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Remembering Roy Berg – beef industry pioneer


 

Roy Berg may not have been a household name on most Canadian
farms and ranches, but if you ever raised cattle and ever matched  an Angus or Hereford cow with a
Charolais or Simmental bull (or some other combination) you had Roy Berg to
thank.

Berg_400.jpg

Dr. Roy Berg who passed away May 8 in Edmonton was a pioneer
in livestock genetics and launched this whole concept of crossbreeding cattle
to get hybrid vigor. Most beef producers today realize, if you’re not
crossbreeding cattle, you’re leaving money on the table. 

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text-autospace:none">In a release from the
University of Alberta where Berg worked as a researcher and professor since
1955, he was described as a world-renowned animal geneticist and a giant in
Alberta (Canadian) agriculture. He died after a long illness. He was 85.

Berg revolutionized the
beef cattle industry in the 1960s with his innovative research. His hybrid
breeding programs led to a 30 to 40 percent increase in production, helping
make Alberta a world leader in beef production.

“Roy Berg was larger
than life,” said John Kennelly, dean of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life &
Environmental Sciences. “As an individual, as a scientist, as an administrator
at the University of Alberta, he made a tremendous difference. He was a very
accomplished researcher who cared passionately about students. He was one of
the best-known professors ever to work in our faculty and his impact on the

agricultural sector in Alberta is unparalleled.”

Berg grew up on a farm
in Millicent, Alberta. One of four brothers who studied agriculture at the
University of Alberta, he graduated in 1950, went on to earn an MSc and a PhD
from the University of Minnesota, and returned to the U of A as an assistant
professor in 1955.

Together with L.W.
McElroy, head of the department of animal science, they sought and received
funding from the provincial government, through the Horned Cattle Trust
Account, to build a beef cattle breeding facility. They found the ideal ranch
in Kinsella, two hours east of Edmonton.

He sought to improve
fertility in females and growth in males, according to Mick Price, a fellow U
of A academic and long-time collaborator. Specifically, he wanted to show that
selective cross-breeding of beef cattle – passing on desirable traits from a
variety of breeds – could improve production.

His research proved very
controversial as the prevailing wisdom in the beef cattle industry at the time
was to use purebred cattle. Berg dared to compare how a Hereford purebred herd
– the dominant herd in beef cattle at the time – responded to a strict
selection program against a hybrid line made up of Charolais, Galloway and
Angus. Specifically, he looked at rate of gain, efficient use of feed, merit of
beef carcass, reproductive performance and mothering ability, grazing
performance and wintering ability.

“There were tremendously
strong feelings about it,” explained Price. “Ranchers thought that by
crossbreeding, we would ruin the herds. They used the word ‘mongrelized.’ They
thought that once you mongrelized the breed, you’d never get back the beauty
that was the Alberta herd and everybody would be ruined.”

Despite the ferocious
opposition, Berg persisted and developed Kinsella Ranch into one of the most
successful cattle breeding research operations in the world. He bred two hybrid
lines, according to Price. The first was 30 per cent more productive while the
second was 40 per cent more productive.

His crossbreeding
techniques have since become the norm in the beef cattle industry. Driving
along Alberta highways, a traveler would be hard pressed today to find a
purebred herd grazing in a pasture or on a farm.

And yet, in a 1999 Folio story for which Berg was interviewed, he said his
greatest impact on Alberta agriculture was in the classroom, where he pushed his
students to conduct their own research and think independently. He didn’t
believe in giving lectures. Rather he’d have the students give seminars.

“He was very, very
concerned with teaching,” said Price. “He would become very cross if you ever
talked about training students. We educated students. We didn’t train them.”

In 1977, Berg served a
term as chair of the Chair of the 
U of A Department of Animal Science before serving a term as dean of the
Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry.

Through his career, he
won numerous awards including, among many others, induction into the Alberta
Agricultural Hall of Fame and the International Stockman’s Hall of Fame in
1989, an honorary degree from the University of Guelph in 1991, the U of A
Alumni Honour Award in 2002 and the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005.

He is survived by his wife
Margaret and four children, Ruth, Paula, Kevin and Nora as well as five
grandchildren.

 

 

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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