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

Reader Contribution by Jacob Maxwell
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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. 

Improved Welfare on Feedlots: A Win-Win? 

When I brought up the subject of animal welfare in feedlots, Jim told me that “It doesn’t pay to not do it well.” When I heard this, I couldn’t help but think about the words of professors who’ve taught me that high productivity often isn’t linked to good welfare. After reading some literature however, I found that recent experiments are suggesting that Jim is right when it comes to beef feedlots. A 2020 review from Texas A&M compiled results indicating that feedlot cattle who are provided with more space, softer floor surfaces, and the opportunity to lie down on straw not only have better welfare, but also show superior performance from a production standpoint. 

Changing an Industry: Top-Down or Ground-Up?

Despite the fact that ‘doing it well’ may be in the best interests of beef producers, the reality is that best practices with respect to animal welfare are not the standard across North American beef industry. I’ve often thought that the obvious solution is legislation – make best practices law. Jim and Birgit’s perspective as producers challenged my position. As Birgit put it, “if it’s legislated from the top down, the cost is entirely borne by the producer. If it’s an industry initiated change from the grassroots up, the cost can be spread across the supply chain.” Jim added that he’d sooner like to see more widespread education for new producers before new animal welfare legislation.

What Can Consumers Do?

Support Progressive Producers. I believe that reducing your impact on animals is crucial, but of equal importance is putting your dollars in the right place when you do purchase meat. When it comes to beef, the North American industry involves a lot of live transport, and not all feedlots adhere to best practices, but that doesn’t mean that producers moving in the right direction don’t exist. Pure Island Beef is just one example of an operation committed to providing animals with a semi-natural life that starts and ends under the management of the same people. The welfare labeling programs that I mentioned in my introductory article are a great tool, but they’re not as effective as personally connecting with the people behind your beef. Research progressive beef producers before making a purchase. Look for the farmers who run a pasture-based operation and raise animals from start to finish without transporting them across provincial, state, or national borders.

Don’t Take ‘Local’ at Face Value. My province of Ontario is home to the largest urban population in Canada, but comparatively few cow-calf farms. The result is that the beef bought by Ontarians can be advertised as ‘local,’ but most of the time this means that cattle were born in the west before being transported for hours or days on highways to feedlots in Ontario where they were finished. If you can’t find a progressive producer in your immediate area, become more open to beef born, raised, and finished in a distant province or state. As Birgit put it, “It makes sense [for animal welfare and the environment] to transport the product in a refrigerated truck rather than truck the live animal to the market.” 

Be Open to all Perspectives. In the animal welfare debate, producers are often demonized or pushed to the sidelines. I was incredibly lucky to open this conversation to Birgit and Jim and learn from their perspective. I’ve come to believe that sustained improvement to the human-animal relationship won’t be accomplished by argument or iron-fisted rule making. It seems to me that the best path forward is for each side of the debate to thoroughly understand other perspectives so that animal-based industries can move forward with cooperation, focus, and harmony.

Jacob Maxwell is a biology student and veterinary hopeful in Ontario who divides his time between animal biology coursework and hands-on experience with veterinarians and animal researchers. Connect with Jacob on his blogA Try-Hard’s Guide to Having Fun, and on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn. Read all of Jacob’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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