Cottonseed Goes With the Flow
Cottonseed that handles like whole shelled corn? That’s how Tom Wedegaertner, director of cottonseed research and marketing for Cotton, Inc. tells it. A new process developed by the cotton grower checkoff organization encapsulates cottonseed in a light coat of cornstarch, pasting down the lint and improving the seed’s handling characteristics. The end product, dubbed EasiFlo, offers new opportunities for feed suppliers that have previously been unable to handle cottonseed.
Putting a Coat on Cottonseed
Cottonseed has a blend of crude protein (23%), fat (20%) and crude fiber (24%) that makes it a nearly ideal ingredient in dairy feed formulations. According to Wedegaertner’s research, a major reason it hasn’t been used more is because of difficulties in handling and storage. “One feed mill operator told me he had to put in $100,000 worth of modifications to his mill so he could handle fuzzy cottonseed,” he says. “Such operations would gladly pay a $20 to $30/ton premium to be able to get cottonseed that can go through their existing equipment.”
In 1993, Cotton, Inc. began research on a process to improve cottonseed’s flowability, working with a company experienced in coatings for candy and pharmaceuticals.
“The company developed a beautiful coating, but it cost $4 a pound,” says Wedegaertner. “We were putting 100 pounds on a ton of cottonseed, so the coating alone was worth about $400/ton. But it showed that the process was technologically feasible.” The organization then began investigating ways to make the process economically feasible. It took about three years of research testing various coating materials and equipment to reduce the cost to roughly $20/ton.
The EasiFlo process is “almost embarassingly simple,” says Wedegaertner. Feedgrade cornstarch is mixed with water and heated to near boiling. The gelatinized paste is “smeared” onto the seed using a simple mixer device. The seed then passes through a belt conveyor dryer to prevent water from penetrating the seed. The end result is a hard, durable crust that seals the lint.
Feed Mills See Benefits
Handling is the “biggest positive” of the EasiFlo product, says Jim Hanson, director of ingredient supply and merchandising, Midwest Feed Group, Cenex/Land O’Lakes. Mills under Hanson’s jurisdiction were among those to receive the first truckloads generated by the pilot plant at the USDA Cotton Ginning Laboratory in Lubbock, TX. Hanson says response from feed mill managers was “obviously positive because it handled so much easier than whole fuzzy cottonseed.”
John Pagett, mill manager at Southern States’ Durham, SC, feed mill, had a similar reaction: “Before (EasiFlo), we couldn’t handle cottonseed at all. We could handle this product.” The coated seed was moved through the mill much like traditional grain, using existing equipment. Despite some problems with separation in mashed feeds, Pagett says, “From a milling standpoint, it’s an excellent product.”
EasiFlo can be transported in hopper-bottom trucks or railcars, conveyed using existing conveying systems and stored in overhead bins, says Wedegaertner. This helps put mills back “in control.”
“As dairies get bigger and bigger, it’s harder for mills to justify their existence,” he explains. While many smaller dairies in the Eastern United States still rely on mills for the protein concentrate they mix with home-grown forages, larger dairies tend to bypass the mill and buy direct from gins, or through brokers or traders. “The EasiFlo process brings another commodity back under the feed mill’s control, which will help in the long run.”
Some Unanswered Questions
Such answers are forthcoming, says Wedegaertner. Studies at Penn State and the University of Wisconsin are testing the durability of the coating; potential shelf life of the seed; and reaction to humid conditions. “So far that research looks better than expected,” he states. “The coating seems to be very durable, and seems to have an adequate shelf life. It doesn’t take up moisture any differently than fuzzy cottonseed.” Final results of these studies are expected by the end of the year.
Research on the product’s nutritional properties also indicates no apparent nutritional differences between the coated and fuzzy seed. In fact, the studies showed a slight increase in dry matter intake and milk production in dairy cows consuming the EasiFlo. Follow-up studies will take a closer look at these areas.
A harder question to answer concerns the cost of commercial production. “I don’t think there will be a problem with the product itself being accepted,” Hanson says. “The biggest challenge will be the cost of manufacturing the product, and the premium required in the marketplace to offset that cost.” While he foresees Cenex/Land O’Lakes mills using EasiFlo in the future, he says it will depend on the premium the marketplace demands.
“Obviously, in anything you do there are cost/benefit ratios that must be weighed.”
“As dairies get bigger and bigger, it’s harder for mills to justify their existence … The EasiFlo process brings another commodity back under the feed mill’s control, which will help in the long run.”
Tom Wedegaertner, Cotton Inc.
Cotton Inc. has signed its first commercial licensing agreement with Commonwealth Gin in Windsor, VA. While the product won’t be commercially available until March of 1998, Wedegaertner anticipates EasiFlo will sell at a $30 to $50/ton premium to fuzzy cottonseed.
Cottonseed gets around the block
The EasiFlo coating process is creating new product opportunities for cottonseed, including use in range blocks. “Any mill that makes protein blocks can use the coated product,” says Cotton Inc.’s Tom Wedegaertner. The cottonseed can be added to the mix and pass through standard block equipment.
The first several runs of EasiFlo produced were used to make both pressed and poured blocks up to 500 pounds. While the feed studies aren’t complete, initial results have been promising. “EasiFlo opens up another opportunity for mills to use cottonseed in products they hadn’t thought of before because they couldn’t physically get it into those products,” says Wedegaertner.
But the benefits will help offset those cost concerns, says Wedegaertner. EasiFlo’s increased bulk density (27 to 28 pounds of Easiflo fits into the same space as 22 to 23 pounds/cubic foot of untreated seed) and the ability to use hopper-bottom equipment should reduce shipping costs. Reduced equipment and labor at the mill should further offset the higher price per ton. Wedegaertner estimates the final premium delivered at a Midwest mill will be roughly $20 to $40/ton.
Long-Term Growth Potential
Less than 100,000 tons of EasiFlo will likely be produced in the first couple years, with a gradual increase to 500,000 tons over the next five years, Wedegaertner estimates. That equates to roughly 17% of the 3 million tons of cottonseed currently being fed. “Ultimately, 10 to 15 years down the road most of the cottonseed in the Southeast that goes into feed will be coated as the cost of the coating process goes down,” he says. “It just makes more sense.”
As demand for EasiFlo increases, cottonseed growers will likely see greater price stability. “We’re not going to see $80 cottonseed anymore,” Wedegaertner predicts.
He adds, “The whole reason we’re doing this is to increase cottonseed usage by getting it into places it couldn’t go before. Cotton growers will make a little more money. It’s going to be more of a high-end speciality product fed to high-producing dairy cows, which is really where it belongs.”