The math on meat: Can a cow share stop beef prices from butchering your food budget?

Jan 5, 2023, 10:05 PM | Updated: Jan 6, 2023, 2:24 pm

FARMINGTON, Utah – It’s dinner time at the Gibbons home. On the menu this night: beef and broccoli. Not your ordinary beef and broccoli, mind you – Mark Gibbons is stepping it up a bit for us.

“You know special occasions,” he said. “Got to try something better.”

Nearly everything going into this meal – the sauce, the greens, the rice, the bread – is from the supermarket. But not the beef.

Gibbons bought a cow direct from a ranch. Not one he picked out, named, and occasionally visited to scratch behind its ears.

“No, but that would be fun,” he said.

Gibbons actually bought a one-quarter share of a cow.

“All the meat might be from the same cow. It might be from a couple of different cows, just depending on how cuts go,” he said. “You’re buying an amount of meat.”

Call it cow-pooling or cow-sharing, he has done it for years.

“Every single time I knew I was saving a lot of money,” he said.

And it is not just a gut feeling because, holy cow, Gibbons tracks a lot of data.

“I’m a big nerd,” he admitted. “I keep all these spreadsheets.”

In those spreadsheets, he recorded the weight of every cut of meat delivered from his quarter-cow. Every pound of ground beef is there, along with every rib eye, rump roast, sirloin, and other cuts.

“I bring out my scale and weigh them as I’m putting them in my freezer,” Gibbons said. “I’m also very organized.”

Comparing the delivery pound-for-pound with local store prices, he found the $768 he paid for the meat would have cost him $1,387 at the supermarket.

Inflation and drought’s one-two punch on beef prices

Finding someone with a cow to spare is getting harder.

Heather Limon of the Cross E Ranch in Salt Lake County says a few years back, they could sell their beef direct to Utahns for less than half of what they would pay at a grocery store. But like nearly everywhere else, inflation is driving up their costs.

“Fertilizers cost more. Water costs more. Well water and electricity costs more,” she said. “For us sometimes to irrigate over the summer, my electric bill can be $6,000 a month.”

Then, there is the drought.

“Hay is crazy expensive right now,” she said. “And [the drought] has made it so we can’t raise as much of our own feed. I was going up to Wyoming and the guys in Wyoming couldn’t take me anymore because of no stock ponds up in the mountains. And that’s why I reduced my herd way down.”

The Cross E Ranch is not alone. The drought has forced many farms and ranches around the country to reduce their herds. That will have a repercussion on beef production this year.

“[There] will probably be somewhere around 5% less total beef in the market,” sad Dillon Feuz, an agricultural economist with Utah State University.

He said a 5% reduction in supply usually translates to a 10% jump in beef prices. though this time around, he believes the meat packers and retailers will eat at least some of that increase.

“It’s probably a tough market for retailers to try to be raising beef prices very much,” he said.

Another obstacle Utahns looking to share a cow may face: Finding an available plant or butcher to process that beef. Feuz said cow-sharing has surged in popularity since COVID hit and now some butchers are booked out months in advance.

“Unless you’ve got a tie-in with a producer who already has scheduled time (with a processing plant or butcher), you may have to wait a bit,” he said.

Inflation buster?

So, can we still stay ahead of predicted price hikes by buying a quarter-cow, a half-cow or the whole moo?

“Depends on how much meat you eat and the type of beef you eat. If you’re primarily a ground beef, hamburger consumer, you’re probably then going to be spending more money if you’re buying the cow,” said Feuz. “If you eat a lot of steaks, then you can probably get those purchases cheaper by buying the [cow].”

“There’s only a certain amount of the really prime cuts, and then you’re left with a lot of things that people don’t know how to cook any more – like cube steak,” said Limon. “If that’s like what you know how to do and you’re comfortable with that, then yes, I think it would probably save you some money.”

For Mark Gibbons, a long-time cow-sharer who has done his homework, the answer is an enthusiastic yes.

“I would absolutely recommend doing it this way,” he said. “I mean I saved well over half or paid half of what I would be paying right now for meats.”

There is a one-time cost on top of the meat. A new, no-frills freezer big enough to hold a quarter-cow will probably cost around $400.

But there’s more to it than just inflation busting for the Gibbons family. They say they savor buying grass-fed beef from a local farm.

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The math on meat: Can a cow share stop beef prices from butchering your food budget?