Josh McCann, who joined the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign in 2016, grew up in Georgia and Virginia on small family farms. He earned both his animal science-related degrees in Texas and his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.
McCann’s research centers on feedlot cattle nutrition to improve sustainability and efficiency in beef production.
McCann, who lives on a small sheep farm in Champaign County with his wife and three children, also has a strong focus on providing opportunities for students in their future careers.
IFT: How did your youth affect your career choice?
McCANN: I remember moving with my family from a farm in Georgia to start a new farm in Virginia when I was 12. We moved in two semi trucks — one for the house and one for the barn. Because of the move, I had a lot of formative experiences as a teenager building a barn and fences. We also spent many weekends showing sheep and horses in 4-H and FFA. Today my wife and I have a small sheep farm. Our three kids get to name the lambs, take care of them, and learn what farm life is all about. We try to pass on those lessons that it’s hard to learn any other way.
IFT: Why put your academic focus on cattle in general and nutrition specifically?
McCANN: I always enjoyed working with animals and liked science in school. As a junior in high school, I did a science project on our own sheep. I decided to do another similar project the next year confirming that animal science was the thing for me. I really enjoy asking questions and coming up with a way to find the answers — to connect the dots with science. When it came to working on my undergraduate degree, there are a lot of cattle in Texas, so cattle provided more opportunities. They are ruminants, like sheep, and so they digest their feed in a similar way. My research focuses on those digestive processes.
IFT: What is the main focus of your research today?
McCANN: My current research focuses on a metabolic disorder for feedlot cattle called acidosis. Some cattle are more susceptible even if they are all treated the same. We are trying to find out if there are different feeding behaviors of the more susceptible cattle — if they eat faster or slower, for example — and how to identify animals at risk. In the long term, we may develop a selection process for animals with less risk to get this condition. If we can prevent disorders like acidosis, we can have healthier and more efficient cattle to benefit producers and consumers.
IFT: You have published research about housing as well, can you tell us more about that?
McCANN: We wanted to evaluate the value of rubber matting in our slatted floor confinement buildings where cattle are fed in the Midwest. These structures are much more popular here today. The building designs include pits underneath and allow for more concentrated nutrients in the manure so it is more valuable. Cattle are also cleaner without being in mud.
The study looked at concrete slatted floors, floors with new rubber mats and those with old mats and those without mats. Rubber mats are standard practice today, but we wanted to see their impacts. The new rubber matting improved the growth performance of cattle by a significant amount and improved cattle mobility. The older, worn-out mats didn’t help performance but did help mobility and were better than bare concrete slats.
There’s not a perfect correlation between mobility and performance. As we do more research on the facilities, we will establish best management practices for these structures.
IFT: Tell us a little about where you work with cattle and where you do your follow-up research.
McCANN: I have a diverse research program with a great team of students and staff that make it happen. Much of our work is done at the university’s feedlot farm near the Animal Science building where we can look at growth performance with a large number of animals, intake and nutrition impacts on carcasses. We do metabolism research on what happens inside the rumen, and we have a whole laboratory in the Animal Science buildings where I do in vitro work. We feed and evaluate feed additives and their effects on rumen fermentation.
IFT: What would you like people to know about your work?
McCANN: I think most people in the agricultural and livestock industry appreciate that research happens. However, many may not understand the lengths we go to improve livestock production, what we do, and how committed we are. The quality of beef produced in the U.S. is not surpassed. Our American expectations of beef quality are off the charts, and it is remarkable the progress we have made even in the last 20 years. Today, we really only produce high-quality beef. International visitors are impressed with the quality of beef here, and American travelers out of the country can notice the difference right away when they eat beef in other places.
IFT: What is the achievement you are the proudest of?
McCANN: For me, it is opportunities that are available to our students. One of the things we’ve done is created The Illinois Beef Experiential Learning and Industry Exposure Fellowship (I-BELIEF). It is funded by USDA to recruit undergrad students and pay students as they do research over the summer to help them prepare for graduate school. It is available to current students at universities and community colleges. Each summer we pick 10 students to participate in the five-year program. We have students from six different colleges and universities participating this year. The training program gets students interested in beef research at the University of Illinois and Western Illinois University. We get to work with really talented students. One student we worked with in 2017 is halfway through her PhD in cattle nutrition. Before I-BELIEF, she didn’t have the experience or confidence to pursue her passion.
IFT: Please tells us a little about your work with students.
McCANN: I like to challenge the students to think more holistically about production, nutrition and livestock management. To connect all the pieces of the puzzles. It’s about training students on how to ask questions and how to answer those. You need to keep asking questions and keep finding answers. Those who really like asking questions, I tell them they would really like graduate school because that’s what we get to do a lot of.