Grass Fed or Grain Fed? Beef Cattle Nutrition and
Corresponding Public Health Issues within the Beef Industries of
Rural Costa Rica and the United States
2400 W Chew Street
Allentown PA 18104 5596
La nutrición y la salud se conectan porque nutrición mala causa los problemas de la
salud. El ganado se llama rumiantes y ellos convierten césped a la proteína. Si ganado se
fuerza a comer grano, no césped, el sufre de muchos problemas de la salud. Ellos pueden
obtener muchas enfermedades que resultan de la nutrición mala. En los Estados Unidos, el
ganado come césped por seis meses y entonces se alimentan sólo grano. La dieta nueva hace
el animal muy enfermo, y estos problemas hacen a las personas que los comen muy enfermo.
En los Estados Unidos hay muchas saludes públicas riesgos de comer la carne de vaca. Los
niveles de hormona se levantan, hay la resistencia antibiótica, bacterias fatales nuevas, y
En Costa Rica, el ganado come césped su vida entera y es mucho más sano. Ellos son
alimentados céspedes especiales y suplementos naturales. Ellos nunca son alimentados grano.
Esta dieta los mantiene muy sano, y hay pocas saludes públicas riesgos de comer la carne de
Nutrition and health are connected because bad nutrition causes health problems.
Cattle are called ruminants and they convert grass to protein. If cattle are forced to eat grain,
not grass, they suffer from many health problems. They can get many diseases that result
from bad nutrition. In the United States cattle eat grass for six months and then are fed only
grain. The new diet makes the animal very sick, and these problems make the people who eat
them very sick. In the United States there are many public health risks from eating beef.
Hormone levels are raised; there is antibiotic resistance, new fatal bacteria, and many
In Costa Rica cattle eat grass their whole life and are much healthier. They are fed
special grasses and natural supplements. They are never fed grain. This diet keeps them very
healthy and there are few public health risks from eating beef.
Keywords: beef cattle, nutrition, health, public health, environment.
We are what we eat, but more to the point, we are what we eat eats too. The United
States beef cattle industry is one of the largest producers of beef in the world and produces
high quality grain fed beef (Gustafson 2006). This beef is consistent in both taste and texture.
However, various protein supplements, antibiotics, and hormones are also consistent within
Beef cattle are susceptible to numerous health problems. These problems range from
treatable bacterial infections to syndromes such as Bovine lactic acid syndrome. Most of the
more serious health problems, such as bovine lactic acid syndrome, are easily traced back to
the animal’s diet (Nocek 1997). Cattle health and nutrition are very closely linked and a
disruption in the cattle’s typical forage diet causes a great fluctuation in the animal’s health
as they must adjust to eating an unnatural diet (Galyean et all 1999).
Cows are herbivores. As ruminants they are designed to graze, break down cellulose,
and turn grass into high quality protein. They are not designed to ingest high quality protein
and a grain diet is unnatural as it disturbs the animal’s digestive processes and can kill if not
managed with antibiotics. The change to a grain based diet also requires a significant shift in
the stomach microbes. The typical grazing cow takes in very little protein, and even then,
only in the form of grass seed (Blezinger 2002 and Pollan 2002).
The United States beef cattle industry has turned these herbivores into carnivores, and
even cannibals. The first six months in the life of beef cattle are spent grazing. After being
weaned at six months they will never eat grass again and their diets are switched to a high
protein corn based one. These grazers are confined to a pen, taught to eat from a trough, and
started on daily antibiotics until they are ten months old (Pollan 2002).
During this time the cattle are also fed a 20% protein supplement that is known as
broiler litter or chicken litter. This supplement consists of chicken bedding, feed, feathers,
and waste. All of this chicken waste is likely to contain ruminant remains as cattle are often
ground into chicken feed. The cattle are also fed restaurant plate waste (meat and meat
scraps) as another cheap source of protein. FDA regulations prohibit ruminant meat in cattle
feed, however via this indirect cycle the rules break themselves (Burns 2004, Pollan 2002
and Pollan 2004).
At ten months the animals are moved to the feedlot. Some feedlots hold up to 100,000
animals in a crowding and unsanitary beef cattle city. The feedlot diet revolves around corn
and a cow’s daily diet consists of vitamins, synthetic estrogen, two different antibiotics,
alfalfa hay, corn and protein supplements of molasses and urea. Corn wreaks havoc on cattle
digestive systems by causing many health problems. The major ones are feedlot bloat (gas
gets trapped in the stomach and can not be expelled), cow acidosis (corn turns the normally
neutral stomach pH unnaturally acidic), bovine heart burn, pneumonia, feedlot polio, and
liver problems (these result when the acidic stomach environment breaks down stomach
walls and allows bacteria to escape into the blood stream) (Pollan 2002).
Cattle also receive synthetic estrogen hormone implants. These implants cost about
$1.50, but will add between forty and fifty pounds to the steer slaughter weights with
approximately a $25 return. At about fourteen months old the steer will be slaughtered at a
weight of about 1,200 pounds. During the fourteen months of its life, the animal gains about
1,120 pounds (birth weight is approximately 80 pounds) via corn, protein supplements, and
growth hormone (Pollan 2002).
Altering cattle diets and feeding them hormones and antibiotics do not only affect
cattle health, but also have major public health implications. The most well known public
health threat is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease). Not much is known
about the spread of the disease however it is suspected that proteins known as prions are the
cause. Prions do not affect poultry so there is no public health threat when cattle are ground
into meat and bone meal for chicken feed. However, this chicken feed and these prions come
back to the cattle when they are fed their broiler feed protein supplements. Regardless of
FDA regulations, cows are still eating cows and therefore contributing to the Mad Cow
Disease outbreaks (Burns 2004 and Taylor 2005). There are many proposed restrictions to
keep cattle feed and blood products from ruminant formulas as it likely that potentially
infective material is being fed to US beef cattle as protein supplements (Taylor 2005).
While Mad Cow Disease is a serious public health threat, there are other health issues
that make every piece of beef a potentially fatal one. The antibiotics that are continuously fed
to the cattle sit within their gut and select for bacteria that could infect humans and be
capable of resisting modern drugs. More threatening however is E. coli 0157, a new and fatal
strain of common intestinal bacteria. Just ten microbes can cause a fatal infection and it
resides in nearly all feed lots, literally covering cattle as they are literally covered in their
own waste. Cattle microbes like E. coli 0157 should be killed off in human acidic stomachs
as they were adapted to living in the neutral pH environment of the cattle stomach. However,
as corn makes cattle stomachs more acidic the bacteria adapt to acidic pH and can survive the
low pH of a human stomach, negating the natural human barrier to infection (Pollan 2002).
The synthetic estrogen that beef cattle are treated with causes estrogenic compounds
to build up in their meat, which then builds up in the body of the human consumer. These
increasing levels of estrogen are thought to possibly affect the decreasing sperm counts in
males and premature maturation in girls (Pollan 2002).
There are more than just public health costs though. The environmental cost of one
particular feed lot’s eighty million acre monoculture (corn) and corresponding chemical
fertilizer and the chemical herbicide is huge. In this particular case, the nitrogen runoff
created a 1,200 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (Pollan 2002).
Pollan (2004) suggests that by learning how beef is made the US will be driven to an
older way of rearing cows. Only recently have Americans broken the tens of thousands of
year old practice of eating grass fed ruminants. The recent succession of food scares may
lead to an alternative postindustrial food chain; one that is organic, hormone free, and grass
As a post industrial country, rural Costa Rica should exemplify this post industrial
food chain. Many of the species of trees and shrubs that reside here have good foraging
characteristics. These tree and shrub species have high nutrient concentrations and a capacity
for producing a large bio mass to unit area ratio. By grazing their beef cattle on this food
Costa Rican beef cattle farmers can reduce their dependency on feed imports. Aside from
special grasses, natural supplements are also used (Benavides et all 2002). Assuming that this
diet is maintained throughout the animal’s life, the cattle should be in significantly better
health and have fewer health problems that result in public health risks than the US beef
While in the United States extensive research was done on beef cattle nutrition,
health problems, and public health risks. This research allowed for the collection of a large
amount of background information with which to compare the results from studies in Costa
Rica. It also illustrated a series of major points of comparison (ie. Stomach pH, bloat, diet,
etc) that could be used contrast the beef cattle industries of rural Costa Rica with the United
While in Costa Rica research was done to acquire information on beef cattle
nutrition, health problems and public health risks and to provide information for the major
points of comparison. Interviews were conducted with a veterinarian, a cattle rancher, and a
member of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle. Literature research was also done and
numerous cattle farms were visited so general observations could be made.
This information was then organized, pooled together and compared point by point
with the previously acquired information from the United States.
Rural Costa Rican cattle ranching is an all natural industry. Animals are grazed
their entire life and not fed any grain. Cattle are born at the approximate weight of United
States cattle (80 lbs) and slaughtered between the ages of two to five years old, or when
they reach a slaughter weight of approximately 1200 lbs. The life of a steer can take one of
two paths. The animal can be born on a farm and be raised via a grass fed diet on that farm
until slaughter weight, at which point he is transported to the slaughter house and killed
within twenty-four hours. The animal may also be born onto a farm and be raised at that
farm until the age of seven months. At this point he is sold to an auction house who in turn
sells him to a private farm. The animal’s grass fed diet is continuous until he is sold to the
slaughterhouse and killed within twenty-four hours.
The pastures the cattle are grazed on are very specialized types of grasses. The
majority of the grasses are African and have different nutritional advantages. Most farms
will have two to four different types and also will have different varieties of plants, trees
and shrubs for foraging. Farms are divided into four different pastures and animals are
rotated through them (eight days/pasture) to keep the grass from being destroyed. Cattle
receive only natural supplements which include salt blocks, mineral blocks, and honey
from sugar cane. They are not fed any form of protein supplements or corn, and do not
receive hormones. Due to their grass only diet, the cattle have a relatively neutral stomach
pH. No fertilizers are used on the pasture and antibiotics are only administered to the
animals as needed when they are sick.
Cattle suffer from very few serious health problems other than bacterial infections,
injury, difficult births, and vampire bats. Bloat is practically a non issue and on the rare
occasion that it does happen, it is usually because the animal got a hold of a fruit (i.e.
mango) that it should not be eating.
While large cattle farms can receive financial assistance from the government in the
form of loans, small farms also receive assistance. If needed, the ministry of health offers a
free service. A rancher can go to the ministry and describe the sick animal. The ministry
can diagnose and prescribe medication for the animal, and if needed travel to the farm .
Other than risks associated with high cholesterol or pre existing health problems,
there are no public health risks from eating beef.
The rural Costa Rican and United States beef cattle industries are polar opposites
of one another. One industry is all natural and draws on what is best for the animal, but is
slower and less efficient. The other industry unnaturally changes the basic foundations of
cattle nutrition, but is quick, cheap, and efficient. However, when the industries are
compared on the basis of nutrition, cattle health, and public health risks, it is
overwhelmingly clear that grass fed animals are healthier and their meat is safer. By
looking at a series of comparative points, Table 1, it is obvious that rural Costa Rican cattle
ranching results in fewer negative outcomes than the United States. Costa Rican cattle have
a normal stomach pH which results in microbes that are not acclimated to an acidic
environment, the cattle have a longer life span and spend less time in the crowded and
unsanitary conditions of the slaughterhouse. Costa Rican animals are not fed corn or
protein supplements which means that their bodies do not have to adjust to a high protein
diet. This allows them be healthier and not need continuous antibiotic treatments. They are
grazed their whole lives, receive no hormones, and only natural supplements. Costa Rica is
also committed to keeping the small farm alive. This is done via government programs that
allow for health care assistance to small farms. Small farms allow for better and more
direct care of all the animals and they maintain healthier environments because they focus
on quality, not quantity. An all natural animal is a healthy animal, and a healthy animal
Major Points of Comparison between the Rural Costa Rican and United
States Beef Cattle Industries
Rural Costa Rica Beef Steer United States Beef Steer
Stomach pH Essentially Neutral Very acidic, low pH
Slaughter Age 2-5 years 14 months
Slaughter Weight 990 lbs – 1320 lbs 1200 lbs
Slaughter Experience Stay at slaughterhouse for less Live at slaughterhouse for
than 24 hours before killed four months before killed
Bloat Very rare- usually occurs when Very common and a major
cattle eat whole mangos health problem
Government Assistance Free medical assistance to Financial assistance to large
small farms farms
Pasture Cattle are rotated through 4 No pasture rotation
pastures (8 days/pasture), each
of which has special grasses
and foraging plants
Fertilizer Natural cattle urea and chicken Synthetic Nitrogen and
excrement various chemicals
Antibiotics Administered as needed when Administered daily after
sick animal is 6 months old
Grazed Grass fed/Grazed their entire Grazed only until 6 months
life old- NO grass after 6 months
Corn Fed Never fed corn All corn, high protein diet
after 6 months
Supplements Salt blocks, mineral blocks, Salt blocks
sugar cane, molasses
Protien Supplements None Chicken litter, restaurant
plate waste, molasses-urea
Hormones None Estrogen implants
Public Health Concerns Potential cardio-vascular Mad Cow Disease, antibiotic
problems due to pre-existing resistance, resistant fatal
health conditions bacteria strains, increase in
not represent a significant public health risk. United States beef cattle however are fed an
unnatural diet, they are fed high quantities of grain and synthetic supplements that their
bodies are not designed to digest. These nutritional issues are apparent in the ways they
affect the animals health, and then in the ways that the public is affected by eating the meat.
The rural Costa Rican beef cattle industry is much healthier for both the animals
and the public. However the way the United States is raising beef is much faster and
cheaper. As Costa Rica becomes more advanced and influenced by the United States, there
is a danger that their cattle industry will also be influenced.
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