Meat comes from the grocery store! Err … not.
When farmers raise livestock up to market weight, where do they go to end up on grocery store, restaurant, or farmers market shelves? Well, this is a pretty complicated topic and the answers may vary, however it’s important to note that EVERY SINGLE animal that ends up in the public beef, pork, or lamb food supply is inspected.
Since processes and regulations may vary among farms or from state to state, for example’s sake, I’m going to talk about how we sell the livestock on our personal farm to the general public. And if you have questions, ask away!
We raise a few hundred head of beef cattle and lambs on our farm and have several ways of selling:
1 – Commercially, to sale barns or private buyers that go to slaughterhouses
2 – Privately, customers who buy in bulk (like a quarter, half, or full steer/heifer)
3 – By the pound to local grocery stores, farmers markets, or restaurants
Now, since everyone might not be familiar with these processes, let me break down what this all means.
1 – Commercially. When our black Angus cattle are at market weight, (usually around 1,200 to 1,400 pounds) we will sort the heaviest ones onto a trailer and take them to what’s called a sale barn. They’ll ask us questions like whether or not they’ve had hormone implants. From there, the livestock stay in a “holding pen” until the next morning when they go through an auction sale rink. The auction has cattle buyers who bid on our cattle, along with other producers, until they have a full load of cattle to fill a tractor-trailer rig. (Usually around 35 or so.) Auction prices start at “market price” dictated by the Chicago Board of Trade, where the commodity price of cattle changes everyday. Sometimes farmers can make a good living, sometimes not. It all depends on how markets are doing, similar to the stock market.
These cattle buyers at the sale barn auctions are “middle men” and may work for larger producers like Tyson Foods or Omaha Steaks, to name a couple. They then will haul the cattle to a facility for cutting, inspecting, processing, etc. You can learn more about this process here.
Other commercial farms may have contracts for certain companies, like Hormel pork or Purdue chickens for example, where they contract to grow, feed, sell, and produce to only one company. This ensures that the meat product is all uniform — fed the same, weigh the same, same breeds, etc. Uniformity is very important for larger corporations because if the product changes, customers get upset. They’ll expect the same product and taste every time. So farmers are rewarded or docked based on weight, carcass quality, etc. (Again, they’re all graded at slaughter facilities, which are all USDA tested and certified.)
2 – Privately. This is my favorite way to sell, and also a win-win for the farmer and the consumer, IMO. If you can, track down a farmer in your community and buy a quarter or so direct. All this means is that you’re getting 1/4th of a steer, which can be cut and processed however you like! The bad news is that it’s a larger chunk of money up front (cost varies — maybe $500-ish or so plus processing) and you’ll need a lot of freezer space since it can be upwards of nearly 200 pounds or so of take home meat for a quarter of fat beef cattle. The good news is that you get all the cuts for a much cheaper price than you’d ever pay by the pound at the grocery store. T-bones, ribeyes, chuck, ground, round, short ribs, brisket, sticks, jerky … you can get it all by going direct through your farmer and pickup at your local butcher.
The beauty of this is it saves you a lot of money in the long run and usually the farmer can make a slightly higher profit margin, which is important in today’s down markets. You know exactly where your food comes from, how it was raised, and you support your community. You can shake hands with your local butcher and USDA inspector and really understand the process of how food gets to you from the farm. You get it cut how you want, decide the thickness of the steaks, and usually a quarter beef can feed a family of two for about a year, give or take. For me, some of my customers get a few friends or family members together and they all go in on the cost of a full steer together and share everything. It’s really a great option.
3 – Grocery stores, restaurants, markets, by the pound. Ahh, the finished product. Once the meat is inspected and packaged, it is shipped through distribution centers on a larger scale and sent off to major grocers and restaurant chains. (Again, consistency is key.) Also, on our farm, I sell beef and lamb direct in my community at local markets and smaller grocery stores which is a GREAT way to support your area farmers. This tends to hold the highest level of profit per pound for farmers but also usually requires a lot more time, marketing, and fees, among other things, where these costs must be passed down to our customers. For me, I have to hold certain licenses, pay market fees, be inspected where the meat is stored, etc., which requires more planning; but if you buy direct we certainly appreciate it!
People like to know where their food comes from, but I’d say farmers also like to know where it goes! Building that relationship and hearing stories is rewarding. Personally, when a customer comes back to the farmers market and says something like, “Those were the best T-Bones I’ve ever had! My wife and I had them for our anniversary!” For me, it’s a really good feeling knowing that you produced something for someone you know personally and were involved in providing a meal full of love and memories that last a lifetime.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.