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From Field to Dairy: How Whole Cottonseed Gets to You

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Cotton growers and dairy farmers alike know the value of cotton lies not just in its textile uses, but also in its byproduct, whole cottonseed. Whole cottonseed can be an excellent addition to cattle diets1, and every person involved in cotton production has a keen eye on preserving its quality. Here’s a step-by-step description of how whole cottonseed goes from the field to cattle operations around the country.

Planting and Growing

Just outside of Huntsville, Alabama, Mike Tate and his brothers grow cotton, corn, soybeans and winter wheat, rotating crops to ensure soil health. The growing season kicks off in February when they prepare the land. The Tates practice no-till farming to prevent soil erosion, so they spray herbicides to remove existing vegetation.

They are then ready to plant. Cotton planting begins during the last week of April and continues to mid-May. Cotton plants mature throughout the summer and are harvested in October.

Smart pest management is one component of ensuring the quality of both the lint and cottonseed, according to Tate. He uses a cotton plant with Bt technology2. This genetically modified plant variety is resistant to lepidopterous insects, which reduces the need for late-season applications of crop chemicals.

At the end of the growing season, it’s important to watch the weather. Harvesting during a rainy or humid time risks damage to both the lint and cottonseed. Preserving the quality of the cottonseed is a top priority for growers like Tate.

Processing Cotton With Care

Once cotton is harvested, it is compacted into blocks called modules and sent off to the cotton gin for processing.

Cotton gins use a variety of equipment to clean the cotton of any debris. Among the first steps is to process the cotton through the “hot box,” a machine that uses hot air to evaporate any moisture remaining on the plant so it’s easier to clean. Then, a machine called the “wad buster” shakes the cotton against a screen to break up clumps and free debris before it’s transported to a burr machine that uses centrifugal force to spin off any remaining detritus.

The cotton enters a machine called a “gin stand,” which is fitted with several saws that separate the lint from the cottonseed. The saw teeth grab the lint and pull it through a narrow passage while the cottonseed falls onto a separate conveyor.

Once cottonseed is processed, it gets trucked, railed and barged to its end users, mostly cattle farms in the north and west, according to Morgan Wells, cottonseed manager at U.S. Commodities.

“Approximately 60% of our production in the U.S. gets consumed by dairy cattle, about 30% by the oil mills for crushing and about 10% gets exported,” Wells said.

Nourishing Cows With Whole Cottonseed

All the care taken by cotton growers and ginners pays off when it meets its end user: dairy farmers. Carmen Monson, an independent nutritionist and owner of Monson Consulting, has worked with dairy farmers for over three decades, advising them on how to maximize their animals’ nutrition. She recommends whole cottonseed because it provides a great balance of fiber, fat and protein; on average, 21% fiber, 17% fat and 24% protein, according to Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities Extension3.

“Cottonseed bridges a lot of gaps,” Monson said. “Some commodities just provide fiber, some just provide fat, and some are just protein, but cottonseed has all of those. Because the fat is trapped within the layers of the hull, it breaks down more slowly, which allows the animal to utilize all the nutrients.”

This slow release of fat combined with high digestible fiber yields higher milk production, typically with better butterfat content, according to a University of California, Davis study4.

Monson offers some handling and storage tips for farmers looking to supplement with whole cottonseed. She recommends using a walking floor and dump truck rather than a hopper bottom truck to make it easier to transport the whole cottonseed into a commodity shed. She also recommends that farmers without a commodity shed make space in a machine shed for storage. Some coated or pelleted whole cottonseed products can also make it easier to handle and store. 

“When I show a farmer the value of whole cottonseed and how much more milk we can expect as a result of this better nutrition, he’ll usually say, ‘Oh, that’s really worth it to me to make a spot for the cottonseed and a plan to handle it,’” Monson said.

If you’re ready to add whole cottonseed to your cattle’s diet, find qualified sellers of whole cottonseed on the Cottonseed Marketplace.


1 Cranston, J., et. al. 2006. “Effects of feeding whole cottonseed and cottonseed products on performance and carcass characteristics of finishing beef cattle.” J. Anim. Sci. 84:2186–2199. doi:10.2527/ jas.2005-669

 2 Hardee, D., Van Duyn, J., Layton, M. and Bagwell, R. 2000. “Bt cotton & management of the tobacco budworm-bollworm complex.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, ARS–154. 40 pp.

3 Jacobs, L., Mullenix, K. and Brown, S. 2019. “Whole cottonseed use in beef cattle diets.” Alabama Cooperative Extension System. https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/beef/whole-cottonseed-use-in-beef-cattle-diets/#:~:text=On%20average%2C%20whole%20cottonseed%20contains,of%20phosphorus%20(0.75%20percent).

4 DePeters, J., et. al. 1985. “Effects of feeding whole cottonseed on composition of milk.” J. Anim. Sci. 68(4):897-902. doi: 10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(85)80907-3


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