The Bovine Telos: Animal Welfare for Today's North American Beef Cattle


Angus Steer on Pasture

Photo by Steve Maxwell

Telos was a word originally used by Aristotle to describe purpose. Animal scientist and philosopher Dr. Bernard Rollin wittily adapted the term for the animal behaviour field. To Rollin, the telos of an animal is its innate nature: its personality, its desires, likes, and dislikes. One of the greatest parts of studying animals is becoming familiar with the unique telos of each species you work with. I got to know cattle in my teens when I started working for Jim and Birgit Martin, owner-operators of Pure Island Beef, a northern operation centred around a natural lifestyle for the animals and a high-quality product. Birgit and Jim are industry leaders in Ontario agriculture, and I was lucky enough to connect with them over zoom to chat about beef cattle welfare. You can watch the entire interview on YouTube:

The Bovine Telos

What do cattle want in life? It’s easy to anthropomorphize and imagine that animals desire the same things we do. Part of the study of animal behaviour is giving up personal bias and letting the results of controlled experiments speak for themselves. Like other farm animals, beef cattle are motivated to perform specific behaviours rooted in their wild ancestry. As Birgit put it, “cattle aren’t necessarily the most ambitious animals.” My experience and current literature suggest that social contact in a herd, mutual and solitary grooming, opportunities to lie down comfortably, and exercise are the most notable desires of cattle outside of the basics. 

The North American Industry

In North America, the life of a beef animal begins on a cow-calf farm, where breeding and early growth is the focus. Most animals are then trucked to larger growing and finishing operations called feedlots, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away. On many cow-calf farms, animals enjoy a pseudo-natural lifestyle on pastures or ranges. This production style caters well to their telos. Feedlots are confinement facilities. Although they maximize efficiency, it takes more knowledge and consideration to run a feedlot profitably while also maximizing animal welfare.

Too Much Transport?

Although Jim praised the progress that has been made in animal comfort on Ontario feedlots, he didn’t hesitate to express his qualms about the structure of the industry. Across North America, animals are transported in trucks multiple times over their lifetime, moving from farm to farm, sometimes at very young ages. Although producers are highly experienced with loading and trucking animals safely, conditions during transport and the change of surroundings are major stressors for these animals. 

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