Being from the “city”, I thought having a whole or part of a cow or pig in your freezer was limited to one’s ability to raise that animal yourself. We moved to a smaller city almost 11 years ago and having farm land all around our city, the prospect of purchasing bulk meat piqued my interest about a year ago.
As my “Little House of the Prairie” mentality eroded, I realized that this was a real option for my family and decided to look into bulk meats further. My desire to buy a part of an animal really came more from an economic standpoint than health or quality issues. I knew the trend in buying local or organic was trendy. By the time I really looked into it, I was a bit overwhelmed at the information I encountered. The options weren’t simply limited to how much of an animal you wanted to buy, but breed, location and feed became a big part of the equation as well. The options really added a depth to my education on the matter.
When I decide to look into any new purchase, I go about my education in that area by completely immersing myself in every bit of information I can find. My research on this was no different. I skimmed dozens of websites and forums to decipher the jargon of this cottage industry and understand my options.
The process of buying a car can seem easier than buying a side of beef these days. Once I decided to buy, I was then faced with three different pricing options, “on the hoof”, “on the rail” or “package rate”. I also found options on breed and whether it was “grass-fed and grass finished”, “grass-fed and grain finished” or “grain fed and finished”. Another option is the length of the dry aging process with your beef. Then there is the issue of certified organic and all the bells and whistles that come with those ratings.
With hog, the process is a lot simpler. There are five main grades of hog, with a “grade one” feeder hog being what you are looking for. A feeder hog is the standard hog breed in the US. I won’t get into the history of how that breed came about here, but it is fairly easy to research. You can, of course, pick a different breed as some of the older breeds are becoming popular again. But those breeds are not as common and need to be sought out, and you will usually pay a premium for the animals.
The final step to your purchase is to find a processor to handle the animal. Some ranchers provide this service, but always make sure that whoever does the processing is regularly inspected and is a business you can find reasonable feedback on about their products. You really want clean and sanitary conditions at the place your meat is processed. Besides the risk of food borne illnesses from unsanitary conditions, odor from a dirty meat locker can permeate your meat as it dry ages. I can think of nothing worse than having over a hundred pounds of meat with an off-taste. Be selective here, I once had a barber tell me that he raised hogs and would kill and process one for me – in his back yard. I don’t think so!
The best advice I can give is to ask around and get referrals. You probably know friends who have this done once or twice a year. Try their products, if they will share. Read online reviews and ask to visit the farms and facilities. Have fun with it by keeping it simple. It is so easy to get bogged down with all the choices and selections.
In parting comments, I will attest to the meat I buy this way as being far superior to anything I have ever had from a grocery store. The meat tastes better and the feel of the meat is cleaner and less “greasy” than store-bought. Reasons for this are fresher meat and dry aging of beef produces a result that is different from the wet aging you get from any retail outlet. As for cost, they end up being lower than a supermarket, but on par or slightly more than a wholesale club.
It can seem like a chore to establish your own sources for livestock and processing, but at the dinner table, where it counts, I find it very rewarding.