So you want to buy 1/2 of a cow?

I’ve had a glut of requests lately to buy whole cow, or maybe 1/4 to 1/2 of a cow. I answer all these requests the same way. “Yes we can sell you a whole cow. No you don’t want it that way.”

Since I need to type a novel each time to answer questions and hopefully help the customer make an informed decision, I thought it would make sense to do a write up here that I can point customers to instead. Often I’m on my phone and my thumb typing ability isn’t that great.

First thing to understand is how a farmer goes to market selling meat. There are two main ways to go direct to market in NC. One is to sell by the fraction and one is to sell by the cut.

Selling by the fraction

Selling by the fraction is a legal exemption that small farmers can use to sell very easily right off of their farm. I fully support this exemption for farmers. When we started selling directly to the public, it was how we sold meat. Selling by the fraction means I have almost zero regulations to deal with. As long as I mark my meat “not for resale” and get names on the sheet with the processor BEFORE dropping off the cow, I’m legal.

What’s happening here is, legally, you are buying the cow before it is processed and turned into meat. There is no regulation about you processing your own animal because it’s yours. Picture a family processing their own cow. Mom and dad get 1/2, son gets 1/4 and daughter gets 1/4. There is no need for the government to be involved. When you buy a fraction of a cow, you just effectively became family to the farmer. That’s why the names need to be on the sheet prior to processing the animal, because whoever’s name is on the sheet is who actually owns the cow. You aren’t buying meat, you are buying a living animal. All the farmer is doing is taking your new cow to the processor for you as a service. In reality, the names often don’t make it to the cut sheet with the processor and as long as nobody checks, it’s fine. It’s kind of like that old saying, it’s not illegal till you get caught. However the NCDA is aware of this grey area and is starting to crack down from what I’ve heard.

What this means to the consumer is that they are buying a portion of a cow, hopefully one they’ve actually looked at but most often not. The cow will go to a custom processor and will likely not be inspected by the USDA or the state inspectors. The cow will be packaged however that processor packages bulk meat. When we sold this way, it was wrapped in butcher paper, that’s it. The consumer will then get a portion of the cow, 100 pounds, 250 pounds, 500 pounds. In that portion will be steaks, hamburger, liver, neck bones, etc. Whatever your fraction of the total cuts, that’s what you get with your favorite cuts and the not so favorite cuts. It’s kind of like a CSA box of produce, except it is 8 bucks a pound. You’ll need a large freezer space and a hungry family to go through all the cuts. You’ll also need to find some recipes for cuts you aren’t used to cooking. It’s a grand adventure and one I enjoyed helping people with when we sold this way

The pluses of fractional buying:

  • Large volume of meat, usually discounted.
  • Chance to try different cuts than you are used to.
  • Ready supply of meat in the freezer for parties, holiday gatherings, zombie outbreaks, etc.
  • Convenience. You only go to the farm once to buy and eat for months off of one trip.
  • No 2% sales tax. Because you technically “bought” the fraction of the cow while it is still alive, there is no sales tax on your meat.

The minuses of fractional buying:

  • Cuts you may not want are part of the deal. The dog ends up eating some of them.
  • You have no idea how the meat will taste till your freezer is bulging and your wallet is empty. (This is a big one, we once processed a cow in the spring that tasted like spring onions, Oops.)
  • You need other families who want to buy the remaining fractions of the cow. This is the hardest part, getting everyone coordinated.
  • You need to eat all the meat while it’s still relatively fresh in the freezer. A daunting task when you are staring at a full freezer.
  • You need a dedicated freezer to store all the meat.
  • You have to get in line and put your name on a cow in the future. That may be months away.

Selling by the cut

So the other way to buy meat from a farmer is to buy by the cut. This means that you buy a steak, or buy some hamburger, just like going to the grocery store. In order to sell this way, the farmer needs to get their NC meat handlers license and be inspected by the state. It also means that you animal will go in front of a USDA inspector or a state inspector at the processor. It will have a stamp on the carcass showing it was inspected. The labels on the packaging will also have all the legally required verbiage for safety and handling. Adding in these steps increases the cost for the farmer and therefore for the consumer.

The pluses of buying by the cut

  • You can try before you buy by getting a few sample steaks from the farmer before any big purchases
  • You can buy as much or as little as you want
  • You can buy only the cuts you like
  • You can usually buy when you want meat rather than having to wait till a cow is processed
  • You can still get a discount by buying in bulk
  • All the safety provisions of government inspections are in place, similar to the meat you buy at the store

The minuses of buying by the cut

  • It costs a bit more due to the increased cost to the farmer
  • You have to pay 2% sales tax (or 6.75% if you buy from a retailer)
  • You won’t learn how to use neck bones and beef liver in the kitchen

Now, for someone who wants to purchase a bulk of beef by the cut, what we do is we simply offer a bulk discount for a large purchase. We can’t tell you the price per pound because we don’t limit you to a fraction of an animal. This means you can buy more steaks ($18 per lb) and less liver ($4 per lb) if you like which would affect your price per pound average. It also means you don’t need to buy 250 pounds of meat at one time if you so choose.

If you do want to go the route of a fraction of a whole animal, we can offer that, but you’ll have to wait till we process our next cow, and put your name and deposit down before we take the animal to the processor. Also, unless they’ve recently relaxed the regulations, you’ll also have to drive to the processor and pick up your meat. Farmers are no longer allowed by the NCDA to pick up the meat for you.

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

6 thoughts on “So you want to buy 1/2 of a cow?”

  1. I want just good hamburger meat without the fillers that you get when you buy it in the stores
    And like the guarantee on this

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