Buying 25 percent of a cow: 100% worth it

When buying the best pays off — buying a quarter cow

quarter cow

What a quarter cow looks like

It was almost a decade ago now that my girlfriend (now wife) and I made the fateful decision to pick up some delicious Jones Barbecue and bring it back home to eat. It’d been a tough week and a Friday night at home watching TV while eating an amazing beef brisket dinner with sides was just what the doctor ordered.

We came home and started mowing our beef like we’d done so many times before, commenting on the spiciness, soaking up the sauce with cheap bread. About two-thirds of the way through the meal, however, she suddenly stood and quickly walked to the bathroom. I set my plastic fork down as the sounds of someone violently puking her guts out immediately ruined my appetite.

Shaken, but clearly feeling better, she emerged from the bathroom with her stomach as empty as it had been 20 minutes earlier.

We didn’t really know what to make of it and just assumed that the spices were too much for her delicate tummy. That theory went out the window some months later when we were cooking steaks at home. Same thing: immediate, violent vomiting. OK, clearly it had something to do with the meat. Could she simply be allergic to cow meat? That didn’t really seem to be the case because we had certainly eaten beef many other times without a problem. And it also didn’t appear to be food poisoning because I never got sick even though I ate the exact same food. Plus, the reaction was so immediate and so violent that it seemed more like an allergy than a bacteria problem.

After doing a bit more research, we realized that it may not be the beef itself, but rather something in some of the beef we ate that was causing the problem. Something she reacted to, but I didn’t. I finally found an article (now long lost) pointing out that most supposed beef allergies are actually allergies to the antibiotics given to cows on overcrowded cattle lots.

This was worth testing. After doing a bit more reading, we found out that corn makes cattle sick so the beef factories (they’re not “farms”, don’t kid yourself) give them massive doses of antibiotics. They, in fact, give them the antibiotics even when they’re not sick as a preventative. Why are cows being fed food they weren’t evolved to digest? Because it’s cheap. Why is it cheap? Frankly because the government subsidizes the landowners to grow lots of corn thus feeding it to cows is a good way to get rid of it.

If you want a wonderful overview of the modern food system with ways to positively rethink our approach to food, be sure to read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. (Did you catch that? My first affiliate link!)

So we sought out grass-fed beef. In fact, you have to look for grass fed AND grass-finished as some “grass-fed beef” is actually corn-finished as a way to add more fat marbling to the final cut. We carefully selected some overpriced steaks that were reliably sourced and well-labeled. Guess what? No problems at all.

The test was repeated many, many times after that point. And so we continued like this for many years, until I finally read the Ominvore’s Dilemma while in vacation in Kauai a couple years ago. This is where I learned of the concept of “pasture-raised” beef. Without giving away the whole book, the idea is that every creature and plant on the farm has its role to fill, which it was given by eons of evolution. So the basic approach when it comes to cows is that the cows eat the grass, the cows fertilize the grass, the chickens eat the bugs out of the pasture so the cows aren’t covered in insects and the whole system is moved around frequently so no part of the system is overtaxed. In fact, interestingly, even the grass did much better as it had evolved to be trampled (creating water pockets) and fertilized regularly. Simply put, the system is in balance. No antibiotics are needed because there isn’t a stress on the system causing illness.

Fate intervened again when our fridge started to die. We weren’t sure if it was going to be savable, but most of the food we were worried about was our frozen stuff. Plus we had an old bar fridge in our basement that wasn’t being used. We decided to spring for a deep freezer and then use the bar fridge as back-up if our refrigerator truly did bite the dust. (We’d been thinking about getting one anyway as a way to be a bit more self-sufficient and to buy in a bit larger quantities.)

So we were all set when we decided to take the plunge and buy our first quarter-cow. It worked out great when my wife was pregnant as she was told to up her iron intake. So about a year ago my wife, then six months pregnant, and I drove up to Snohomish to pick up our meat.

It’s taken us about a year to eat that meat, with the lesser steaks and some of the roasts taking awhile to get through. (It was just a couple weeks ago that we gnawed our way through some nasty chuck steak.) We still have a few pieces left from last year, ribs (I’ve never cooked them, so that’s something I’ll have to figure out) and a couple roasts left. We also gave away all our offal last year (we just didn’t take it this year) and we gave away a few other choices as gifts.

Is buying a quarter cow a good deal money-wise?

Well, we paid $764 for about 120 pounds of beef. That was $511 for the cow and the rest for the butcher’s time. That puts us somewhere around $6/pound. However, we didn’t actually weigh our product, plus we didn’t take the offal, which is included in the price. On the other hand, this is organic and we know where it all came from and, of course, it also includes plenty of premium cuts like T-bones and rib steaks. I’ve heard a clean rib eye can go for as much as $20/pound. There’s also the difference between “pre-hang” weight and the actual weight of what you buy, so it’s a true apples and oranges problem. To really tell you what our value was compared to supermarket meat, I’d have to weigh each cut and compare each one to retail prices and total it up. I’m way too lazy to do that! Instead, I’ll roughly estimate that we eat beef 1.5 times a week on average and that this amount lasted over a year. That is around $63/month, or $15/week. At one and a half meals per week, that’d be around $10/meal (for two people). That doesn’t include power for our freezer and gas to go up and get the meat, but you get the idea.

Bottom line to us is we don’t feel we’re being gouged, we’re getting quality, clean meat and we have it on-hand when we need it — plus, no puking! To us, that’s a great deal!

What do you think? Is clean meat worth it? Has anyone else tried buying a quarter or half cow? 

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30 Thoughts on “Buying 25 percent of a cow: 100% worth it

  1. I’ve never bought a whole or quarter cow. It just seems so expensive on a per pound basis. Some of that is all the fancier cuts, but I wouldn’t normally buy those cuts anyways. I’d be interested if someone did a real apples-to-apples comparison of the cost. Do you at least get a full share of the really fancy cuts, e.g. the filet?

    I’m not sure your experiment with your wife is scientifically valid. If she had two reactions over, say, a decade of eating factory beef, then you have to repeat the same test, eating the reliably sourced beef for the same hypothetical decade. Even then, you’d have to run a statistical analysis; only two incidents in a fairly large sample size means the probability is low, so there would be a lot of variance (randomness) in whether or not an incident showed up in a given number of trials, even a large number.

    There are also other examples, such as, maybe the incidents were caused by slightly spoiled beef. Some people are more sensitive than others. Personally, I have a sensitivity to slightly spoiled, warm water fish. I can eat the same fish as others, including my wife, and I break out in hives but my dining companions do not.

    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 9:23 am said:

      Hi Steve — good comments!
      Yes, we get our full share of the “good stuff”. It’s actually mostly higher-end cuts and hamburger. And we get the brisket and quite a few roasts. We definitely don’t pretend to call our experience a “scientific” test (actually you’d many people eating a controlled amount of junk meat to know for sure). But the sickness actually did occur more times than I mentioned and once you read up on factory meat processes and especially about antibiotic use, it was a no-brainer for us. And, if you’d puked as hard as she did, you would be looking for other solutions, too. Given our readings (such as this: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daniellegould/2012/07/11/whats-in-your-beef-a-lot-of-antibiotics-says-food-industry-survey/ ), we decided we’d take the safe route.
      Certainly beef lot meat is cheaper by the pound. My perspective is that it’s not so much that I’m overpaying for fancy-schmancy food, but that buying factory food is the equivalent of dumpster-diving. Yeah, you’re saving money, but only because it’s artificially cheaper. I’m OK paying more for safety and health.

  2. For a while, I was a vegetarian for this very reason – not the allergy but the desire to not eat factory farmed animals. I couldn’t afford “clean” meat, so vegetarianism was my answer. I still hold those convictions, and I still can’t afford sustainably raised meat, but I am back to eating meat nonetheless. Someday I will tackle that issue again; right now, I have other battles to fight.

    When I first started eating meat again, I did buy a chunk of a cow. I think it was only about 20 pounds or so, but that was still a lot. I found we didn’t eat it nearly often enough for it to be worth buying in that quantity again. I like the idea, especially for the support it gives local farmers, but for me, it’s just not practical.

    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 9:47 am said:

      Your approach is a really good idea for a lot of folks. You can split a bulk order with a friend or neighbor to take the sting out of it. But certainly if you’re not going to eat, you’re better off saving your money!

  3. I wouldn’t be able to fit all that beef in my freezer! I’ve also been trying to cut down on red meat…or just meat in general, but I eat a lot of chicken. I have been more cognizant about where my food comes from…it is kinda scary. I might have to check out the book.
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    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 11:13 am said:

      Yeah, buy the book and make me my first affiliate pennies! (: The freezer is definitely an issue but it’s worth it if you already have one!

  4. W was just talking about this the other day. He wants to do this.

    Great post! I’ll have to have him read it.
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  5. I’ve heard of this – if you eat a lot of meat (and have a good sized freezer!) I think it’s a very good way to go.
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  6. This is great timing. My parents just got 1/2 of a cow a week or two ago. They were able to get it for only $500, so I’m not sure if it’s just cheaper in MN/WI or if they got lower quality meat. We had burgers from the meat last weekend and it was really, really good. They found out that they were paying about $2 a pound for everything (including bones and the stuff they won’t use), but even if that goes up to $5 a pound it still seems worth it for healthy beef. My wife and I are definitely going to look into it for ourselves.

  7. Wow, glad you guys were able to figure that out. It’s crazy some of the things you learn about where our food comes from. Doesn’t exactly warm up your appetite. I’d love to get a deep freezer to take advantage of sales and the like. We just have a tiny little freezer right now, which stores nothing. It sounds like you guys were able to find a reasonable deal given your situation. And it was definitely a learning experience.
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    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm said:

      Yeah, it actually worked out for us. You’re right, though, that having a deep freezer is critical to the whole idea!

  8. Wow, I had no idea about the issue with the stuff in the beef causing an issue like that…though it does not surprise me one bit. We bought a 1/4 late last year and it was well worth the cost in my opinion. I know it can get pricey, but when you know where it came from and is getting nothing pumped into it, it makes it well worth it in my opinion.
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    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 1:56 pm said:

      Yeah, it’s so gross when you learn about what they do to the beef. That’s awesome that you’ve tried it. I think it’s totally worth it, too!

  9. This would work great if I had more family around to split the cost. I don’t eat that much red meat anymore due to medical restrictions. Oh, do I miss red meat!!!
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    • Pretired Nick on June 18, 2013 at 1:57 pm said:

      Yeah, that’s the one thing: red meat really isn’t good for anyone (although my wife really needed to up her iron intake during her pregnancy). But aside from that, it’s great!

  10. I think you will always buy cheaper. You are skipping plenty other hands normally involved in the pasture-to-grocery-store chain, so it must be cheaper. And as you said, you know the source and you know the butcher’s environment and the way the cow was treated, etc. All those industrial meat processing factories are in most cases a terror for the animals. Somewhere I heard this “shock” is imprinted post-mortally in the meat which we then eat.
    I was actually thinking about buying a cow (or its part) but I am solving space problem. I do not have space for another freezer.
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    • Pretired Nick on June 19, 2013 at 8:50 pm said:

      Yeah, you’re so right, Martin. If we were doing this strictly for financial reasons, we might adjust our reasoning, but since it’s health first, we’re satisfied knowing the pricing is fair and the quality is high.

  11. We don’t eat meat….so no. However, I do think that buying in bulk is a great way to save. Of course, this stands for meat as well =)
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    • Pretired Nick on June 20, 2013 at 6:58 am said:

      I admire vegetarians. I just don’t think I could do it. Someday we’ll try it for awhile and see if we can handle it. (: What are some of the vegetarian foods that are good to buy in bulk?

  12. Some of my friends have bought quarter cows but I never thought the numbers would be so reasonable. I’ve cut out most meat from my diet because the stuff you get from the factory farms is so awful, but this is something ill need to look into
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    • Pretired Nick on June 21, 2013 at 6:51 am said:

      Yeah, I think it’s pretty reasonable. If you’re OK eating clean meat, it’s definitely the way to go. Even if you don’t want to eat so much that this amount is worth it, you could try splitting it with a friend.

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  15. Okay, the first time I came to your site I thought you were pretty cool. Now it’s confirmed: you’re a complete freakin’ stud.

    I’ve been trying to buy a portion of a cow for about a year. I live in the middle of cattle country. When I ask people, they look at me like I’m from a different planet. You know…..the “We just buy it from a store” look. Welcome to small town America!
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    • Pretired Nick on June 21, 2013 at 8:43 am said:

      LOL, I don’t know about that, Average Joe, but I appreciate the kind words!
      I’m not surprised people haven’t thought much beyond cattle lot mentality there in cattle country, but if you keep looking, you’ll definitely find a supplier reasonably close. One tip is to look for your nearest farmer’s market. Go to the market and ask around. Someone will know someone there for sure!

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