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University on the Range:
A Visit to the University Ranch at Kinsella, Alberta

By Rick Pilger

As the green pickup truck bounces over the rough prairie trail, small clouds of dust rise from beneath its tires. Rain in the past week has freshened the green of the central Alberta countryside, but it is becoming dry again — evidence the dust. This vehicle disturbing the landscape could be any farm pickup about its business on any prairie farm, but it isn't. On its side is the crest of the University of Alberta.

Inside, I sit between Gary Minchau, herd manager of the University of Alberta Beef Breeding Research Ranch at Kinsella, Alberta, who is driving, and Dr. Mahmoud Makarechian, associate professor of animal science, who is looking after the opening and closing of the many gates we encounter. With "Dr. Mack"— Dr. Makarechian is "Dr. Mack" to everyone at Kinsella — I had that morning travelled to the Ranch from Edmonton to visit this outpost of the University. It is a trip that Dr. Makarechian, who is the animal science professor most closely involved in the Ranch's operation these days, makes about once a week.

As I survey the broad expanse of sky, below which a herd of multi-hued cattle warily awaits our approach, the University seems far away. And indeed it had taken us almost two hours to reach Kinsella from the campus driving south and east — east mostly — from Edmonton on Highway 14. I am soon reminded, however, that in an equally real sense we have not left the University: speaking about the Ranch, Dr. Makarechian uses that most characteristic of University measurements, publications. He tells me that research conducted at the Ranch in its 25 years of existence has resulted in almost 500 research and extension publications. Thirty-five students in MSc and PhD programs have completed their theses on research based at the Ranch, and three others — two PhD and one MSc student — currently have projects and theses in progress.

Now that he is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, Roy Berg doesn't make it out to Kinsella often anymore — perhaps only four or five times a year — but he, more than anyone else, was instrumental in establishing the Ranch as the base for one of the largest and most successful beef cattle breeding research operations at any University in North America. After graduating from the University of Alberta with a BSc(Ag) degree in 1950, Dr. Berg was appointed a lecturer in animal science. Two years later, he left for the University of Minnesota, earning master's and doctoral degrees in animal genetics before returning to the U of A as an assistant professor in 1955. Upon his return to Alberta, he and L.W. McElroy, then head of animal science, began planning for an adequate beef cattle breeding facility.

After gaining the necessary University approval, the animal scientists took their plans to the Honorable L.C. Halmrast, who was then the province's minister of agriculture, and received his whole-hearted support. Endorsements from a variety of agricultural groups and the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Alberta followed, and in March 1960 Harry Strom, later to be premier of Alberta, proposed to the Legislative Assembly of Alberta "that the Government of Alberta be requested to give consideration to providing the University of Alberta sufficient funds from the Horned Cattle Trust Account to fund the establishment of a beef cattle breeding program at the earliest possible date." The legislators approved, and Drs. Berg and McElroy took that as a mandate to move ahead.

Above all, what was required was an adequate site. In an article which appeared in the University's Agriculture and Forestry Bulletin in 1980, Dr. Berg described the search for a suitable ranch:

Early in our search we found a large block of land in the Kinsella district which had been put together over the years by Lee Williams, of a well-known Edmonton Livestock Commission firm. This ranch had everything we wanted — native grass, shelter, water with a rolling topography, making it of marginal value for any other farming enterprise. It was ideal for cattle. Although we looked at other properties, our hearts were not really in it, and we encouraged negotiations for the Lee Williams ranch. A real estate agent was engaged and negotiations proceeded reasonably well. The asking price rose from about $75,000 to a final figure of $93,700 for 5,554 acres, a price of $16.87 per acre — a very reasonable price even in those times. We were ecstatic because from an original grant of $200,000 this meant that we had more than half our capital to use for improvements.

Negotiations completed, a 50-year lease for the Ranch was officially handed over to the University in January 1961.

Gary Minchai guides the truck over the rough prairie with an easy familiarity. No one knows the Ranch better than he does. When the University took possession of the Kinsella lease in September 1960, he was there looking for work, only 18 and fresh out of high school but claiming to be 20 because he badly wanted the job. Hugh Campbell, a 1952 BSc(Ag) graduate and the Ranch's first manager, took him on as his helper and Minchau started work on a Thursday, but asked for the first Saturday off — to get married. Monday he was back at work, and he has been employed at the Ranch ever since, working his way up to his present position as herd manager. He is one of five full-time employees at the Ranch. The others are the current ranch manager, Thorcuill Macdonald, and assistants Jack Welch, Ron Shippy and Ray Ball.

With Minchau's help, Campbell, now director of farm operations for the department of animal science and manger of the University Farm at the Edmonton Research Station, was able to fence two sections of land at the Ranch before freeze-up. Here, about 100 cows and heifers were wintered that first year. These animals were foundation stock for a breeding program which, with only slight changes, is still in progress. And, says Dr. Makarechian, it "truly provides one of the rare examples of long-term application of selection theory for livestock improvement." The program has grown to the point that the breeding herd which Minchau oversees is now maintained at about 650 head.

What Roy Berg had in mind when he began was a comparison of the way a purebred beef herd and a hybrid beef population responded to a strict selection program. In both lines he envisioned the production of high-performing cattle, well-adapted to Alberta conditions. Emphasis would be on rate of gain, efficient use of feed, the merit of the beef carcass, reproductive performance and mothering ability. In addition, he planned to measure grazing performance and wintering ability.

The choice for the purebred line was easy: Hereford, which occupied such a prominent place in the livestock industry. Choosing the breeds for the foundation of the hybrid line required more thought. Eventually three breeds were chosen: Charolais, the best breed available at that time for growth and leanness; Galloway, for its hardiness; and Angus, with its good reputation for mothering and for its carcass. To these two lines — the purebred Hereford and the Beef Synthetic (hybrid) — the same selection criteria would be rigidly applied, selection for improvement of growth rate in males and for better adaptability and reproduction in females.

As I explored the ranch in company with Minchau and "Dr. Mack", I encountered no purebred herds. Some years ago, the superior performance of the synthetic line had become so complete and so marked that the continued maintenance of the purebred Hereford population was rendered pointless, and other bloodlines were introduced into the herd that now functions primarily as a control group for comparison purposes.

There is also a third major herd at the Ranch now, a second synthetic line begun in the late 1960s to capitalize on the special traits of the large milking breeds for beef production. This line is formed of approximately two-thirds dairy breeds (Holstein, Brown Swiss and Simmental) and one-third beef breeds.

According to Dr. Makarechian, the breeding program at the Ranch has resulted in a 30 per cent improvement in cow productivity (determined by the total weight of weaned calves per 100 cows in the breeding herd) compared to traditional systems. During the last three years, he says, Beef Synthetic and Dairy Synthetic bulls from the Ranch ranked first and second respectively in daily gain and feed efficiency among all the beef groups examined at the University's bull testing facility at Ellerslie. In the 1984-85 tests, the Beef Synthetics from Kinsella had an average daily gain of almost a pound more than that of the top breed group supplied by the cattle industry — an average daily gain of 4.40 pounds for the Beef Synthetic bulls compared to 3.41 pounds for industry's best.

In a pasture near the main Ranch buildings, Dr. Makarechian points out a group of bulls with rather strange musculature — evident particularly on their heavy, almost lumpy hindquarters. These animals, he explains, are part of the "double-muscled" population maintained at the Ranch. Animals with this genetic aberration are bred for studies into the development and growth of muscle and for possible use in improving beef production. Lean meat production can be increased by as much as 50 per cent using these cattle, he says; however the females have so many physiological and reproductive problems that their use in a commercial operation is not currently viable.

In the pasture with the double-muscled bulls are some of the Ranch's other unusual residents, the "Pee-Wees" which are the product of another of the Ranch's breeding programs. In addition to providing information on genetic response to size selection, this breeding has yielded cattle whose diminutiveness makes them ideal for laboratory work, and they have been used for intensive physiological and metabolic studies.

The Pee-Wees look particularly small when they wander near either of the huge steers which also share the pasture. These steers, long past market weight, are maintained largely as a curiosity, the only steers on the Ranch, where those male cattle not used in the breeding program are fed as bulls — not as steers, as is the more common industry practice. Research at Kinsella and elsewhere has shown bulls to gain weight faster, make more efficient use of feed, and yield a better carcass. And Kinsella research has shown that "dark-cutting" — meat that is darker, stickier and slightly less acidic than normal — which is the major problem attributed to slaughtered bulls can easily be avoided by simply taking care not to bring unacquainted bulls together prior to slaughter.

Although the backbone of the Kinsella research is beef breeding, study in a wide variety of related disciplines has been actively pursued. There have been nutrition studies looking at the year-round costs of maintaining beef cows and at the feed requirements of feedlot cattle. Progress has been made in defining carcass merit and in understanding how to produce an ideal beef carcass. Efficient wintering strategies for beef cows have been illuminated, and the Ranch has long been involved in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's research program into the cattle disease known as scours.

The department of plant science also maintains an active involvement at the Ranch, conducting a variety of research related to brush control, range improvement and forage varieties. For the plant scientists, the Ranch is an ideal laboratory. About two-thirds of the total acreage (3.5 sections have been added to the original lease to bring the total lease to 7,616 acres or almost 3,100 hectares) is covered in rough fescue and Western Porcupine grass interspersed with aspen groves; the rest is improved pasture.

One of the more interesting innovations introduced by the range management people is the Ranch's wagon wheel pasture, an adaptation of a rather clever idea known as the "Savory System." In the centre of the large wagon wheel pasture is located its water supply. From here, dividing fences radiate out like wagon wheel spokes to the perimeter fence. Near the water, gates control access to the various sections of the pasture. Moving cattle from one section to the next is simple: open the gate to the fresh pasture and close it behind the cattle when they have finished watering — it is the nature of cattle that, given the opportunity, they will move to a new pasture even if abundant grazing remains in the old.

In response to my question about changes he has seen at the Ranch over the years, Gary Minchau says that most obvious is the vast improvement in facilities. The old ranch house still stands, but almost all of the other buildings are more recent, their construction financed, for the most part, by further grants from the Horned Cattle Trust Account. The new facilities include a covered open-front performance testing barn which can accommodate up to 300 cattle, a feedmill with a capacity of 1,500 tonnes, a cattle working and handling building adjacent to the feedlot, an office-laboratory, two workshops and hay storage buildings. The workers are accommodated by three houses and a dormitory.

As Dr. Makarechian and I drive back to Edmonton, he tells me that the University is fortunate indeed to have the Kinsella facility and the programs that it supports. Because of the high costs involved many other universities have had to abandon large-scale beef cattle research. However, thanks to the excellent support provided by the government and the beef industry the Kinsella Ranch can be operated on a commercial break-even basis. Research costs over the base operations are covered by research grants and contracts to the researchers.

Along the highway, cattle graze in the pastures of a succession of farms and soon I am thinking about how all of the producers who manage these herds will have been touched by what has taken place in Kinsella over the past 25 years, how they will have been made more competitive in a very competitive business by the Ranch that is also a part of the University.

Published Autumn 1986.

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