A pile of whole cottonseed

Every year at least one person asks me whether or not whole cottonseed can be fed to their livestock.  And after all of these years, I am still surprised at the question.

Upland cottonseed is one of the best supplements, from a nutritional standpoint, that I have ever seen.  It has a moderate protein level, a high energy level that is derived from fat instead of starch, and a moderate fiber level.  It can be stored on the ground as the hairs on the seed, called linters, on the outside help to shed moisture from the outer shell. 

However, it is difficult to feed, in that it doesn’t auger well, or flow like a grain will.  So the only way to handle it is with a scoop, front end loader, or in buckets.  And it’s hard to know how much you are feeding at a time, since it’s hard to guess how much seed is in each bucket, or scoop. 

Cottonseed is not perfect, but I think a deeper evaluation will help to show its benefits and problems.  First, let’s look at its protein level.  Cottonseed can run from 17% to 26% total protein in the whole seed.  Many producers get confused since cottonseed meal has a protein level of 41% total protein.  However, the meal is what is left when the oil (or fat) and the hulls are extracted in processing. 

The protein content seems to be higher in plants that had plenty of moisture during the growing season.  The seed I have had analyzed from drought years from predominantly non-irrigated farms will be lower in protein than those that came from mostly irrigated farms.  So if you do look for cottonseed, try to find a source that is supplied by irrigated farms to get a higher protein content. 

One of the main disadvantages of whole cottonseed is that most of the protein is in an undegradable form.  As you should remember, protein has two factions depending on where it is metabolized by a ruminant.  Degradable protein is the faction that is used by the microorganism in the rumen to create microbial protein.  The undegradable faction passes through the rumen without being broken down and is metabolized in its original form in the abomasum.

For livestock grazing dormant winter forages, which have low levels of degradable protein, a supplement that is high in undegradable protein can hinder forage intake, due to lower numbers of microorganism in the rumen. 

These microorganisms depend on degradable protein as their source of amino acids for existence, so a shortage in degradable protein, will limit their population numbers.  If their numbers are reduced, it either takes longer to break down the fiber in the diet, or the fiber is less completely metabolized.  So having a sufficient amount of protein available in the rumen is critical. 

This condition also exists for goats and deer that must rely on browse that has secondary compounds in them that tie up proteins.  In a sense, these proteins that are tied up by these chemicals become undegradable protein, since they are unavailable to the microorganisms.  However, most of these secondary compounds will be broken down by the acid and enzyme environment of the abomasum, and the proteins will be released to be metabolized in the abomasum.

So using cottonseed as the sole protein source can, with diets with low degradable protein values, result in protein deficiencies in the rumen of your livestock.  This can be corrected by feeding a combination of a highly degradable protein source, such as urea, or a natural protein source like soybean or cottonseed meal.  By feeding a combination of ingredients with different levels of degradability, you can better balance the protein factions of the diet.

Next let’s look at the energy level of cottonseed.  No other feed that we normally use in livestock production can come close to the energy value of cottonseed.  Soybeans are close, but need to be roasted to get the full benefit of the amino acids in soybeans. 

The oil, or fat, that is naturally in cottonseed is the source of this high energy level.  The oil analyses that I have seen over the years have run from 15 to 22% crude fat, the measurement for oils in seeds and plants. 

These high oil level result in energy levels of 0.96 to 1.12 Mcals of Net Energy maintenance per pound.  As a comparison, corn runs around 0.88 Mcals per pound for whole seed. 

The variation of fat content in the seeds seems to be similar to the protein levels in that seed from irrigated farms seem to have higher fat levels than those from dryland farms.  So the better growth period the seed has, the more nutritive value it has. 

The major plus of cottonseed is that this very high level of energy is derived from a fat source rather than a starch source.  The significance of that is the effect it has on the rumen environment.  When starch is added to a ruminant’s diet that is eating forages, the starch digesting microorganisms (amylotic) begin to increase in numbers at the expense of fiber digesting microorganisms (cellulotic) and make the rumen environment more acidic.  At some point, the greater acidity will reduce fiber digestion because of the decrease in cellulotic organisms. 

However, with a fat-derived energy source, you do not have a negative impact on fiber digestion unless the fat level of the entire diet gets around 8%.  Supplementing with a 20% fat feed like cottonseed, you would have to feed around 10 pounds per day to reach this 8% fat level of the total diet.

The one energy problem with cottonseed is that energy from fats are not available to the microorganisms in the rumen.  If the forages your livestock are eating have sufficient energy in them, fat from cottonseed being unavailable is not a problem.  However, if the microbes are being limited by a ruminal energy deficiency, you may need provide a source of energy available to the rumen. 

In a situation where ruminal energy is needed, starches and sugars can provide readily available energy in the rumen.  So grains, molasses, natural protein sources, and good quality hay, all can complement cottonseed as an energy source if needed. 

The final component of whole cottonseed that makes it a good supplement is the fiber component.  The hulls surrounding the seed is the source of cottonseed hulls.  In feedlots, cottonseed hulls are favored by many because of their ability to satisfy the “roughage factor” in the rumen.  For the rumen to work correctly, it has to have a slowly degrading fiber that will scratch the walls of the rumen to stimulate muscle contractions in the wall of the rumen.  This keeps the contents of the rumen agitating, much like the contents of a washing machine, to allow the microorganisms to attach to the material and begin fermentation.

In pasture situations, the forages the livestock eat supply the fiber needed for the “roughage factor”.  However, in drought situations, where forage intake may be restricted, the added fiber from the whole cottonseed can contribute to keeping the rumen functional.  Cottonseed is the only supplement that can provide this fiber and high energy in the same package. 

So, now that I’ve sung the praises of whole cottonseed as a supplement, what are the best conditions to use, or not use, it? 

The primary reason NOT to use whole cottonseed is if you are not willing to invest the effort required to feed cottonseed.  As I said before, cottonseed does not flow like cubes or grains.  Nor does it come in sacks.  So you have to buy pretty large quantities, in bulk, if you want to use it.  If you don’t have a gin, or a farmer friend, close to you and can buy a small trailer load, you may have to buy a 50,000 pound truck load to get it. 

Some producers feed with a scoop, estimating how many pounds are in a scoop, or by putting it in buckets or trash cans, and estimating the weight in each container to figure out how much you are feeding at a time. 

Most everyone feeds cottonseed to sheep, goats, and deer on the ground.  Many prefer to feed cattle in troughs, to keep the waste down.  So if you are going to use cottonseed, you may have to build, or buy, some type of feed trough to put it in.

In years when you are short of forage, or need a substantial energy supplementation, cottonseed is a great choice.  However, in years, when you have abundant forage, of very good digestibility, cottonseed may not be the most economical choice.  In those cases, if protein is the primary nutrient needed, cottonseed, or soybean, meal may be the least cost supplement per pound of protein. 

You should always compare the costs of supplements based on the cost of the most needed nutrient in the supplement.  Determine what you greatest need is, find the supplement that corrects it the cheapest, and then be sure the other needed nutrients will be corrected as well. 

Cottonseed in no magic supplement, but it comes close.  It has many properties that make it a great supplement for ruminants.  However, like most everything else, it does come with some drawbacks.  As long as it will work with your livestock operation, it is a great feed, that is generally less expensive than commercial feeds, and provides more energy than any other supplement available.

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