Cattle Genetics Pioneer Passes Away

CANADA - Dr Roy Berg, the man who brought hybrid vigour to Alberta’s cow herds, passed away last week at the age of 85. Ranchers and others in the agriculture industry should take a moment to remember Dr Berg not only for his intelligence and hard work, but also for the guts he had to stand by his idea, writes Lisa Guenther for Genome Alberta.
calendar icon 18 May 2012
clock icon 2 minute read

Hybrid vigour is a widely-accepted concept in the beef industry today. But in the 1950s, purebred herds were the norm for everyone, including commercial cattle operators. Dr Berg went against the prevailing industry wisdom to change that norm and make cattle herds more productive.

In 1955, Dr Berg began working at the University of Alberta as an assistant professor. He worked with L.W. McElroy to secure funding to start a beef breeding program. Dr Berg set up the program on a ranch near Kinsella, a couple hours east of Edmonton.

Dr Berg developed a hybrid line of Charolais, Galloway, and Angus, and compared the hybrid herd’s performance against purebred Herefords. Mike Price, a colleague of Dr Berg’s, says ranchers initially had “strong feelings” about Berg’s demonstration.

“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,” says Mr Price.

Though many ranchers were opposed to the idea at first, the hybrids’ merits and Dr Berg’s determination won out. Dr Berg’s hybrid lines were 30 to 40 per cent more productive than the purebred Herefords.

Dr Berg taught animal genetics at the University of Alberta until 1991, and by all accounts he was a committed teacher and mentor, too. During his time there, he also served as Chair of the Department of Animal Science and Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry.

Ultimately Dr Berg was recognised for his work by the agriculture industry. In 1989, he was inducted into the International Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Alberta Agricultural Hall of Fame. The University of Guelph awarded him an honorary degree, and the University of Alberta followed up with an Alumni Honour Award. In 2005, he received an Alberta Centennial Medal.

Dr Berg’s obituary states that his legacy lies in the rainbow commercial herds in Alberta’s feedlots and fields. It should also be remembered the nerve he showed to bring forth that innovation.

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