The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Why grass-fed beef costs “so much”

July 16, 2013

I thought it worthwhile to share part of an article by Virginia farmer Forrest Pritchard, titled “Why I Can’t Raise a $1 Cheeseburger.”  The article is unique because the farmer opens his books and shares actual dollar figures to show why he has to charge, on average, $5.25/lb. for his grass-fed/grass-finished beef, compared to the $3/lb., on average, that’s charged for grain-fed beef in supermarkets.  Here’s Forrest:

“To raise one grass-finished steer requires two full years. It starts with a momma cow, who has a calf. My cost (spread over land taxes, salaries, hay, etc.) to keep a momma cow is $350 annually. Keeping a bull is also $350. And it costs — you guessed it — $350 to raise the calf. That’s $1,050 dollars for year one.

“In year two, it takes an additional $350 to raise the steer. Come harvest time, it costs $50 to haul to the butcher, $300 in butchering fees, another $50 to get the meat home. It takes another $50 in refrigeration to keep the product cold. By the time I drive to farmers markets, pay for gasoline, tolls and market fees, another $50 gets tacked on. Add in modest advertising, vehicle depreciation, and salaries for helpers at farmers’ market, and the total works out to a nice, round $2,000.

“We’re not finished yet. A 1,100 pound steer yields roughly 38 percent of its body weight in product, which leaves about 420 pounds of meat. Because nearly 40 percent of this comes in the form of ground beef, the numbers are heavily skewed towards a lower-priced products. By contrast, highly-prized filet mignon only comprises one percent of the animal. In order to break even, my minimum average price must be $4.78 per pound ($2,000 divided by 420 lbs). To add a modest profit of 10 percent (my family’s paycheck), the number rises to $5.25/lb. Suffice to say, there are dozens of economic variables priced into a single pound of grass-fed ground beef.”

Does this make you more sympathetic to the price of grass-fed beef at your local farmers’ market?  More willing to pay what small-scale grass farmers charge?  Or would you prefer it if small farmers grew a little bigger to create more “economies of scale” in their production systems, thereby reducing costs a little?

Here’s another comparison between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, written by a farmer.

  1. Sherry says:

    I remember distinctly the moment I became a Humaneitarian. I had been craving a good hamburger for days. I had also been wrestling with the idea of animals suffering abuse for that burger. When I left work, I decided to give in and head to the grocery store to pick up burger fixins. As I was pushing my shopping cart around, still wrestling with the idea of animals suffering so I could have a meal, I saw the organic meat section and decided to look it over. It was there that I saw my first package of Certified Humane ground beef. I picked it up and again began to emotionally wrestle, but this time, it was over the price tag. It was double the price of conventional beef. Needless to say, after a few moments of sticker shock, my heart for animals won over the stress of my wallet…and I haven’t looked back. The price is worth it, and when the wallet gets light, I eat more veggies.

  2. Kathleen Neilson says:

    Forrest and Sherry,

    Well said. It is wonderful to have a choice other than either vegan or eating the flesh of poor, miserable, mistreated creatures.

    I am happy to eat just a little less meat in order to afford Humane products.

  3. Robin Klitzke says:

    I appreciate humanely-raised beef, even if it’s expensive. I would also love to see all beef raised this way, too. But people have to understand something; the industrial system is used because it is profitable. If we get rid of it, the price of beef over all will go up because we won’t be able to produce as much as quickly. This will be a shocker to most people when it happens, especially fast food buyers, but this is overall a good thing.

    We didn’t always have cheap meat. Beef, pork, and chicken was fairly pricey back in the 1950’s; there could be “a chicken in every pot” every week but probably not every day. Meat used to be a treat, not a commonplace food. Now Americans often consume meat 3 times a day nearly every day. High protein and fat diets have increased colon cancer cases in the United States and contributed to making type 2 diabetes the number one health problem in the U.S. The average person needs to eat only 2 servings maximum of meat per day and can go by with eating meat as little as a serving 3 times a week. I say that we would all benefit if meat were more expensive due to humane treatment and it became a “special treat” once more.

  4. JonnyMuffin says:

    I just want to stand up for the feedlot producers and say that any claims of “abuse” are greatly over exaggerated. Ranchers and feeders care greatly about the well being of the animals and extreme efforts are made to accommodate them.

    The only “abuse” (IMO) comes from what they get fed. It’d be like saying someone is abusing themselves if they eat McDonalds everyday. While I can agree to an extent I think it exaggerates the image I associate with the word abuse.

    Most don’t even look at it as abuse because they don’t know any better. The focus is to fatten a steer up as quickly as possible and the grading system in place, by the FDA, rates things like size, marbling, ect. The FDA/USDA standards and system for measuring quality has created a system that incentivizes the use of #2 yellow dent GMO corn. It gets results, and is readily available in most Cattle feeding regions.

    It appears to be efficiency, not abuse, but like I said the thing to be of concern is what it’s fed. If what you eat matters, then what you eat eats also matters. That is where options like grass-fed beef are attractive.

    And please lay off the ranchers and feeders, they salt of the earth, care about the animals and are just as much victims of the system as the animals are. If you want to point blame, call out the high level bureaucrats, most of whom are ex Monsanto/big ag executives who are shaping the policy. Remember it’s them who decided for us pink slime was great for more than just dog food!

  5. Jenny says:

    I don’t know where you get $5.25/lb grass-fed beef from, but here where I live, I never see grass-fed for less than $10/lb. Yes that’s the price of it direct from farmers around here as far as I’ve been able to find, as well as the price at farmer’s markets here (in Annapolis), where the farmers don’t even have organic certification and want you to just take their word for it just because you can see their face every Tuesday. I’m sorry, but that’s not enough for me. I’ve seen the faces of habitual liars and total strangers everyday (way more than just on Tuesdays), and it didn’t make me trust them any more. I’ve seen tomatoes at farmer’s markets that had pesticide residue spots sitting right on them (I know what 7 dust looks like). You can’t trust anybody, from the bottom small-scale all the way to Monsanto at the top; they’ll all lie to you to make a buck unless you actually personally know them. The best you can do is hope their organic certification actually means something on a long-term scale (and not just when they were getting it initially and that they didn’t have the cash to pay off the inspector about any of it). Otherwise, you can always hope you’ll someday have the luxury of enough time and money to go directly to the farm to get each individual thing you ever eat and see how it is raised for yourself (unrealistic).

    For those of us who are living on lower-middle-class-and-under type incomes, $10/lb for ground beef DOES cost so much, without quotes around it. There’s some people who are taking advantage of people who want to live responsibly and just price gouging. This is especially the case for grass-fed beef that is sold for delivery online, which is the only resource people have who don’t live near farms or near stores that sell grass-fed beef, and who have to work all day and don’t have time to drive for hours to go directly to a farm somewhere to pick it up. Price gouging is also the fate for those who live in tiny city apartments and don’t have space (or money) for giant freezers to put half a cow into. I hope to see more normalization and mainstreaming of grass fed, free range, and organic foods in my lifetime. But so far it is something reserved for people who have lots of money and lots of space to live in and lots of spare time on their hands to sit around “researching” where their food comes from instead of having to scrape by a living and be lucky to get 6 hours of sleep (I’m talking about people I know, not myself, btw – obviously I have time to look into these things, or I wouldn’t be commenting here).

    It is ignorant to pretend that people complain about high prices of organic, grass fed, and free range foods just because they are cheap tight wads, which – while it wasn’t expressly written – is the undertone of this blog post. Some of them absolutely DO complain about the price points of these foods because they are just cheap tight wads who have some sort of weird victim complex where they believe that anyone who happens to be even marginally better off than them or have different taste than them is stuck up and trying to be a show off about everything – even their food. These people are idiots. There are plenty of others who complain about the prices of these foods however, who are complaining because they legitimately want to eat (and provide their families with) better quality food that is sustainably raised because they care about their health, their family’s health, and the health of the animals and the planet – but they really legitimately can’t afford it. It is one thing to tell “poor” people (increasingly including a larger and larger chunk of people who were once the middle class) that they ought not to whine about not having filet mignon and lobster, but things like ground beef and chicken – basic animal-based proteins that are responsibly raised need to be affordable to everyone but those who simply refuse to focus on anything but penny pinching for its own sake.

    • Humaneitarian says:

      I’m glad you wrote this, Jenny. This needs to be said often, and I do say it elsewhere (just not here) – that most Americans can indeed afford this kind of meat if they want it, but some people truly cannot. I agree with you that this is simply not fair, and robs people of their ability to eat ethically.

      I would just add one thing to the discussion, though: the additional money that consumers spend on humanely raised meat is not necessarily going to the farmers — in fact, most small-scale, humane farmers I know are among those “lower-middle-class-and-under” people that you reference. They can barely afford health insurance or pay for their kids’ education. I once worked for farmers who ran the numbers and found that they were making $7/hour. Instead, the money people spend on better meat is paying for higher quality animal feed, employees to move the animals from pasture to pasture, hay to overwinter breeds that take longer to grow, and marketing efforts to sell the meat, etc. One can make more money as a farmer the bigger the farm gets (economies of scale), but then a degree of personal interaction with the animals is lost. And so small-scale farmers are really living within tight economic margins.

      I am eager for the day when foodies wake up to this bleak fact and we begin to shift the conversation to subsidies — should small-scale livestock farmers receive the kind of government support that large-scale producers do (and that makes their meat cheap)? I don’t know the answer – subsidies are a complex issue – but perhaps this is where the conversation should be headed.

    • Dennis says:

      What is the prospect for animals being raised humanely and fed and slaughtered properly on a mass scale? Is it possible that it could eventually become the standard without being really expensive? Is technology a significant factor? I like the idea of people world-wide eating lots of meat all the time, but I like the idea even more if the animals are cared for.

    • mike says:

      If you live in Annapolis, that is pretty much your answer as to why the price is in excess of 10 dollars a pound. The cost of living period in your neck of the woods is easily 1 and a half times of what mine is out here in AZ. I wouldn’t dream of paying 80 dollars a night for a motel 6, but check the cost difference of all things not food ( motels real estate, taxes) wil help you understand the cost difference.

    • Rebecca b says:

      Oh, my Lord, yes! This is exactly what I feel like is being said in between the lines in so many of these blog posts- that people who complain are just flakes or misers or spendthrifts- who could totally afford this stuff but won’t give up their alcohol, or luxuries for something so important like good food. Well, baloney!! I had to first buy a deep freeze ($650 on sale) then buy the cattle pack though costco (membership $110) which was 70 lbs of grass fed organic cow delivered for 984.28 with tax. I only see grain fed organic beef for $5+ never grass and same for eggs; I can get 24 organic eggs from costco for under $7 even with the egg shortage but they aren’t very good quality as can be seen by the color and consistency of their yolks. Outdoor, free range eggs from reputable companies like vital farms are 7.99 for a dozen, (affordable animal protein my butt, Michael Pollen)! And before you start thinking I live in some food desert like small town New Mexico or upstate Nevada I live in central north Carolina which is almost all farmland! So, yeah, it’s ridiculous how expensive real food is!

  6. Dean says:

    The small scale farmer will not see the subsidies that the corporations do probably never happen. i have a ranch in kansas that feeds allnatural grainfed beef. and I also raise grassfed beef, I work with the exstension office with the grassfed beef,
    I was told one time if you are raising grassfed beef there is 3 things you need to know alfalfa, alfalfa,and alfalfa with 60 acres of alfalfa I raise myself keeps the price down and seems to give the beef a good flavor.I sell my grassfed beef for 3.00 perpound on the rail, my grainfed beef is 2.75 per pound on the rail, not a big difference, I look for prices to drop I may have to adjust those prices. The beef producer no matter what needs to keep his product affordable, because you dont sell your product you not be in buisness long, the other thing is keeping quality superior to that in the grocerystore, witch should be no problem at all.

  7. Brad says:

    Yes Grass fed Beef is expensive. Yes some farmers are guilty of price gouging because they know people will pay. And believe it or not for some of the ignorant comments on here not everyone can afford it and not everyone blows money on luxury items like alcohol (smh at that one). Instead of name calling and and finger pointing how about we open up a dialogue to rally the American people to start pressuring our government to provide more assistance to the small farmer instead of these massive food producers that don’t care about what comes out of their factories because they can afford to pay top dollar for real food. And before certain people start get offended, I buy grass fed meat for my family even though I think it is expensive. AND I DON’T EVEN DRINK.

  8. Sharron May says:

    This post is quite dated but I am wondering if your $5.25/lb price was your avg. retail price or hanging weight price. That may explain why it’s $5.25 vs. $10/lb.

    The farmer who is selling for $3/lb is probably selling to commodity market maybe vs. direct market?

    The playing field is not level. Earning $7/hr would be a dream. I’d like to see people who think farmers are price gouging to try doing it sometime. Farming is non-profit work, a community service.

    • Humaneitarian says:

      Hi Sharron,
      It looks like that’s $5.25 minimum – and I bet it’s for ground beef only, or even less expensive cuts. You’re right, it’s a very low price for grass-fed ground beef – where I live, it’s usually $7, $8, or $9 a pound – but maybe $5.25 is all that the farmer feels he can charge in his area. I’d encourage you to reach out to him and inquire about this price.
      Your point about small-scale farming being akin to non-profit work is well taken. People are beginning to realize that the profit earned by most small farmers is completely unsustainable for them.
      -Carrie @Humaneitarian

  9. thinkeat says:

    How much would the price of meat be if ALL meat was raised humanely? I haven’t found any research on this point. It seem to me that if all meat on the market was produced in a humane manner that the price would rise dramatically.

    I assume that some people would consider that there should be some kind of regulation on the treatment of animals.

    I have to assume that it would be impossible to meet the current demand using meat produced humanely. I imagine that if there was no other meat available, that demand would push the price very high. I think there would continue to be a market for meat if the cost was hundreds of dollars a pound.

    The cost of grazing land would probably rise as well and so all land.

  10. Hunter Fitzsimmons says:

    I’m a hippie, save the cows.

  11. J. Gallagher says:

    $3/lb on the rail sounds about right. The beef market goes up and down like anything else. Our local butcher was pricing quarters and halves at 3.20/lb. in the fall of 2015 and dropped to $2.89 by March. At $5.25/lb. hanging weight, the consumer is still getting a good deal, but around here, North Dakota, no one would expect to pay that much for freezer beef. I don’t know what all the talk is about humane beef — a steer is not appreciably “happier” in the pasture than in the pen. Most cattle are in the pen for winter feeding anyway. A contented cow is any cow with good food in front of it. P.S. they seem most contented with grain in their feed troughs.

  12. David Thompson says:

    You must be doing something wrong. We bought 2 400# spayed heifers, black baldies, started them on a little grain immediately, rest of the time in the pasture which was an old alfalfa field, really spotty. Increased the grain gradually, they were up to butcher weight, 1100 #, in a year and a half, started putting the grain in the stock trailer, so one night we just closed the gate and off they went. You guys are paying way to much for slaughter and cutting and wrapping. In Colorado it’s $20 to kill it and $0.25/lb. for cutting and wrapping. We ended up (the computer nerd kept track of it all) and we ended up with the best grain fed, perfectly marbled beef for, drum roll, $2.78/ lb. Grass fed beef is crap. ask any kid who grew up on a ranch and they will tell you that grain fed beef, especially if you start them early, is the best beef on earth. That stuff where they take a 1000 pound steer and stick it in a feed lot is not what I’m talking about. That just puts fat on the exterior. The fat has to be built up within the meat to get the flavor, without the fat you get no flavor which is why grass-fed beef is poor man’s food. He couldn’t afford to grain them.