Do you know where the beef you buy from the supermarket comes from? Probably not. But if you buy it from a local rancher, you'll know exactly where it comes from, what it's eaten, and what it hasn't. More people are deciding that buying a share of a live animal, or cow-pooling, is a healthy way to go.
More humane and cost-effective
Maud Powell, a small-farms agent with the Jackson County Extension Office in Medford, explains that ranchers can sell shares of live animals to individuals. The cattle are on the ranches their entire lives. There are no long trailer rides crammed in with other animals, weeks of being fed grain laced with antibiotics to fatten them up and avoid illness in cramped quarters, no trips to a slaughterhouse and no middleman sharing the profits. It's a better deal for the rancher and kinder to the animal, Powell believes. "It's more humane without a doubt," she says.
Powell buys a share of a local, grass-fed cow once a year. "We bought a quarter of a cow from a neighbor down the road," she notes. "I know the rancher. I know what pasture the cow has been in."
The county agent feels like she is supporting the local economy and it's cost-effective to buy in bulk. "I hate shopping," she admits. She loads up her freezer (she requests lots of ground beef and stew meat from the butcher) and the meat lasts for six to nine months. You can get a lot of different cuts of meat from buying a share of a cow. "It's a good experience for a family," she believes. "It's a challenge to cook with different cuts. It's a great way to expand your cooking repertoire."
Why grass-fed is better
Larry Martin of Martin Family Ranch in Central Point sells shares of his cattle that are all born and raised on his ranch — mostly Angus with some Hereford and Devon mixed in. Currently he has more than 100 head of cattle including 40 cows. The rest are yearlings and calves.
The animals are grass-fed exclusively, which has been shown to be healthier for them. This produces healthier beef that is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acids, beta-carotene and vitamin E than conventional grain-fed beef.
Cattle have four stomachs that are designed to digest forage, not grain. When fed a high-grain diet, the first stomach becomes unnaturally acidic, which contributes to a variety of health problems. It's common in crowded, stressful feedlots to have low levels of antibiotics added to the feed in addition to the routine use of higher doses of antibiotics to treat sick animals.
Martin's cattle lead stress-free lives grazing on grass and don't need routine doses of antibiotics. Antibiotics are only used on the rare occasion an animal gets sick, and no hormones or growth promoters are ever given to his cattle. "We sell exactly the same beef that we eat ourselves," Martin says.
Meat and greet
People interested in buying a share of a cow should ask a rancher if his or her cattle are grass fed and not given antibiotics and hormones. Martin says the best way to find out about the cattle is to visit the ranch and look at the pastures. "If the pastures are lush and green, that's a really good sign," he notes. Look at the cattle to see if they seem healthy. Get recommendations from other people who have bought from a specific rancher.
Since Martin's cattle are born, raised and slaughtered at his ranch, they are never transported with cattle from other herds and never go into a feedlot to be fattened up with grain laced with antibiotics. "The less the animals go through prior to harvest the better," Martin says.
Each year, Martin has about 30 animals to sell and they all go to local buyers. The average age at slaughter is 18 months, and the animals are usually around that age in the fall. Sometimes Martin will cull some cows from his herd for various reasons, usually because they didn't become pregnant. He'll sell shares of those cows for less because their meat is not as tender as the younger cattle but it's fine for ground beef and stew meat.
Place your order
As an example, Martin's customers must reserve a portion (whole, half or quarter) of a cow and pay a deposit. They'll be told when their animal will be slaughtered. After a harvest, Martin will take orders for the next year.
Joe Speelman of Alpine Meat Co. in Grants Pass comes to Martin's ranch to slaughter the animals. He transports the carcasses to Jerry's Meats of Central Point where they are aged for 10 to 12 days in a cooler to enhance tenderness and then processed into specified cuts. Jerry White and his staff will help first-time buyers with cutting suggestions.
The meat is packaged in freezer paper that is labeled with the name of the cut. Then the packages of beef are placed in trays and rolled into a freezer where they are flash-frozen. After they have been frozen solid, the cuts are placed in meat boxes and the boxes are labeled with the name of the customer.
The total cost of Martin's beef includes the price he charges for buying a share of a live animal in addition to the processing charges that are paid to Jerry's Meats at the time the meat is picked up. Prices for the meat and processing are based on carcass weight, not the total weight of the animal before it's slaughtered. There is also a kill-fee per head that is prorated for the portion purchased.
Selling shares of cattle directly to a buyer is a good deal for the rancher, the consumer and even the cow. "The biggest advantage is the customers get meat that they can have confidence in," Martin says. It's good for the local economy, too. "It is a great way to keep the money local," he says. "The animals are raised, processed and consumed locally and there's no middle man."