Latest articles

The fearless researcher who revolutionized cattle breeding

Roy Berg was once the most reviled cattle researcher in the country — until he proved that crossbreeding could produce spectacular productivity gains

He was an intrepid man whose controversial work earned him scores of critics — but his name will now live on as the research station where Roy Berg conducted much of his revolutionary work on beef cattle.

Nearly 300 people — friends, colleagues, former students, industry specialists, and family members — travelled to the Kinsella Research Station in mid-August to honour a “giant” of Canadian beef breeding.

“Today’s renaming of the Kinsella Research Station highlights the difference that one committed and determined researcher can make, even in the face of strong opposition and significant skepticism,” said Lorne Babiuk, vice-president of research at the University of Alberta.

“Berg’s meticulous research work laid the foundation for tremendous advances in beef production, genetics and what is called genomics today.”

While many decried Roy Berg’s experiments in crossbreeding cattle, he knew that hybrid vigour could make a difference and transform the industry. He conducted research at the Kinsella Research Station, which has been renamed in honour of him.

While many decried Roy Berg’s experiments in crossbreeding cattle, he knew that hybrid vigour could make a difference and transform the industry. He conducted research at the Kinsella Research Station, which has been renamed in honour of him.
photo: Courtesy Ruth Ball

Berg, who grew up on a ranch north of Brooks, joined the university in 1955 after earning a PhD in Minnesota, and quickly earned the wrath of many in the cattle industry with his work on crossbreeding as a means to introduce hybrid vigour. Critics accused him of trying to “mongrelize” the purebred herds which dominated the industry in those days.

“It was one of those things that you couldn’t ignore or deny,” said Mick Price, his friend and colleague. “People were crossbreeding, but it was a one-generation thing. You crossbred to produce cattle to kill for beef.”

Convinced he needed large-scale research to prove his controversial theory, the young academic fought for the establishment of the now rechristened Roy Berg Kinsella Research Station, said Price, a professor emeritus of livestock growth and meat production at the U of A.

The 5,500-acre “research ranch” (now 12,000 acres) was established in 1960 — and was big enough for an experimental herd and a control herd.

“Imagine even today, a young professor saying that he would like to buy a ranch and two herds of cattle,” said Price.

Roy Berg, a pioneer in the cattle industry, surrounded by animals that represented his passion.

Roy Berg, a pioneer in the cattle industry, surrounded by animals that represented his passion.
photo: Courtesy Ruth Ball

Cattlemen, journalists, and even some of his university colleagues were outraged at what was happening at the facility, 150 kilometres east of Edmonton, saying “Berg’s bastards” would forever destroy the dominance of purebred herds. The university was asked to fire Berg, and even the premier was called on to intervene.

But the researcher had his supporters, too — some of whom went on to form BeefBooster putting his breeding techniques into practice.

It took more than 10 years to achieve measurable results but in the end, the results spoke for themselves. Berg bred two hybrid lines at Kinsella — one which was 30 per cent more productive than purebred cattle, and the other 40 per cent more productive than pure lines.

The practices that caused such a furor were — by today’s standards — very basic. Females were selected for fertility, and culled if they hadn’t calved in two years. All bulls born on the ranch stayed intact and the fastest-growing ones sired the next generation.

The huge gains in productivity simply couldn’t be ignored.

Ruth Ball, daughter of Roy Berg, worked on the ranch during summers and holidays. Her father would have been proud of the renaming, she said.

Ruth Ball, daughter of Roy Berg, worked on the ranch during summers and holidays. Her father would have been proud of the renaming, she said.
photo: Alexis Kienlen

“Try to estimate what that could mean in an industry that generated over $1.1 billion in the province in 1979,” said Price.

Berg became famous in Alberta and Canada for his crossbreeding research, but he was internationally renowned because of his work as an animal physiologist, said Price.

He was also known for his teaching style, which required students to think critically and respond knowledgeably about what they were studying. He was an outlier who was happy to go his own way.

“He once told me that rules were for people who can’t think for themselves,” said his daughter, Ruth Ball. “Considering how he broke the rules concerning cattle breeding and how much more productive the cattle industry was afterwards, maybe his attitude should be embraced by a few more people in the university, in government and in industries today.”

And that’s the point of renaming the research station, said Price.

“We should rename it so that the people who work here now, and the people who will follow, will know the name of the giant whose shoulders they stand on: Roy Berg.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

explore

Stories from our other publications

Comments