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Why buy the cow?

(article, Ellen Jackson)

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Worried about E. coli in your hamburgers? Skeptical that "natural" beef isn't as natural as it sounds at the supermarket? Trying to stretch the annual food budget?

Consider skipping the middleman and buying your beef directly from the farmer. You get to meet the person who raised the animal and ask questions about what it was fed, how it was treated, and even how it was slaughtered. And in most cases, you get to order exactly the cuts of meat you want. Bonus: Per pound, this premium meat is cheaper than most meat in the supermarket.

Here are eight reasons to buy your own side (a half-cow, for the technically minded) of grass-fed beef. As we head into spring, meat CSAs are signing up customers; now's the time to investigate farm-direct purchasing of meat.


#(clear n1). [%image reference-image float='clear right' width=400 caption="An Angus beef cow grazing in a pasture."] Buying direct lets you skip the confusing dietary and certification labels at the store. 

All cattle raised for meat start out drinking mothers' milk and grazing on grass, but after that, their diets can diverge. 

Grain-fed cows eat a diet that includes one or more of the following: grain, corn, molasses, cottonseed, and protein supplements. 

Pasture- or grass-finished cattle spend a certain amount of time dining on grass just before being slaughtered, but are grain-fed beforehand. 

Cows that are grass-fed entirely eat nothing but mother's milk and herbaceous plants — in other words, the diet that cows evolved to eat. To be certified by the American Grassfed Association, no hormones or antibiotics can be administered during a cow's lifetime. 

A certified-organic cattle rancher may be raising his animals in a conscientious manner but still on an all-grain diet. 

Similarly, beef labeled all natural means that antibiotics and growth hormones may have been used. 

Buying direct means you can ask exactly how the animals are raised, which means you know exactly what you're eating.

#(clear n2). Buying in bulk is easier than it sounds. 

No idea where to start? Go to a local farmers' market and talk to the meat vendors, many of whom are willing to sell entire animals. Ask questions and sample the product, or buy some to taste-test at home. Find out where their animals are raised, what the animals eat, and which ranching and environmental practices the rancher or producer espouses. 

Talk to farmers who offer traditional CSAs. Many are offering added convenience and value to their subscribers by partnering with other farmers and producers to provide everything from eggs and cheese to meat, fish, honey, and coffee beans. The idea isn't merely one-stop shopping; rather, it's a personal endorsement of a product by the farmer who grows your vegetables.

Try a meat-focused service, such as the Bay Area Meat CSA, or broader resources, such as Eat Wild, Local Harvest, and the American Grassfed Association. Use word of mouth and social-networking tools to let others know you're in the market for grass-fed beef, especially if you're looking to share a cow with other folks.

#(clear n3). Buying in bulk is cheaper. 

Grass-fed beef at the store is pricey. But an entire high-quality animal (or even a quarter of one) will cost less than what you'd pay for slices of the same animal at the farmers' market, or even for grain-fed commodity meat at the store. And every cut — from basic ground beef to fancy steak chops — rings in at the same price: generally between $3 and $6 a pound. 

Ranchers are required to sell whole animals by the hanging weight, or the animal's weight (including hide, bones, and blood) after it is slaughtered. An additional cost per pound is factored into the total, for processing the animal. Some producers advertise the hanging weight price, which can make your purchase sound like a real bargain, while others use the weight of the meat after it is processed. Make sure you understand what you're getting. Ask what kind of yield you can expect from the hanging weight; in other words, how much meat you'll be stashing in your freezer. It should be approximately 65 percent of the hanging weight.  

As with a CSA, most farm-direct purchases require you to put down a deposit beforehand, to reserve your animal and help the farmer get the herd to market. Generally speaking, the deposit is a small percentage of the total cost. 

#(clear n4). Grass-fed beef is better for you.

For years, consumers have been told that beef is bad, full of unhealthy saturated fats. This may be true of conventionally raised beef, but not all cows are created equal. The health benefits of eating beef (and other meats) are measured partly by where and how the livestock was raised, but more importantly by what it ate.

Cows evolved on mother's milk and grasses, so they get sick when they're fed a diet of grains; their tummy troubles are responsible for the evolution of more virulent strains of E. coli. In addition, most of the grain fed to conventionally raised cattle is treated with pesticides and contaminated with mold growth, which necessitates the use of antibiotics.

Grass-fed beef is not only free of hormones and antibiotics, it's low in calories and saturated fats. It's high in health-enhancing fats like CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and omega-3s and omega-6s, and rich in antioxidants like vitamins E and C and beta-carotene. 

#(clear n5). [%image feature-image float='clear right' width=400 caption="Beef from a quarter-cow comes with minimal packaging."] Grass-fed beef tastes better and cooks faster. 

Grazing cattle get plenty of exercise and aren't fattened with corn and grain, so their meat has less marbling and is extremely low in fat. The fats that are present, however, are more flavorful and beefier-tasting than those found in corn-fed beef. Use salt or mild spices before cooking to allow the seasoning to blend with and enhance the natural flavor of the beef, or a basic marinade to add tenderness. 

"Low and slow" are the guidelines for cooking grass-fed beef for optimum moisture, texture, and flavor; the rule of thumb is that it takes 30 percent less cooking time than for ordinary beef. If you prefer your meat well done, cook grass-fed beef at a very low temperature in a sauce to add moisture. Remember that meat continues to cook after being removed from the heat (this is called "carryover cooking") and should be removed when it is 10 degrees under the desired temperature.

#(clear n6). You'll need less storage space than you think. 

Typically, one-quarter of a cow weighs between 130 and 175 pounds and yields 82 to 110 pounds of meat, which requires a mere 3.5 cubic feet, or the majority of the freezer space in a standard refrigerator. (That said, spending a few hundred bucks on a chest freezer is a good idea, so you can still keep ice cubes in your regular freezer.) Your beef order will keep in the freezer for up to one year.

#(clear n7). You can pick the cuts you want. 

Most ranchers offer several cutting options geared to specific cooking methods and/or lifestyles. Think about how your family likes to eat through the seasons — grilling in summer, braising in winter? — and how much time you want to spend in the kitchen. 

For two people, 1-pound packages of ground beef and single steaks are probably the way to go, but if you're feeding a family of four, you'll want packages containing more meat. 

And whether you're picking it up at the farmers' market or having it delivered to your door, the beef should be dry-aged (usually for at least a couple of weeks), vacuum-sealed, frozen, and delivered in insulated boxes with adequate refrigeration.

#(clear n8). Raising cattle on pasture instead of in factory farms is better for the environment. 

A diet of grazed grass requires less fossil fuel than the typical feedlot diet of dried corn and soy, and reduces the production of gases that contribute to global warming. In fact, according to the Eat Wild website, "grazed pasture removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more effectively than any land use, including forestland and ungrazed prairie."

Animals that graze on pasture do their own harvesting and fertilizing, returning almost 100 percent of the nutrients they consume to the land, which improves topsoil quality. When the ground is covered with grasses throughout the year, biodiversity and wildlife habitat are enhanced and soil erosion and groundwater contamination are prevented. In addition, the grasses themselves do an excellent job of harvesting solar energy. 


p(bio). Former pastry chef Ellen Jackson is a food writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. For more tips on buying beef in bulk, read her Oregonian story on the subject.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained incorrect information about organic beef.

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