By Tim Kalinowski
The Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch, located about 150 km east of Edmonton, has done pioneering research on cattle breeding and cattle genetics for the best part of 60 years.
Breakthroughs achieved at the ranch have gone on to influence two generations of the cattle industry in Western Canada, but it has not always been smooth sailing going against the tide, says retiring ranch manager Barry Irving.
“I think Roy Berg’s original work … continues to bear fruit in today’s ag. industry,” says Irving. “When he started work in the industry, he was called wrong and misguided by promoting you could cross strains of pure bred cattle, and perhaps come up with something that was better.”
“And now 50 years later, ninety per cent of the Alberta beef herd is crossbreds and synthetics. It is not pure bred. Pure breds supply the seed stock, but the Alberta beef industry is based on crossbreds and synthetics.
“ There is likely some still in the cattle industry that have a bit of a sour taste in their mouth and a sour opinion of the Kinsella Ranch because of its history of research.”
Today the ranch still runs five herds of research cattle, pure bred Charolais, pure bred Angus, two herds of Roy Berg original synthetics and its most recent acquisition— rare pure bred Hays-Converters.
“It’s not a new breed, but it is a relatively unknown breed,” explains Irving. “It was developed by the Hays family. The current member of the family we’re dealing with is Dan Hays. His dad (Harry) was the one who developed the breed, and then Dan has continued it on. But Dan is now getting out of cattle production and he wanted a home for them.
“The reason they are so important is because they were a cross between Herefords and the Holsteins, both of which have a very well known genome. There has been lots of genomic research done on both of
“The genomic markers aren’t consistent between these two breeds so when you cross them the genomics get all mixed up. What is of interest with the Hays cattle is because there is so few of them, so they are very closely line bred. They are very similar to each other, and they have those well-known genomes in their pedigrees.
“So it might help to unlock some of the mystery as to what happens when you cross breeds together, and what happens to those genomic markers.”
The Roy Berg Kinsella Research Ranch is in the midst of a new 30-year genomic study on its synthetic herds which could also break new ground in feed efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions research for Western Canadian beef cattle going forward, says Irving.
“Cows aren’t mice or rats,” explains Irving. “We can multi-generational studies in mice, or rats, or pigs in a very short time period.
“But even with our current research program we are five years into, we haven’t even replaced the older cows in the herds. Because cows take so long a generational study takes a long time to do anything in.
“Even if we continue it for thirty years, we’ll still only have three generations in the herd. It takes that long to start to see (genomic) divergence. We can see divergence almost immediately in feed efficiency and feedlot animals, but we don’t know how long it takes to see divergence in a herd.”
Irving himself spent over 30 years working and managing the research ranch for the University of Alberta, but has recently retired. He is staying on part time over the summer until a suitable replacement is found.
Irving says he is proud to be a custodian of legacy of Roy Berg and Mick Price, the two men who started off the groundbreaking research at the ranch, which now churns forward into the future with renewed intent and enthusiasm by a new generation of genomic researchers.
“I still see lots of headlines in the beef industry on the importance of heterozygosity and diversity in beef animals, crossbred vigour and all that kind of stuff,” states Irving.
“That’s old news as far as the Kinsella Ranch is concerned. That’s 50-year-old talk. We are past that in our research and moving forward into finding these genomic markers that can help us predict some things we want to predict in beef.
“I think maintaining the ranch and those bloodlines of cattle has been tremendously important, and will be even more important as times goes on.”