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How do you buy local beef?

Misconceptions, confusion surrounds process, Montezuma County rancher says
In this photo from 2013, Rick McDonald rounds up cattle and keeps them in line while moving the animals from south of Cortez at the Carver Farms to greener pastures north of Totten Lake.

The coronavirus pandemic has raised interest in buying local beef, but it can be difficult to know how to do that — even in the meat industry.

The interest in local beef was noticed statewide, but Montezuma County rancher Bunny McComb said she’s come to realize that many people don’t understand the ins and outs of beef the beef market.

“I think nationwide there’s a real interest in ‘How does that happen?’” McComb said. “It’s not as easy as just going up and saying, ‘Hey can we buy beef?’ There’s a lot of information, there’s a big expense that goes into it.”

One point of confusion is the purchase size. The average live weight of a butcher-ready animal is 1,300 pounds, according to Tri-State Livestock News.

But that doesn’t equate to the amount of beef that will go in a buyer’s freezer?” McComb said.

After the animal is killed and its hide, head and internal organs removed, its hanging weight is about 62% of its live weight. It then loses 21% of its weight after it has been aged a few weeks and its excess bone, connective tissue and fat removed have been removed. Suddenly, that 1,300-pound animal is a little over 630 pounds.

The hanging weight is generally used by producers to determine price.

Buying from a local rancher usually involves buying a quarter, half or whole beef, McComb said. Such a big purchase can be more cost-effective, but it requires a higher upfront cost.

“That’s a considerable amount of money that they have to lay out at one time, whereas if they’re used to going to the grocery store, beef dollars are more spread out,” she said.

Storing the meat also requires a freezer space. Previously, communities had locker plants to store the cuts, but many have gone away, McComb said.

“Ideally you should be able to eat it within six to 12 months,” she said. However, it will retain most of its quality for longer.

After buying local beef, a consumer has to take it to a processing plant. If the meat is going to be sold for retail, it must be processed at a plant approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The closest USDA-approved processing plants in recent years have been in Monticello and Durango, McComb said, and they can get backed up.

An application for a new processing plant in Mancos was approved by Montezuma County commissioners last year. In Yellow Jacket, Diamond D Processing processes meat for personal consumption.

Other considerations for buyers might mean a choice between grass- and hay-fed beef, and grain-fed beef, which includes a mixture of grass and grain feeding practices.

Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner and have less “marbling.”

“Marbling is when the animal tissue gets flecks of fat in it,” McComb said. “And you do want some marbling because that’s what makes the meat more tender, and it also produces a better flavor.”

She and her husband graze their cattle during summer. Their animals are usually taken to slaughter between the ages of 18 and 24 months.

“What we do personally for our own animals — usually they’re out on grass and then the last 30-45 days we’ll put them in, and then we’ll feed them a diet of grain,” McComb said. “That grain usually has a pretty high corn content in it, and that corn, because it’s a starch, has a tendency to do a better job of marbling that beef’s tissue.”

After taking the beef to the processing plant, consumers can choose the cuts, cut consistencies and packaging for the steaks, hamburger, roasts and organ meats, according to the Tri-State Livestock News.

More than anything, McComb said, understanding different terminologies is helpful.

“People get confused,” she said. “If they’re not used to those terms, what do those terms mean?”