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Using cottonseed to its full potential

Cory Colburn for Progressive Dairy Published on 22 February 2021

A cow’s ration is the recipe for success for producers, providing vital nutrients their cows need to stay healthy and optimize performance. Producers have a variety of feed ingredients they can choose from to help support their cows’ needs and meet their production goals, but balancing different nutrient profiles and ingredient availability can be challenging.

Using a feedstuff like whole cottonseed can reduce the number of feed ingredients in a ration and also allows for variety in sources of protein in the diet. A valuable byproduct of cotton, whole cottonseed makes its journey from the Cotton Belt to dairies across the U.S. and has many advantages as a feed for dairy cows. With a unique triple-nutrient composition, whole cottonseed contains the protein, available fat and effective fiber cattle need to perform.



Triple-nutrient composition

This combination is especially attractive when feeding the high-producing, early lactation dairy cow in negative energy balance (i.e., a cow in need of both energy and fiber). Also, the energy and fat content of whole cottonseed makes it a valuable addition for cows under heat stress that may have a reduced appetite. Additionally, whole cottonseed can increase milk output and boost butterfat.


  • Helps improve body condition, which is vital for successful breeding.
  • Whole cottonseed is highly digestible, since its energy is primarily from fat. If fed at a reasonable level, it will not interfere with forage digestion the way starch in corn can.
  • Slow-release fat allows for the benefits of fat utilization in the rumen with lower risk of overwhelming the microbiome.
  • Whole cottonseed can help meet fat demands in a diet. Animal fat has a limit on how much can be in the ration, but it can either be combined or fed from other vegetable sources like cottonseed.


  • Supports rumen function and digestive health.
  • Whole cottonseed is covered with short fibers called “linters,” a highly digestible fiber source.
  • Helps rumen development in calves.


  • Supports muscle growth, animal development and lactation.
  • Protein also contributes to components in milk.

Whole cottonseed nutrient values are listed in Table 1.


021921 pd web colburn tb1

Incorporating whole cottonseed in the ration

Five to eight pounds of whole cottonseed fed per animal, per day can be both safe and cost effective. Whole cottonseed is most commonly fed as part of a total mixed ration (TMR). However, it can also be added to a premix at the feed dealer or topdressed on farm. When supplied to an operation, a producer can purchase a premixed, mill-made mix or make a bulk cottonseed purchase. A bulk purchase requires special storage considerations to maintain quality but allows for flexibility when formulating the diet. The nutritional profile can reduce the total number of other feedstuffs needed in a ration, which can create efficiencies in sourcing feed ingredients.

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Studies have shown whole cottonseed supports increased milk production and boosts milkfat test, as well as maintaining condition on cows. Cows’ responses to cottonseed in the diet is based mostly on other ingredients in the diet. Fatty acids contribute to both milk production and components. Studies have shown that feeding the right ratios of fatty acids can support benchmarks in areas such as milk components, production or body condition on cows.

“When fed properly, whole cottonseed is a safe and effective way to increase dietary fatty acids that help improve the yields of milk and milkfat, under most conditions,” explains Dr. Adam Lock, professor in the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University. “When looking to incorporate whole cottonseed into a ration, I would recommend getting it into the diet as an early choice in the TMR formulation strategy and then build other fatty acid sources, such as dry commercial fats, around it.”

Additionally, when feeding whole cottonseed, a study found milk yield was not affected, but butterfat was increased, especially in early lactation. The concentrated nutrients of whole cottonseed allows for requirements to be met without forfeiting too many pounds of dry matter intake (DMI) to reach goals. Two example rations are shown in Tables 2 and 3.


021921 pd web colburn tb2

021921 pd web colburn tb3

Nutrient and cost breakdown

Herds following the sample diets above had an average daily milk production of 80 pounds per cow, with 4.3% butterfats and 16% protein for one herd and 17.5% protein for other.

Looking at central Wisconsin prices and the sample diets above, formulated and priced in January 2021, it would take 0.5 pounds of milk response to pay for 1 pound of cottonseed added to the ration:

  • Cottonseed price: $345 per ton = 17 cents per pound
  • 2-pound feeding rate = 35 cents per cow, per day
  • Milk price: $20 per hundredweight = 20 cents per pound of milk
  • 0.5 pounds of milk response to pay for 1 pound of cottonseed

In addition to supporting productive cows, whole cottonseed can be used to supplement poor-quality grass hay for pregnant and nursing cows to supply energy and protein. It also serves as an excellent high-fiber forage extender, especially if forage quality is a concern. Haylage is a great pairing with cottonseed. When short, cottonseed can help extend the forage, but also when paired with high-quality haylage, cottonseed helps balance out protein digestibility rates.

Cottonseed is very palatable, making it an easy feed to incorporate into rations without altering DMI. In addition, mixes high in minerals can benefit from cotton in the mix, helping hold them together and making a better mix.


Whole cottonseed supports cow health and productivity in dairies across the U.S. To learn more, it’s recommended to conduct a forage analysis and ask a nutritionist to accurately determine the amount of cottonseed needed to meet protein and energy requirements. When looking to buy whole cottonseed, producers can use the Cottonseed Marketplace interactive map to identify a cottonseed merchant or feed dealer to check prices and request a quote.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTOS: Photos courtesy of Whole Cottonseed.

Cory Colburn
  • Cory Colburn

  • Whole Cottonseed Advisory Council Member
  • Independent Nutritionist
  • Genuine Livestock Nutrition Consulting
  • Email Cory Colburn