Buying beef directly from a farmer is a practice that wasn’t so uncommon even as recently as 30 years ago, at least here in Canada. Somewhere along the way, between agriboom and supermarkets, the practice has become… somewhat unusual. Now, you’re lucky if you know what COUNTRY your hamburger has come from, much less what it ate, how it was treated, and under what conditions it was processed.
The huge billion dollar recalls of beef that have happened recently are a symptom of the problem: we’re becoming a little too blasé about food that sustains us. Us city-dwellers are now so far removed from the process of farming that we wrinkle our noses in disgust at the smell of manure and quietly ignore the fact that whole countries are participating in practices destined to wreak massive ecological and biological devastation so that they can ship North America cheap beef. The result: massive deforestation, antibiotic overuse, excessive animal cruelty, the loss of heritage livestock breeds, and the feeding of hormones and select crops to animals for the simple purpose of making them gain weight.
That’s the problem with voting with your dollars sometimes… it fosters a race to the bottom.
The other problem is that when you decide you want to get off the crazy train and get back to the way things were done by your parents or grandparents, you have to do some researching. After doing some searching around for available partners in the area, I asked Rosedene Acres to put me on their list, and so far I’ve found them to be very helpful and friendly! My cow is in the process of hanging right now, and while I haven’t spoken with the butcher yet, they speak very highly of him.
There are many options to look at when you start shopping your local farmer options, but there’s a couple key questions to ask yourself first: grain fed or pasture-raised and what husbandry practices matter to you.
Grass Fed VS. Grain Fed
I’m pro-pasture. Feedlots are an unpleasant business at the best of times, rapidly pushing an animal to slaughtering weight, frequently within the first 12-13 months of life. CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) are the worst of the worst: unsanitary for the animals’ health, inefficient, and highly polluting. The amount of drugs and antibiotics required by the CAFOs to keep an animal healthy and fat is truly alarming… some 80% of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to livestock. Cows are meant to eat grass as their primary fodder. There is a great deal of data collected over a 10 year period that agrees that feed has a great deal to do with pathogenic e-coli concentrations, even if they don’t know exactly why it affects O157:H7 so much.
But there are other well-documented benefits to sticking with pasture fed, too. Among other things, lean grass fed beef is higher in many vitamins and minerals, has a better omega oil 3-6 ratio, is as interchangeable in low-cholesterol diets as chicken or fish, and contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may help the body suppress tumor growth and have an effect on our body fat.
Husbandry and practices can be surprisingly important for reasons other than making sure your animal was treated humanely. Biodiversity is not high on the priority list in commercial mega enterprise, and you think that after the Great Potato Famine, we would recognize the importance of not putting all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Your animal’s breed can also have a significant impact on its taste, size and general health.
Know what you’re getting into
If you opt for grass fed beef, it’s a little more expensive. After all, the age of the average grass-fed cow at slaughter is almost double a CAFO animal’s age! But you’re paying for a premium, well-raised product. It will taste a little different than grain fed, and because the animal is leaner, you will have to be prepared to cook it a little differently. Check with the prospective farmer before you get put on a waiting list to see if you can get a sample, so you know you’ll be happy with the product. There’s frequently still a frozen “Box o’ beef” or two available in the spring.
There’s almost always a list. You will need to ask to be put on it sometime in the spring or early summer, and specify how much you want. They sell usually by quarters, sides, and whole cows. Some farmers even let you choose the cow, if you’re going big.
Slaughtering season for beef is usually in the late fall. After the animal hangs, the beef will have to be aged for a period of time. The price is determined by hanging weight, which may be reduced up to 60% by the cutting process (removal of bones and fat) depending on how you do your cuts. The size of an animal varies depending on the breed, but generally hanging sides weigh in between 200 and 250 pounds. You will also have to work with the butcher who will custom cut your meat and package it. A good butcher will guide you through the process of determining whether you want more ground beef or stew beef, the size of steaks, etc.
To have the best experience in buying from a farmer and butcher, you should take a little time to get to know them. Most are friendly folk, and more than willing to help you out. After all, if you’re happy, you’ll buy from them again! And maybe you’ll tell your friends, too.