The nuts and bolts of handling your direct marketing meat business can be simplified while still safeguarding you. We learned a few things the hard way so can pass along some valuable tips.
Most of our Beefalo are sold as quarters and halves. When processing animals by quarters, it is always best to have it done “split side”. Don’t sell your animals by the “front half” or “back half”. You will wind up with a lot of only partially sold animals. If you have it done “split side” the butcher will take half of the front half and half of the back half and give it to each quarters customer. It is a win-win setup for both you and your customers. A good butcher will be able to make sure that each person gets an equal share.
KNOWING WHAT TO SELL: We periodically review our herd to determine how our meat animals are progressing and estimate within a two-month range when each one will be big enough to butcher. We attempt to butcher when they are at least 600# hanging weight. We don’t own a scale and so it is just a matter of sizing them up visually based on what recent past animals weighed at butcher date. We keep a listing of these animals and mark down when they will be available. This list covers a period of about 9 months at a time. So, for example, this past spring, we had 3 beefalo that would be ready Apr/May, 2 beefalo for Jun/Jul, and 1 for Aug/Sep, none for Oct/Nov, and 3 for Dec/Jan. We also had an older animal that we felt could be butchered as a “burger only” animal in Jun/Jul. We keep this list by the phone so that when someone calls, we can easily tell them what is available.
PICKING YOUR PROCESSOR: In order to help ensure that the customers are happy with their meat, you will need to be very choosy about the butcher you select to do your processing. The quality of the butcher can make or break your product. Research the various butcher shops in your area. Go in and look around the facility. Is it clean, well lit and is the staff friendly, considerate and helpful? Talk to the owner and ask if you can view the kill/processing floor on a day that they are processing animals. Are the animals offloaded quietly and calmly and are they humanely slaughtered in a relatively short amount of time? (The longer an animal is stressed the tougher the meat will be.) Is the rest of the processing done in a efficient and careful manner so that the amount of time from kill to having the carcass go into the cooler is kept to a minimum. Are the animals accurately tagged with the customer’s information so that no mixups can occur? Find out how long beef meat animals are normally hung for. There should be a range of days depending on how much of a layer of outer fat is on the animal. Seven to ten days is usually the norm. One other item that you will need to discuss with the butcher is the processing fees. If you are selling your animals by quarters or halves, you should really pass the processing costs on to your customer by having them pay the fees when they pick up their meat. Make sure you know and understand what terms the butcher works under; does he require payment in advance, payment upon pickup, etc. Don’t pick your butcher just because he has the lowest processing fees. Always remember that you get what you pay for! And don’t pick your butcher just because he is closest to you. You may have to drive just a little farther for a better processor, but in the long run it will be well worth the extra time and miles. Our customers have commented many times on what a great job our processor does. This increases customer satisfaction and retention.
INITIAL CUSTOMER CONTACT: Initially, a potential customer will call or email us after they have viewed our info on one of the websites. We explain our process to them and let them know what is available and when it will be available. If they are interested in purchasing a quarter (or more), we tell them that a NON-refundable deposit is required per quarter payable by personal check only. We have set our deposit fee at $100. This is done for two reasons. First, if the person is really serious and committed to purchasing the meat, they won’t have a problem putting down a deposit to hold their quarter. Second, if for some reason they back out at the very end, the non-refundable deposit will cover most of the processing charges that you would be stuck with and all you have to do is find freezer space for the meat. You wouldn’t have to cancel the animal appointment and disappoint up to 3 other customers.
ORDER FORM: We use a simple order form that can either be mailed or emailed to the customer. (We also have an order form listed on our website that can be printed off.) You will want to get their name, physical address, a phone number and possibly an email address and what they are ordering and their preference for processing month. When you receive the deposit check, make sure you record the bank routing number and bank account number just as a precaution before you deposit the check at the bank. Once you have an order, mark it down on the listing of animals available so that you don’t accidentaIly oversell an animal.
MAKING APPOINTMENTS: Working with your butcher, you will want to make the appointments for your animals. Our butcher usually books up about 2-3 months in advance so we generally will make our appointments no less than 3 months ahead of time.
CUSTOM VS. FED/STATE INSPECTION PROCESSING: There are typically three levels of processing. The first is custom processing where a butcher is processing an animal for an individual end consumer to his specifications but without any type of inspection. The next level is “State” inspection where a representative from your State’s Food Safety or Health Department is present during the slaughter process. He will visually inspect the animal and may even test various parts of the meat to make sure that the animal was healthy at the time of its death. This level of inspection typically then allows the owner of that meat to sell direct to the public or to another retail outlet within that state. It is not meant for meat that will ultimately cross state lines into another state. That is the job of a Federal inspection. The testing is similar but allows meat to be shipped out of state. In order to sell our meat through our farm store, we must have it “state inspected” at the butcher facility. This doesn’t cost us anything. As a general rule, we have learned to have all of our animals state inspected. This helps us in two ways; it gives the customer an added sense of food safety and just in case someone backs out at the last minute, we will still be able to sell that meat through our farm store. You will want to check with authorities in your own state as to what the rules are.
APPOINTMENT REMINDER NOTICES: Since customers may order up to several months ahead of time, reminder notices may be helpful. About a week prior to the appointment date, I make up what I call “appointment notices” and also “processing instructions”. These forms can either be hand written or typed and printed off of your computer. I find it easier to use a “fill in the blank” format so that I am not re-writing the same info over and over again. We encourage our customers to be notified by email. This saves us time, printing costs and postage. It provides them with the appointment date, the name, address and phone number of the butcher, and a range of dates for them to call in their cutting instructions. It also verifies their original order and the price of that order and spells out the terms for payment.
PROCESSING INSTRUCTIONS: The Processing Instructions sheet is a listing that I provide to the butcher. It gives them a list of the people who are supposed to be calling in cutting instructions for the animal and their phone number. That way, if the individual does not call in the cutting instructions by the time the butcher is ready to cut up the meat, the butcher can contact them to get the info. I give the Processing Instructions to the butcher on the day we take the animal in for processing.
BUTCHER DAY: On the day that the animal goes in for processing, I contact the butcher before the end of the day to obtain the live weight and hanging weight. I tell them which customers are going to be on which half (our butcher cuts the animal in half and then records the hanging weight of each half). Obviously, it is difficult to make a perfect cut so that both halves are the same so when the butcher says that one half is 320 and the other half is 325, I need to tell them who gets put on which half. This way both the butcher and I have accurate and matching info.