Some seed with free fatty acid content as high as 20 percent made its way to California dairy feeding operations and, says Tom Wedengaetner of Cotton Incorporated, who spoke at the summer meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at Branson, Mo. “They freaked out. They hadn’t seen anything like it.”

The result was that the California Department of Agriculture enacted a regulation, to be final in a few months, that prime feed grade cottonseed coming into the state must contain less than 3 percent free fatty acid.

Worse, says Wedengaetner, they also are going to require that “any cottonseed containing more than 15 percent free fatty acid will not only be subject to rejection, but the state is threatening to red tag it and label it as adulterated – which would cause all kinds of grief for merchants.”

Cottonseed quality over much of the South last year was “lousy,” he says. “Almost all the seed east of Texas was in pretty rough shape.”

Wedengaetner says Cotton Incorporated researchers “tried to bring a bit of reasonableness into the discussion” with California officials regarding free fatty acid content in cottonseed used in cow feed.

“We had done a feeding study and found that 12 percent, perhaps as high as 15 percent, of free fatty acid was fine, with no adverse effects on cows or production. We have data showing that as much as 18 percent is OK.”

To bolster their position, he said, a feeding study was arranged early this year with a New York dairy operation, involving three groups of 100 cows each that were fed cottonseed with free fatty acid levels ranging from about 12 percent to 34 percent.

“It looks like 34 is probably too high,” Wedengaetner says. “The cows actually ate it with no problems, and produced milk just fine, but preliminary data indicate there was some slight drop in butterfat.” Another study is being done in Georgia to generate more data.

Free fatty acid can increase in the field if there’s a lot of rain that causes sprouting of seed in bolls, he notes.

“If there’s a high free fatty acid level in the field and that cotton is ginned, cooled, and dried properly, the seed will be OK for cow feed. But if high moisture, high free fatty acid seed is ginned, isn’t cooled and dried, and goes into a seed pile somewhere, you can end up with hot spots that affect the protein quality of the seed – and that can cause problems in feeding.”

Some nutritionists have found that if they feed additional protein along with high free fatty acid cottonseed, “It works just fine,” Wedengaetner says.

Unfortunately, he cautions, “The free fatty acid issue in California is going to be a big deal.”

He said the Southern Regional Research Laboratory at New Orleans has developed a simple, quick test kit, to determine free fatty acid levels in cottonseed.

“We want to look at it a bit further and be sure it will work with free fatty acid in the 12 percent to 15 percent range, so those who ship seed to California will be able to quickly determine if the seed is exceeding those levels.”

Wedengaetner says Cotton Incorporated is going to conduct more research on the problem and concentrate more effort on educating the dairy trade that cottonseed with as much as 12 percent free fatty acid can safely be fed to cows.

The New York feeding study, he says, demonstrated that high free fatty acid seed “is pretty good for cow feed, and that can be a pretty good place to move it. The drawback is that we’ve had a lot of really bad seed as a result of last year’s wet harvest, and some of that is coming back to bite us in the form of the California regulations and some lawsuits.

“We all hope we won’t see another year like last year’s. It was nothing but headaches and stress.”

Revenue from cottonseed historically generated $300 million to $400 million annually at the grower level, Wedengaetner says.

“We saw fairly good increases in the price until the late ‘90s, when there was a big influx of Australian cottonseed into the West Coast. It got as high as 300,000 tons, which had a negative impact on the price for U.S. cottonseed.”

But, he says, with the decline in recent years of the drought-plagued Australian crop, and increases in exports of U.S. cottonseed to Mexico, “we’re beginning to see some strengthening of price.”

Cotton ginners from Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas-Missouri associations attended the Branson meeting.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com