I get asked often about cottonseed as an alternative whitetail deer feed. The answer is not short or quick so here is my typical answer to that question:
Pros: First, cottonseed is readily eaten by whitetails (and mule deer) and is very high in crude protein. It is high in fat and oils, is high in digestibility and protein, and not much else will eat it (such as raccoons, feral hogs or javelina and most birds). Second, cottonseed is generally a cheaper alternative to pelleted feed as a source of fat and protein.
Cons: First, the availability depends on the current year’s cotton crop and distribution. So, in drought years, the availability is here today and gone tomorrow, which is a huge no-no when feeding deer. Constantly switching the feed, feed type, feed blend, protein content, etc will disrupt the gut microorganisms in the stomach that process and digest the food. By feeding cottonseed for a while, then stopping and restarting over and over, you actually keep the efficiency of the deer’s stomach in a stage of disruption, resulting in poor digestibility, processing and other stomach issues that negatively affect the deer’s overall health. Second, cottonseed is not a consistent source of nutrition among batches or loads. One batch of cottonseed is different than the next and the first issue comes right back into play again– minor disruptions of the stomach processes. Third, the physical handling of cottonseed is expensive. The actual cottonseed feed itself is generally cheaper than most bagged protein; however, it has to be handled only in loose bulk and cannot be properly stored or bagged or put in bulk grain bins like protein or corn. The handling involves an eighteen-wheel truck dumping the cottonseed somewhere on your ranch and driving off. Next, you have to move it into the barn or shed or cover it with tarps or just leave it outside to the elements. It will “harden up” and create its own protective cover (remember the oils?) and does a pretty good job of shedding water, but it is still sitting on the ground and out in the open. Next, ranch personnel have to shovel it either into their ranch truck or in the front bucket of the farm tractor and deliver it to the feeder location. Once at the feed station, it again has to be handled either by shovel from the truck into the wire mesh cylinder or dumped by the tractor bucket. Cottonseed cannot be fed from traditional corn or free choice protein feeders (due to the fluff and oils) so a separate wire mesh cylinder has to be used to contain it. It won’t stand up alone, so the cylinder has to be tall and held upright to keep it orderly and better utilized. Fourth, and certainly most important, cottonseed creates a condition called gossypol toxicity. Gossypol is a chemical found in the seed that will actually render all male animals sterile. Yes, sterile, as in no babies made that year. However, the gossypol will leave the animal’s system once it stops eating the cottonseed, and fertility will return. So, ranches that feed cottonseed MUST remove the feed, or stop feeding it, as the bucks remove the velvet from their antlers. This timing gives the gossypol time to pass through the buck’s system and leave before he begins producing live sperm. Remember: the only time a buck produces live sperm is while he is in hard antler. I have seen several ranches that either didn’t believe it or forgot to stop feeding cottonseed before hard antler and they actually had zero fawns produced that entire year. Talk about hard on a deer management program!
So, if you can overcome all the many issues of feeding cottonseed–availability, lack of consistency, storage, handling, and stop feeding it at the right time–it can and will work for you. Many ranches have full time ranch hands to do the feeding, so the owners tolerate the handling and distribution issues, but sometimes the availability and lack of consistency still impacts them from time to time. And the majority also use protein pellets as well. Cottonseed is a great alternative for cheaply restoring body condition after a hard winter and for providing protein to grow antlers. It is not considered a complete feed, but can work well in conjunction with a balanced feeding program.
When beginning a cottonseed feeding program, there are two things you can do to help deer adjust to eating it. First, allow the protein feeder to dry up for several days, thereby almost forcing it on them. Second, throw some corn in and around the basket. Being something new, bright white, fluffy and totally different in texture and taste than your deer have EVER seen, they may still be scared of it. There is nothing in nature that even resembles cottonseed in a basket, so they may not even know they can eat or that it is good for them. Follow these tips, be patient, and the deer will eventually accept the new feed and begin eating it.
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