Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Business of Beef

About a month ago I shared with you our process for meat price increases as we specifically tore into the pork production part of our farm . You can catch up HERE  if you so desire. Be warned, another episode of Mayberry RFD would be more thrilling.

Hogs often get the limelight here, which isn't fair because it was the mighty cow who started it all. In 1995, married two years, with four kids between us to raise, we found this house in need of huge repair and its 10 sad acres. Doomed to be bull-dozed and converted into more conventional farm land, we found the owner and begged her to sell it to us.

She did. Perhaps out of the desire to see another farm family return an old dairy to its (50 years ago) glory or maybe she was just in the mood to be entertained. Either way she sold it to us and we got started. We owned one cow at the time.

One cow.

And a couple of small steers, chickens , rabbits, dogs  but  just one milking cow named Kiki. Which brings us to today and the need, as we plunge towards the New Year and no real solid offers on our farm...the need to plan. But in order to plan one must review, as mistakes lost, are certain to be repeated.

We should know.

Those first tiny steer became beef to eat and Kiki produced more calves that became either our milking herd or more beef. To date we now rent an additional 40 acres to pasture our beef, dairy and swine.

The other cows produced as well,  begetting more cows and more steers. We sold extra to our family, and then to our friends. When we had a whole extra beef in our basement freezer we sold cuts of it to friends of friends. I would even carry cuts of beef to my fellow night shift workers at the hospital who were happy to have farm raised beef delivered no less.

Soon we had  a parade of folks in and out of the house, up and down our basement steps buying our extra beef.  Keith saw opportunity, I saw twisted ankle, rickity stair related lawsuits. More animals reproduced so we began selling by the carcass. Either 1/4 or 1/2 or a whole beef could be bought from us. We took it to the locker and customers picked it up. We sent them a bill and they paid it.

We made the move to being certified organic and our customer base tripled. A new grocery store owner , Cassie Green of Green Grocer Chicago met us, and wanted our beef for her new store. We knew nothing of selling beef wholesale but she taught us. And she barely laughed (in front of us) when our "labels" on our first packages were nothing more than our business cards taped to the meat.


Three more grocery stores followed and it became clear we had not the room in our house to store all that meat. The kids were tired of sleeping on top of chest freezers. A milk customer of ours offered to finance an on site farm store for us. I am still blown away by that one couples faith is another couples small family farm.

Two years ago this month our farm store opened and we bartered for two large used upright freezers (in exchange for milk) to store our meat. People came and bought more. We are now considering the addition of selling to one more grocery store in Kankakee. We'll see. I still have last years laundry to do.

So today was spent looking at the beef numbers. After we voted of course. How many? At any one time we have 60 or so head of beef and dairy of all ages on our property. We sold 24 for beef last year. The first 16 beef ready for market in 2013 are already pre-sold, deposits in place locked in at last summers price. We have very smart customers.

A few weeks ago we bought more beef calves from an organic farm in northern Illinois in order to meet part of the future beef need WITHOUT increasing our dairy herd. But what did it COST us to produce those beef in 2012?  Will the price increase cover the hay increase we have been promised? Will it be more profitable to sell the beef by the carcass? By the piece? In the grocery store? Out of a donkey pulled cart down Michigan Ave in Chicago's Loop? (only half kidding here) or in our little farm store?

Stay tuned as Keith and I plan to tell you those things many small farmers won't or can't.

The REAL cost of being "sustainable."


  1. You guys are amazing!!! I remember spending time at my grandmother's farm during the summer and visiting the dairy farm "next door."
    Fantastic memories!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I can hardly figure out if we're "losing" money by raising our own 50 Cornish birds per year and milking our own two goats. I can't even imagine having to do the mathematical gymnastics you'll have to do to figure out if you're making money or not!

  3. We have a tiny smallholding / homestead / mini farm of five hectares, which is a pimple in comparison to the size of your farm. We have just got our first cow and goats. We always knew it was going to be tough. As for the cost of providing your own food, well, I don't think you save money, especially when it comes to meat, but what you get is top class food for the same price as the supermarkets. Plus, it is a grand way of life!

  4. Mary, I don't know about amazing. A little warped, yes. And you are welcome. With my middle age memory these posts may be all the history my kids ever get.

  5. Carolyn, there are so many other factors to include for which there are no "formulas" Like the satisfaction of growing your own food, the satisfaction of growing food for your family, time saved in the grocery store, benefits of being outside the majority of the day etc...We try not to focus solely on the monetary aspect which is hard when the mortgage must still be paid.

  6. Vera, we would very much like to have your "pimple" is it for sale?

  7. interesting as always... and that first photo is a real cracker

  8. John, cows are so curious and all I have to do is stand there and there and they butt their snotty noses right into my face. Not unlike my GK's

  9. Congrats on your success. Sounds like customers love your beef.


  10. The beef seems to be really mooving!

  11. TBDS gals. Thanks for checking in. Reminds me I have soap to make! Yes, they like our beef and we really appreciate them for doing so!

    Doug. What can I say? You're the best

  12. What an interesting post, Donna, and I love that photo of the cow!

  13. I'd like to link to your farm store page in a post, is this link up to date on prices?


  14. Nessa, thanks so much. I love to play around with photography and our animals make it easy to get fun shots. As long as you are willing to lie very still while they "investigate" you.!

  15. Carolyn, our web site www.south-pork-ranch.com is NOT up to date with our price increase. Our web master (eldest son) is working on it. But if you want to email me I would be happy to send you our current prices in an atttachment document opies99@gmail.com Thanks for thinking about us for use on YOUR blog!

  16. Donna, the T-shirts arrived and I'm so happy! As soon as my photographer-daughter reappears, I'll put a photo of Herb and me wearing them on my blog and send you a link. Thanks so much for sending three! Wow! Not only did I win something, I got even more than the promised prize!

    By the way, after reading this amazing post, I see why you are ready to retire! I feel tired just reading about everything you're doing! :)

  17. Our cow was Blackie, and her bull calves became the beef in our own freezer. She also gave us 2 milk cows, Goldie and Rusty.

    You are one busy busy lady, Donna. I don't know how you do it. God bless you.

  18. Donna,

    My family had a dairy and beef operation when I was little. They raised brangus crosses. I guess the brama got into the jersy pasture once and the progeny was very ugly but grew up on that rich dairy cream and grew bigger than both parents with a swayed back etc. but we butchered him and he was the best tasting beef ever. grew really fast too.