Shaftsbury, VT — When Scott and Erin McEnaney decided to buy their first cow from a local friend in October 2006, they weren’t motivated by a desire to get closer to the source of their food. They simply wanted to help a friend who had a cow he needed to slaughter.
In return for going in on the cost of butchering the cow with their friend, the McEnaneys, who live in Shaftsbury, received a veritable beef bounty: close to 100 pounds of hamburger, ribeyes, T-bones, roasts, stew meat and filet mignon—all for a price of less than $3 per pound.
“I remember biting into the steak for the first time, and it was like nothing I had ever eaten before,” says Erin, 29. “It was like butter. It really melted in your mouth.”
Indeed, it was love at first bite.
The McEnaneys are representative of a small but growing group of food consumers increasingly turning away from supermarkets in favor of local farms for meats, dairy products and produce. The McEnaneys and their ilk are members of the localvore movement that is sweeping the United States as rising commodities prices drive up the cost to produce and distribute food and as Americans grow wary of agribusiness thanks in part to books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
According to a survey conducted by market researcher NPD Group, 61 percent of consumers report being concerned about the hormones and antiobiotics industrial farmers give to animals. Consequently, 43 percent of consumers have incorporated locally grown foods into their daily lives. The market for locally grown foods reportedly reached $5 billion in 2007, according to market research firm Packaged Facts. Packaged Facts expects the local foods market to grow to $7 billion in 2011.
Though the McEnaney’s decision to purchase their first quarter of a cow wasn’t influenced by any ideology, the couple, who both work for Orvis, has become more aware of the potential health benefits associated with consuming meat that hasn’t been tainted by hormones and antiobiotics as well as the importance of supporting local farmers. This awareness has motivated them to continue to participate with friends in the purchase cows for their beef. In 2007, the McEnaneys went in with a group of friends on a second cow raised on a farm five miles from their house. The got a quarter of the meat from that cow. They plan to pick up and pay for their third quarter of a cow from the same farm, Saga Morgans in Shaftsbury, later this fall.
“I’m more surprised that I ate store bought beef, hockey puck steaks for the majority of my life,” says Erin, who, at five feet four inches tall and zero percent body fat looks like she eats lots more salad than steak. “Now it’s like, holy crap, why did I wait so long to do this.”
Adds Scott, “Anyone who ever does this doesn’t want to go back to getting grocery store beef. If you have the money to do the initial outlay, it’s a great way to go.”
The McEnaneys are a font of information about buying cows from local farmers. Here, they share their advice and lessons learned on buying cows for the beef.
Talk to a farmer.
Scott discovered Saga Morgans through a friend from work. The friend had originally recommended the farm, which is named for the Morgan horses it raises, not for its cows but as a place where Scott could shoot pigeons and train his Springer Spaniel, Tucker, to retrieve them.
While training his dog, Scott got to talking with the farmers, sisters Laurie and Debbie Johnson, and learned that they sold cows to auction and to individual consumers who wanted to buy them.
If you’re interested in buying a cow for the meat from a farmer, Scott, 29, recommends simply stopping in on a farmer to ask what he does with the cows and if it’s possible to buy them for beef.
Don’t buy a dairy cow.
If you’re buying a cow for the meat, it’s got to be a “beefer,” says Scott. “Don’t get someone’s dairy cow they have to put to slaughter because she’s too old,” he says. “She’ll just taste like shoe leather.”
Just because the cow isn’t “certified organic” doesn’t mean the meat’s no good.
Scott says the cows he and Erin buy from Saga Morgans are not certified organic for two reasons:
- Because the farmers who raise the cows, Laurie and Debbie Johnson, have to use fertilizers and treatments on the corn the cows eat when they’re no longer eating grass, and
- Because the USDA, which provides the “certified organic” seal of approval, isn’t involved in the process. The USDA doesn’t get involved in the certification process until after the cows are slaughtered, and since Scott buys the cows before they’ve been slaughtered, their essentially his property before the FDA can get involved.
Even though the meat Scott and Erin buy isn’t technically organic, it’s still wholesome and tasty because the cows are mostly fed grass, and they’re not injected with any creepy hormones or antibiotics.
Live weight vs. hanging weight.
If you decide to purchase a live cow for its beef and have the cow reared on the farm from which you’re purchasing it, as the McEnaneys do, you’ll pay based on the cow’s live weight—the amount the cow weighs when it’s alive. Since, as Scott notes, it’s tough to get a live cow to stand on a scale, live weight is calculated by doubling the cow’s hanging weight. Hanging weight, of course, is the amount the cow weighs after it’s been slaughtered and is hanging on a meat hook.
If you purchase beef directly from the farmer who raised the cow, you’ll likely pay based on hanging weight.
Scott says it’s important to note that not all cattle farmers have permission from the FDA to sell the beef from their cows. That’s why they have to sell the cows while they’re alive based on their live weight. When you buy a live cow, even if you have the farmers raise it—again, as the McEnaneys do—you’re responsible for taking it to slaughter and getting it butchered.
How will it be finished?
Believe it or not, this question has nothing to do with how the cow will be slaughtered. It does, however, have everything to do with what the cow will eat before it goes to slaughter. Scott recommends finding out how the cow will be finished because what the cow eats during its life affects the flavor and texture of the meat. Cows can be finished on grass, grain, corn and silage (chopped up pieces of corn and corn stalks), says Scott. Cows fed entirely on grass will be very lean. Corn and grain render the meat more fatty and marbled. If you like fattier meat, you’re not going to want a cow that’s fed on grass most or all of its life.
Purchase a cow with reliable friends.
The upfront costs associated with buying even a fraction of a cow are not low. Between the cost of the cow and the butchering, one-quarter of a cow can cost several hundred dollars. So if you go in on a cow with friends, the McEnaneys say make sure your friends will come through with the money when it’s time to pay the farmer and the butcher. You don’t want to get stuck having to pay another $400 to cover a friend who backed out at the last minute.
Where’s the beef?
Once you’ve picked out your cow, you may have to wait several months before you bring home the beef, says Scott. He and Erin usually have to wait four months between the time they pick out their cow and pick up the butchered meat. Scott says you have to wait for the cow to grow to a certain age, fatten up and be slaughtered.
By buying even one-fourth of a cow, you may get cuts of meat you never prepared before. The McEnaneys are experimenting with Bolognese sauces, beef stews, roasts and filet mignon. Scott says it’s great to have cuts other than London Broil. “You don’t have to go out to treat yourself to a filet.”