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Bitchering About Butchering

Garth Brown |

The farm’s business model relies on retailing meat for the bulk of the revenue. When deciding what to charge for a given cut, it’s useful to peruse the prices charged by farmers producing comparable products, as well as those charged by grocery stores for any comparable meat, meaning organic or grass fed. But it’s even more important to have an idea of the costs that go into production. The first cow I sold I maybe broke even on, and I’m continually amazed by how hard it is to make much of a profit selling beef.

The single biggest cost is almost always processing. Around here most USDA slaughterhouses charge $95 to kill the animal, plus $0.95 per pound hanging weight to cut and wrap. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this terminology, hanging weight refers to a carcass that has been dressed, skinned, and had the head removed. The actual cut weight will generally only be 60%-65% of the hanging weight. What this amounts to is that each pound of meat often costs me about $2 in processing alone. For things like sausage and bacon the cost is higher.

As an aside, these numbers are important to consider if you are buying a whole animal and paying by live weight. $2 per pound, plus processing costs, sound like a great deal, but it’s a little less amazing after you run the numbers. Suppose you and your friends pay $2000 for a 1000 pound steer. The steer will lose about 40% of that thousand pounds going from live to hanging, and about 40% more going from hanging to cut. Even if you have a beefy steer that cuts out considerably better than that, you’ll be lucky to end up with 425 pounds of meat, meaning you will have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.25 per pound.

Anyways, my frustration is not the cost - processing animals is a complex, heavily regulated business - but the care, or lack thereof, my butcher has exhibited. Here’s a list of problems off the top of my head:

1.) Misplaced heart, tongue, tail, liver, and kidneys. Getting these back is the exception.

2.) Poorly trimmed cuts. I like a good cover on a steak, but I (and my customers) don’t want a huge tail of extraneous fat. I don’t want short ribs that are entirely gristle and bone without any meat. I don’t want a shank that is entirely bone.

3.) Cuts that have been shrink wrapped twice. Often both bags have failed.

4.) Packs that do not have weights printed on them.

5.) Mislabeled cuts.

6.) Wrong packaging, meaning bagged instead of shrink wrapped.

7.) Mystery cuts. Example: it’s labeled as a pork chop, and it’s about the right thickness and roughly the right size, but shape of the muscles and the bone are all wrong. Another example: it’s labeled Hot Sausage when it’s actually Mild.

Any one of these would be understandable on its own. But with how frequent they are - I’m not sure I’ve ever had an order that didn’t have at least one problem, and other farmers I know report similar experiences - I have become fed up. It’s frustrating to spend a lot of money for a poorly executed service, particularly when the quality of that service reflects back on me and the farm, since I have to sell cuts of meat that result.

So now, after several years of literally every order having an issue, I have decided to move on. You might wonder why I didn’t transition long ago. For one thing, this is the first year I’ve sent enough animal on a consistent enough basis to be sure that I haven’t just been unlucky. Also, it is the closest slaughterhouse to the farm, and it will deal with cows, pigs, and sheep.

One of my fears is that the farm will lose business due to customers having a bad experience and choosing not to mention it, rather than bringing an issue to light. If, as I hope, the customer instead lodges a complaint, I hope I will be able to listen and offer a reasonable accommodation. Ed and Alanna and I have all brought these issues to our butcher’s attention as politely as possible, with no apparent change. Perhaps losing a customer will send a louder message.


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