When I buy a side of beef ("cow pool") and pay for processing, what am I entitled to?

Asked October 3, 2018, 2:17 PM EDT

Hello, Recently I purchased a half of a cow from a local rancher who delivered the animal to a local butcher for processing. I paid the rancher directly based on the hanging weight and will pay the butcher an additional per pound fee for processing when I pick up the packaged meat. I am writing to you in hopes of getting a better understanding of what I am entitled to as the owner and what expectations are reasonable as the customer. currently the animal is hanging in the butchers cooler, aging. Per their request, I sent them my processing instructions. The butcher is now resisting some of my requests for cuts, which, I was told, were "unusual," "unfamiliar," and in one case, “not legally available for sale” (specifically, “sweet breads”). I based my processing request on this butcher cut chart (https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/cuts/cut-charts) and also this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrOzwoMKzH4). The butchers initial response surprised for the following reasons: 1) the butcher assured beforehand me that I could make a full list of "custom cut requests (this shop advertises itself as a "custom-processer" specializing in "cutting steaks, chops and roasts to [customer] specifications”); 2) I thought that beef cuts were somewhat standardized for USDA-registered processors; and 3) as the owner of the animal (half the animal), I thought I was legally entitled to whatever pieces I am willing to pay to have processed (except the brain, I assume).

Washtenaw County Michigan beef cattle

1 Response

Custom processors typically cut beef into more traditional cuts (i.e. chuck steaks/roasts) of beef than some of the newer beef cuts that are available from larger processors (i.e. ranch, Denver, and flat iron steaks). Some of these cutting differences are a result of the butcher's cutting experience and some of them are based on when and how the carcass is broken down into cuts. Beef carcasses at a larger processor are typically cut into subprimal cuts within 24-48 hours after harvest and then the subprimal cuts are aged in vacuum packaged bags (also called wet aging). Custom processors leave the animals age by hanging the whole carcass for 7 to 14 days (also known as dry aging) that is associated with improved flavor intensity as one of the major benefits. Some of the downfalls of dry aging whole carcasses is increased yield loss because more water evaporates from the carcass during this time and the fat and muscles on the carcass become harder. This can create challenges when trying to remove some of the newer beef cuts as it is harder to separate the muscles into some of the groups that the newer beef cuts utilize.

Also, not all cuts of beef can be obtained from one side of beef, as explained in this article: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/beginners_guide_to_freezer_beef_processing

There are cutting guides available, https://www.beefitswhatsfordinner.com/cutting-guides/search?Take=10&SortItem=, that may assist the butcher with determining which cuts you are requesting. Although there are standardized cuts of beef, many cuts have regional or alternative names (i.e. English roast, sizzler steak). Thus, some of the confusion/unfamiliarity could be based on the name of the cut.

In terms of the sweetbreads (thymus gland), these are edible by-products/variety meats but they are not commonly removed at custom processors as most customers are not interested in them and this request would need to be known at the time of harvest because they need to be handled in a special way for quality and safety reasons. There are some by-products that are not legally able to be allowed into the foodchain, including some other glands. This list expands based on the age of the animal, over 30 months of age, as well.