How much meat will I take home?

I get this a lot after people pick up their meat from the plant:  “I only got X pounds of meat and half of it was ground beef!”  and I have to remind them, gently, that they asked for completely trimmed boneless steaks and 90/10 lean ground beef... They think they got robbed, as if we make our real money skimming steaks off each order and selling them on the t-bone black market.  Nope, we’re in business to cut your meat exactly how you ask for it.

Processors will tell you that there is no exact formula to determine take home yield.  Feed, muscle structure, cut requests, and many other small details affect the final weight of the products.  For instance, a cow can come in who is enormous, but if they have poor marbling, then a lot of that weight may be held as fat around the body.  If the customer asks for 1/4 inch fat trim, you can bet that some of that weight is falling into the waste barrel when we trim the steaks.  Likewise if the cow is not very muscular, or they request many boneless items.

So how do we tell our customers how much meat they can expect to take home?  With the disclaimer that anything and everything can affect final yield, processors do use a general formula for determining what you can reasonably expect with a common set of cuts and an average live animal weight.


Live weight scale with digital readout. Fancy. Photo by Jeremy Koslow

The animal can be weighed three times throughout processing.  When it first arrives, it is ushered onto a large scale, the weight is read from a digital readout and documented on the receiving form.  This is called the “live weight”.  Taking the live weight is not required, but it is a nice bonus for our customers.  The producer is able to take the yield data and find patterns in their livestock which may help them with feed choices, breeding selection, and ultimately herd improvement.


Guts are heavy. There are a few stomachs in there, after all. Photo by Jeremy Koslow

The animal then is brought onto the kill floor - I’m sorry, I mean, “harvesting room” - and is weighed after slaughter.  At this point they have lost their skin, intestines, organs, hoofs, blood and head and have been cleaned.  This is called the “carcass weight”, “dressed weight”, or sometimes “hanging weight”.  Examples of factors at this stage that can affect yield are gut fill (last meal) and even whether or not the animal is muddy, such as on unshorn sheep.

 

Like a trapeze artist, the lamb is swung onto a section of rail that is actually a scale to take the dressed weight. Photo by Jeremy Koslow

When the animal leaves the cooler and heads into the processing room, we break the carcass down into the final cuts and package them.  This is where the most variation in yield happens.  Boneless vs. bone-in, leanness of ground beef, grinding certain roasts, all of these cutting instructions will dictate how much of the carcass makes it into your freezer and how much ends up going into the waste barrel.  The final cuts can be weighed and tallied to produce a “take home”, or “packaged weight”
 
To calculate what the carcass weight would likely be, take the live weight, and multiply by the percentage in the first column.  Then take this number and multiply by the percentage in the final column to estimate your take home yield.

The pork and beef figures were taken from the Iowa State University Extension office’s “Whole Animal Buying Guide”.  The lamb yields were taken from South Dakota State University Department of Animal and Range Sciences’ “Did the Locker Steal Some of my Meat?” by Duane M. Wulf, PhD.

Example:

You have a 1200 pound cow.  You ask for a nice variety of boneless and bone-in cuts, and ask for 85/15 ground beef.  Your yield may reasonably be:

1200 x .61 = 732 lb. dressed weight

732 x .67 = 490 lb. packaged weight

Voila! 7th grade math.  Which I need to do with a calculator.

How to avoid ornery customers

Make sure you have a yield table on hand, right along with your price lists, cut sheets, etc.  If this is their first rodeo buying and/or processing an animal, they should be getting a copy of this sheet when you are taking down their cut requests.  Give them an overview of what they can expect but be sure to let them know that anything can happen.  Better to educate all of your customers about it than to receive a “the butcher stole my meat” phone call.