University mourns passing of agriculture giant

Roy T. Berg, a world-renowned animal geneticist and a giant in Alberta agriculture, passed away yesterday 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 per cent 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 and 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, he 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 longtime collaborator. Specifically, he wanted to show that selective crossbreeding of beef cattle—passing on desirable traits from a variety of breeds—could improve production.

His research proved very controversial because the prevailing wisdom in the beef cattle industry at the time was to use purebred cattle. “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; the second was 40 per cent more productive.

Berg’s crossbreeding techniques have since become the norm in the beef cattle industry. Driving along Alberta highways, a traveller 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 Department of Animal Science before serving a term as dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry.

Throughout his career, he won numerous awards including, among many others, induction into the Alberta Agriculture 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.