Looking to get your hands on better beef without breaking the bank? Team up with friends and go whole cow.

Beyond its clever name, “cowpooling,” the practice of friends or neighbors joining together to buy a whole or half cow from a local farm, holds natural appeal: With food costs on the rise, meat-loving localvores are lending support to the farming community while filling up their freezers with comparably lower-priced, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef. “When you touch and handle it, you are definitely aware that it was a living creature and not just some product that came off an industrial line,” says Vicki Nowicki, of Downers Grove, who’s purchased a whole cow three times from a farmer in Woodstock, Illinois. After the animal is butchered and aged for about three weeks, Nowicki, who co-owns an ecofriendly landscape-design business, divvies up the 700 pounds of meat as evenly as she can among her friends, charging $5 a pound across the board. Everyone loves the steaks, roasts and ground beef, but while she’s had success with cooking the tongue and heart—parts she keeps for herself—the lungs are still a work in progress.

“There is the challenge of how to utilize that whole carcass,” says veterinarian Patricia Whisnant, who, along with her husband, owns American Grass Fed Beef. “The biggest thing people need to be aware of is that you’re not just getting steaks.” To help out those who buy cows from them, the Whisnants include a how-to booklet with tips and recipes for the less familiar, uh, parts. And for those who can’t find friends to cowpool with, the Whisnants are among a few farmers who offer the option of purchasing a quarter, a 100-pound mixed selection of meat cuts that, like the whole cow, arrives in vacuum-sealed packages that last for at least a year in the freezer.

Anthony Bauer of Bauer Custom Meats also offers quarters and halves if buying a whole cow is biting off more than you can chew. “Plan ahead and know what you’re getting into,” advises Bauer, who suggests that buyers have a 10-cubic-foot chest freezer, and the ability to place orders well in advance. “You have to be flexible since grass-fed is imprecise. With a grain-fed animal, you know it’s going to be ready in six months. You’re feeding them a certain amount of grain so it’ll just grow and get fat.” In other words, there’s no predicting how the grass, and in turn the cows, will grow.

But for many, the results are worth the wait. Chicagoan Laura Lencioni—whose family has gone through a quarter of a cow and half of a pig in the last few months—sees cowpooling as the most cost-effective way for her family to eat high-quality meat. “It’s just really tasty,” she says. “If you cook and like quality ingredients, you can’t get any better.”

So what are the savings? Jody Osmund admits that if you compared the prices of the meat from his Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, with those at Costco there probably wouldn’t be much of a discount. But, he says, “If you go to Whole Foods or a specialty butcher for comparable meat, we are definitely a better value.” Originally, Osmund and his wife, Beth, dealt only in vegetables through community-supported-agriculture shares. In 2007, the couple started selling meat, and now it’s their sole product. In addition to whole, half or a mixed quarter cow, they also have a monthly CSA option ($255 for three months) that includes beef, chicken, pork and eggs with drop-off spots in Chicago. Those interested in a whole cow should be prepared to answer questions about how they’d like it butchered—the thickness of steaks, how many to a package, which cuts for ground beef, etc.

One of Cedar Valley’s customers, Noah Stein, raves that “the quality of the meat is just incredible.” Stein served half of the cow he purchased at his wedding. The other half was cowpooled, getting distributed among family and friends at about $6.50 a pound. Even with the hassles of having to buy a freezer—he ended up finding one on Craigslist for $60—and finding enough people to make it economically feasible, Stein is ramping up to do it again and says, “If you’re concerned about the food you eat and where it comes from, the benefits of this far outweigh the costs.”

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