Saturday, April 27, 2013

Estimating Needed Freezer Space, and Buying A Whole (Smallish) Grassfed Cow, In Pictures


Today our family picked up its first whole grassfed cow. Before, we had bought half grassfed cows from a couple of different local farmers. We knew that we were in for a lot more beef than we had ever bought, so we added another chest freezer to our family's setup in the garage.

Before our family made the move toward increasingly depending on local bulk purchases of meat, I was always at a loss for knowing how much beef would be involved, how much freezer space we'd need to have,  and whether we could handle the commitment. I used to be rather annoyed when I could never seem to get a straight answer from people who had bought bulk in the past...but now I know why! There are so many factors, it is hard to pin the experience down.

Example: How many pounds of meat can I expect in my grassfed beef purchase?


2011 (Half cow, Farmer A): 198 lb. dry hanging weight
2012 (Half cow, Farmer B): 498 lb. dry hanging weight
2013 (Whole cow, Farmer B): 660 lb. dry hanging weight

Do you see what happened there? The cow sizes varied not only between Farmers A and B, but also between how much beef we committed to buy from Farmer B. Farmer B was straightforward about the fact that his smallest cows at slaughter go to his whole cow purchasers, to avoid the whole cow families having the sticker shock of buying, say, one of his 1000 lb. dry hanging weight cows. (Even at an inexpensive price of $3/lb. that comes to $3,000! ...whereas by comparison the smaller-side cow he designated for our whole cow purchase - at 660 lb - came to $1980, kill fee and butchering fee included in that number.)

What I can visually quantify for curious would-be local beef buyers, though, is how much space is required for certain amounts of meat. For example, we own an older Hyundai Santa Fe. 660 lb. of frozen beef took up the entire back. You can see two large knee-high Sterilite containers (blue and grey) containing just a small amount of the beef.

In other words our emptied trunk is capable of transporting a small whole grassfed cow (660 lb. shown here), or half a very large grassfed cow (498 lb. in the past)...that's with the back seats still installed.
I can also give visuals on the rough proportion of cuts we got from our 660 lb. this time around. It is worth noting that my husband specifically requested that the butcher cut our beef to maximize grill-ability. (We do lurv ourselves some grilling in this family!) That means that cuts that might have been roasts (like chuck roasts) were instead cut as chuck steaks and cube steaks.

I used smaller Sterilite containers to divvy up some of the meats on our driveway. This way my girls could take 1 lb. packs of frozen ground beef from the designated "ground beef bin" to their daddy standing by the freezer in the garage...while I sorted the cuts.

 Below you'll see the cuts in a shallow (6" deep, roughly 2' by 3') Sterilite container. This is to give you an informal idea of the quantity of cuts that comes from a 660 lb. purchase. These are rough estimates only...even after taking the shots of the cuts I'd discover an extra of the same cut here or there somewhere else, so there is an estimation margin of error.

These are shown in a large knee-high depth Sterilite container.

This one's an exception...the T-Bones shown were in
a smaller Sterilite container that would hold a couple of shoeboxes side by side.

One last photo. This shows how much freezer space we required for 660 lb. You'll notice that we got A WHOLE LOT of ground beef in the deal. Our top freezer on our refrigerator is completely full of ground beef. Our chest freezer also had some ground beef in it, along with other cuts.

This is where I can give the good "rule of thumb" estimation I always give friends who are curious about freezer space requirements for bulk purchases.
  • One refrigerator freezer can store roughly 100 lb. of meat...if it's "neatly contained" (like the blocks of ground beef shown here). More irregularly-shaped cuts may mean less storage efficiency.
  • One modest waist-high chest freezer (as shown here) can hold roughly 200 lb. of meat.
  • One modest double-wide chest freezer (as shown here) can hold roughly 400 lb. of meat.
That adds up to 700 lb. capacity, but since we had a few items (like leftover bones from our last bulk purchase) still in the freezers, that largely fits with the notion of 660 lb. of meat.

The best way to determine, then, if you have enough freezer space, is to ask your farmer before committing to a quarter, half, or whole cow is whether he/she might be able to predict the final dry hanging weight of your committed purchase. Then, eyeball your existing freezer space and use the rules of thumb above to see if you're in the ballpark.

In our case, we knew we'd need more freezer space, and we managed to pay $125 for the used double chest freezer shown on the right through a Craigslist connection. It was a very worthwhile addition to the garage setup!

Are you planning any bulk beef or other bulk meat purchases from your local farmers this spring? Have you figured out your freezer space needs for the purchase?

EDIT TO ADD: Jan of Jan's Sushi Bar posted this link in the comments on how much "eating meat" one can expect from beef purchases. I think it is another great measuring stick for assessing your potential purchases. THANKS, Jan!



  1. Wow! That is a LOT of beef :) Thanks for sharing the breakdown of cost, setup, cuts, etc. Helpful to see for us visual types!

  2. This is super helpful! I'm considering buying a half cow in the next year or so, and wondered how much it *really* was! Thanks!!

  3. Wow, that is a whole lot of meat and that's not even chicken or pork or anthing else. How long does all that last for your family?

    1. It's hard to know for sure how much it will last for us. We don't eat only beef in the time that we're eating it. For example, a couple of months ago we received just under 100 lb. from buying half a hog. We didn't eat pork exclusively - I was also buying some chicken and a wee bit of beef from Wegmans here and there (lucky for us we aren't pioneers living on the frontier during the winter! haha!) - and some of that 100 lb. was bones and fat, so it wasn't 100 lb. of meal-building-meat.

      So 100 lb. easily lasted us 2 months, but it'd be inaccurate to say it was only pork that we were eating that whole time! (Noteworthy, too, that I still have some bacon and bones from that purchase in our freezer.)

      I expect the above beef to last the four of us (two hungry adults, two hungrier kiddos aged 6 and 3, though beef/fat makes a LARGE part of my 3 year old's diet...she probably eats small adult quantities of it) several months, assuming that we sometimes buy other meats from time to time to avoid "beef burnout".

  4. How many cubic feet are your chest freezers? Is there any reason why you went with chest freezers as opposed to upright freezers (aside from availability on craigslist? :) ) I'm trying to decide how I want to prep our garage for meat storage!

    1. We got chest freezers because they allowed us to keep our cabinets (seen above hanging on the wall). Also, a coworker of my husband's was saying that upright freezers release more cold air upon being opened. I haven't verified that yet but it makes sense to me since upright freezers would tend to have larger doors.

      I am not sure of the cubic feet numbers...all three of the freezers shown here are several years old and no longer have the original sales stickers on them that would typically show that kind of information. Wish that I could be of more help with precise numbers!

    2. Based on my chest freezer, and a friend's, I would estimate your smaller freezer at 5 cubic feet and your larger at 7 cubic feet. The proportions vary based on size, and are pretty much the same across brands.

      And chest freezers are much more energy efficient than uprights due to design.

    3. My husband and I just bought 200lbs. of beef from a friend of ours who raises cows. It's the first time we have ever done this. I'm wondering what size chest freezer we will need.

    4. Chest Freezer hold more than an upright with the same cubic feet since you have 1 big space instead shelves. Also a Chester Freezer will generally cost less to run due to design differences cold doesn't really escape when the door opens etc.

  5. This is a GREAT visual representation of the amount of freezer beef you get when purchasing an entire cow.

    I recently redid the website for our butchers, and there's a great primer there about how much meat you get, based on the live/hanging weight, from a grassfed steer:

    1. I love this link, Jan, it's so useful! I'm going to add it as an edit to the original post above. Thanks for giving another way to assess beef purchases!

  6. Wow, that is a lot of beef! But thanks for putting this together, it's a great resource that I will keep in mind if I ever get a chest freezer (and more people to feed).

  7. Don't know if the comments are closed since I'm late seeing this but - I've held off on getting my freezer till I figure out what kind of generator I can use to 'protect my investment'. I'm a single woman so it's up to me to do the research and figure out if I can set one up(generator) and use it or not. Not exactly my strong suit.
    Anyway thanks for showing this in a visual manner and for breaking down the costs. Sure will help me in calculating this.
    The only other thing will be choosing a good grass-fed meat farmer - not all are created equal so want to do some taste tests before I purchase.

    Thanks again,

    1. Even a 13C.F. freezer won't take much. They start up much more efficiently than an old one. A 2000 watt Honda can easily run the freezer, the refrigerator and some lights. If you have a water well you will need a much bigger unit. It all depends on how big the pump is. Mines Deep and has a big 1hp motor, 220V (all are 220) I run the entire house on a XP7000 Generac no problem. Including the AC. A 2.5 ton unit.( While not starting all at once ) its more than adequate for 1850 sq ft. No big Plasma TV but you can go about your business as usual on 7KV generally. The cheaper way to set it up is as follows. You'll just need to put a 220V outlet outside. Preferably in the pack or a fenced area to avoid thieves and keep noise down. I run the power line to the 100 apm line that feeds my workshop. It's got its own breaker that I keep off so the outlet is not energized. On the main panel I have an alarm tied to the outside input so it goes off when the grid power comes back on line. To use you shut off the MAIN BREAKER in your fuse panel to disconnect the grid power. Plug in the generator and start it (warm up before load) Flip the breaker for the generator to power your home. You're good to go. NOTE! If you have a lot of load on when the power went out shut those items off. or kill them with the individual breakers. Add back on one at a time the things you need. Make sure you do the calculations for the amount of watts each uses running and in the case of a motor at start up.

  8. Hope I can help a lot of naysayers about buying a side of beef. First the only beef bought in this purchase that was in the correct weight range is the one weighing 660#'s for the whole hanging animal.
    The 198# 1/2 was way to small to be properly "finished". The 498# 1/2 was probably very fat and was way to large, at 1000# dressed would have been from 1600# + animal. Now lets deal with the "BOY THAT'S A LOT OF MEAT SCARE ". If you buy 1/2 of that 660# beef (lets please stop calling this a cow) that would be 330#'s hanging and would end up with a take home wt. of about 200#'s. Now people lets think about this amount of meat, if you use 1# of Ground Beef a week and a 2-3# roast, or have burgers and some other Gr.Beef dish and 2 steaks or 1 roast you'll easily use a side in a year. The point is if you use 4#'s of beef a week 200#'s lasts a year.

  9. Thank you for this very informative post. I am thinking about buying a half side of beef and am curious about the cuts. I like the expensive cuts like filet mignon and New York steaks. Were any of those included in your packages? Also, I am curious about the bones and fat. I imagine the bones are good for making beef broth/soup base, or to give to your dog (my dog would looooove that!) but what do you do with a package of beef fat? Thank you for any response (or anyone else who can respond, for that matter.)

    1. I got a half last year. It depends on the butcher you get. You get some prime cuts but you have to decide what cuts you want. For instance I think you can get a porter house or you can get Tenderloin Steak but not both.


  10. I like the sterlite container plan, that way you can separate the different cuts right at the butcher's.We just purchased a seven cubic foot chest freezer. We hope it is big enough for one side of beef. This is our first time raising and butchering. We will soon see our rewards.

    1. You should be fine. The general rule is 35 to 40 pounds of beef per cubic foot of freezer space. Obviously, the flatter you can pack things, the better; if you have lots of jumbled parts you'll run out of space.

      One thing I don't see addressed here (in this incredibly informative post and its comments) is the difference between hanging weight and "freezer weight". Most of that is bones. Don't leave with your meat and without your bones! Ask your meatcutter to saw the bones so that the marrow is exposed. You can have shank bones (i.e., leg bones) cut lengthwise so you can roast them and have bone marrow, and have the knucklebones, feet and others cross-cut so you can make soup.

      Most meatcutters (I'm making this distinction between the butcher who slaughters the animal and the butcher who cuts the primals into your finished product) charge by hanging weight, so you are paying for your bones whether you take them home or not.

      Also concur with the person above who said the weights were wonky. Most of the time your live weight for whole beef will be 1200-1500 lbs. which would make your hanging weight 720-900 lbs. based on 60% yield. For half beef ("a side of beef") you're looking at 600-750 lbs. live weight and 360-450 lbs. hanging weight.


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