First things first
Our cattle are primarily black Angus. This breed offers several characteristics that are desirable for our needs. Angus cattle typically calve easily, grow hardily and have phenomenal meat marbling. They are also generally calm and easy to work with.
Once a calf is born, it is raised by the cow for several months. When the calf is still fairly young, we pen the herd and separate the young calves from their mothers for a couple of hours. This is done so we can “work” the calves. We vaccinate, castrate and apply necessary ear tags at that time. The process is quick, as stress free as possible and improves the calf’s quality of life. The calf is returned to the cow and continues to grow on green pastures and milk until it is about six months old.
At around six months of age, we wean the calf from the cow. This is important for the health of the cow. If the calf were to stay with her, it would continue to nurse, and the cow’s body condition might decline as she strives to nutritionally provide for a nursing calf as well as for the unborn calf that she is likely carrying.
After the calf has been weaned at the appropriate age, it goes into a pasture that contains only other beef calves. The group is fed high quality grasses, baleage, and occasionally grain based feed. However, we are currently moving away from grain feeding our calves and have not used grain in quite some time. We find that using baleage is equally as beneficial as grain feeding. The beef calves continue to grow in this pasture until they are ready to be harvested. This step often takes a minimum of ten months.
Our beef calves are ready to harvest when they are anywhere from 750-1000 lbs. When the time is right, we carefully load them into one of our cattle trailers and deliver them to our local processor. These calves never go through the stress of traveling through stockyards. They do not experience a cross country trip via trailer trucks. They never see a feed lot, or go into meat packing plants. In an optimal world, all beef would be produced and processed locally.
Let’s get down to it
So, what happens after the beef is ready to be processed? If you’re purchasing a freezer beef from your farmer, this is where your investment begins its immediate journey to your table.
At the processor, your beef is dressed. This means the hide and organs have been removed. At this point, the hanging weight (also known as rail weight) is determined. This weight is how the processor determines how much to charge. For example, your beef may have a hanging weight of 600 lbs. The 600 lbs would then be multiplied by whatever set price per lb the processor charges.
We also use the hanging weight value (provided by the processor) to determine how much to charge for our beef calves. This is a fair method of charging our customers equally, as they are paying for the size beef they receive. Current pricing is $4.75/lb on the hanging weight. Our average hanging weight is between 450-550 lbs, for a whole beef. A half beef has an average hanging weight of 225-275 lbs.
After the beef is dressed at the processor, it is allowed to “hang” for approximately 14 days. This gives the meat time to age, which allows the tissues to relax and become more tender. Some water evaporation also happens during this step.
When the hang time is over, the processor butchers the beef according to your specifications. Your choices are typically recorded on a cut sheet, provided to you by your farmer. On this form, you select the cuts you prefer, thicknesses and package sizes. The options are numerous. The cuts you do not wish to keep are added to your ground beef. Nowadays, all locally processed beef is vacuum sealed for freshness.
What do you get?
This is perhaps the most common question we receive. First, please remember that no two beefs will ever “cut out” exactly the same. However, we can talk general numbers and provide an example.
Your beef calf can be expected to have a hanging weight that will yield 60% of its live weight. For the ease of using round numbers, we will say that our example beef calf weighs 1000 lbs, live weight. The hanging weight of this beef would be 600 lbs. As the beef is butchered and trimmed, there is weight loss. Bones are removed, fat is trimmed and water has evaporated from the meat. What is left is known as packaged weight. This is your neatly trimmed, packaged meat that is ready for your freezer. The packaged weight usually yields 35% less than the hanging weight. So, with our example of a 600 lb hanging weight, the trimming and packaging will reduce that number by 35%. This removes around 210 lbs from the hanging weight of our example beef, which gives us a packaged weight of 390 lbs for our whole beef example.
Things to keep in mind
- Butchering choices will greatly sway the packaged weight. Neatly trimmed steaks (filet, ribeye, top sirloin, etc.) will take up less packaged space than larger, bone-in steaks (porterhouse, rib steak, sirloin, etc). The same is true with roasts. Chuck roasts usually have a small bone in them. The bone adds great flavor, but it also adds heft. Other cuts, such as short ribs and even brisket are also naturally heavy.
- Your packaged weight depends on how large the calf was to begin with. This is why the processor and your farmer charge by the hanging weight. It is a fair way of making sure everyone gets what they pay for and no less. If cost is a concern, let your farmer know you are interested in a certain size calf.
- Feel free to ask questions. Ask why your farmer prefers one processor over another. Ask about particular cuts you’re interested in. Ask about the most popular selections on the cut sheet. If your farmer doesn’t know the answer to all your questions, the processor certainly will. There are no bad questions and more than likely, your question has been asked before. Don’t be afraid to ask.