper. (I like the paper option best because plastic is not natural. And I feel like its microparticles are soaking into my freshly butchered cow meat. Yuck!)

Also, consider how much freezer space you need to keep your beef in. Generally, you can expect to keep about 28 lbs of beef cuts for each cubic foot of freezer space. (I prefer an upright freezer over a chest freezer.)

So, for instance, if you want to purchase a half cow, about 400 pounds of quality beef, you will need approximately a 14 cubic foot freezer. And you can expect your frozen meat to stay edible for at least a year.

Elle's upright freezer full of homegrown beef. We use chest freezers as well, but the uprights are by far my favorite. I can label the draws and keep everything organized! This freezer fits half a cow.
Elle’s upright freezer full of homegrown beef. We use chest freezers as well, but the uprights are by far my favorite. I can label the draws and keep everything organized! This freezer fits half a cow.

Time for Me to Be Moooving On Now!

If you’ve been dreaming of saving money and having better-tasting beef that you know all about, all while giving a young steer a better life, then maybe it’s time to take action.

Do a little research about the availability of fresh beef in your locality. Take a trip to a ranch and have a chat with the rancher.

Talk with the butcher you’ll be working with in the future and get an idea about any costs you’ll be responsible for there. And make the arrangements to bring it all together!

I do not doubt that you will find fresh beef far superior to anything you have purchased in the grocery store. And, if you’re willing to pay a little extra for it, you can ensure that the beef your family eats is as healthy as it can be, without any toxic substances introduced by governmental agencies that stringently regulate mass-controlled food sources.

Thank you for your time and reading along today, and, as always, I hope this information delivered new value to your life.

PS:

Remember, Life’s Often Too Short. So Seize Every Mooo-ment!

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