Buying Beef in Bulk –“How Much Meat Will I Actually Get?”

If you’re new to buying beef in large quantities, or even if you’ve done it once or twice before, you may find this review of the process helpful. The following are some definitions and a basic description of the butchering process as it affects the quantity of beef you’ll receive.

Live Weight vs. Hanging Weight

First as a reminder, mainly to myself but also to any of you who would appreciate being reminded, I’m writing about beautiful, intelligent, feeling animals… cows. It is with great respect and thanks to the creator and to the spirit of the animals that we take their lives for our nourishment and health. With that foundation of our genuine heartfelt thanks to them, I’ll go on to explain how the process unfolds.  Lets assume an average sized two year olds steers weighs approximately 1,000 lbs;  that weight is called the “live weight”.   We’ve been breeding our animals to be a bit smaller to more efficiently “finish” on grass, but to keep the arithmetic ,simple we’ll assume a 1,000 lb. steer.  Heiffers would also be lighter than steers. Once the animal is slaughtered however, the skin, head, non usable organs, and hooves are removed and the carcass is split down the middle and weighed, giving the butcher the “hanging” or “carcass weight”, which is usually around 60% of the live weight. The two “sides” are then hung in a cooler for 10 days to two weeks to age. This improves tenderness, enhances flavor and also further reduces weight due to evaporation.

Hanging Weight vs. Boxed Weight

After aging, each side is fabricated into individual retail cuts. The weight after this process is called the “boxed”, “take home”, or “retail” weight. I’ll write more on butchering instructions another time, but for now it’s important to know that after butchering, the boxed weight will be significantly less than the hanging weight. The percentage of the hanging weight that remains is called the “carcass cutting yield” or “yield” for short and is generally between 60% and 70% of hanging weight. This percentage varies based on a number of factors including:
• Bone-in vs. boneless – This will dramatically affect yield; the more boneless cuts that are made, the lower the yield. It will not however significantly affect the actual amount of meat you receive.
• The amount of fat remaining on the meat cuts – The yield will vary based on how much surface fat the cutter leaves on the cuts.
• Leanness of ground beef – If the ground beef is made very lean the yield will be less than if the ground is made with a higher percentage of fat.

So How Is Price Determined?

Traditionally, when you buy meat in this way the price is set based on hanging weight. This is because as noted above the actual boxed weight can vary significantly because of a number of factors, which are not a function of the animal being sold. Also, many butchers only give the hanging weight to the producer and not the take home weight. As producers, we look for a butcher who gives us back a good percentage of hanging weight and our particular butcher last year did a good job in this department as we averaged a 65% yield on a sample of the animals that we had processed. We are expecting our butcher this coming year to do a similar job. However, in our first year we used a butcher who only gave us back 48% of hanging weight and, as you can imagine, we never used him again. What happened to the missing 17% is still a question we ask ourselves.

What Does This All Mean?

As an example let’s say you are ordering a side of beef from an animal with a live weight of 1,000 lbs and a hanging weight of 600 lbs. The hanging weight of the side you are receiving is 300 lbs. Your total cost, assuming a $4.45 price per pound of hanging weight would be $1,335, (300 lbs x $4.45). Assuming a yield of 65% the actual weight of the beef you would receive would be 195 lbs (300 x .65).

Now to complicate things more, lets also say you are splitting the side amongst four friends (including yourself) giving each person an eighth. Everyone wants to know what they will have to pay and how much meat they will actually receive. What each 1/8 share will pay is easy, $1,335 divided by 4 which equals $333.75. Then, to calculate the boxed weight of any of the eighths, just divide the 195 lbs of take home weight by 4 and each eighth share will receive about 49 lbs of meat to put in their freezer. Cuts of beef aren’t widgets so the actual weight of each of the eighths will vary somewhat,

To compare this with what you are paying for retail cuts of grass fed beef in the store, you can translate it to a price per pound of meat received by dividing the price per pound of hanging weight by the yield percentage. So in the case above the price per pound would be $6.85 ($4.45/.65). Since this includes everything from ground beef to more expensive steaks I think you will find it works out very favorably compared to most retailer’s prices for grass fed and finished beef.

Note: this post was originally published in the summer of 2011; it has been updated to reflect 2012 pricing.

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