King Cotton may have lost its crown in acreage, but cottonseed continues to reign supreme as a feed ingredient for high-producing dairy cows.

According to the USDA's May 9 prospective plantings report for 2008-2009, cotton acreage is expected to shrink by 1.44 million acres, down to 9.39 million acres. Soybean acres are expected to increase by 11.2 million acres and wheat by 3.4 million acres. "The increase of soybean acres alone will eclipse that of the entire 2007 cotton crop," notes Tom Wedegaertner, director, cottonseed research and marketing, Cotton Incorporated.

"With cotton production projected at 14.5 million bales, 25 percent below last year, cottonseed availability will follow suit," he adds. "As we head into another year of limited supply, we'll be closely watching the use of cottonseed in dairies. Last year, we witnessed an amazing loyalty, despite prices breaking $300/ton. This year, we're looking at closer to $400/ton. It's a whole new ball game."

After the crush, about 2 million tons of cottonseed will be available for feeding, Wedegaertner explains. "That's half of what we had two years ago, and enough to feed about 4 million dairy cows."

Rick Titel, a ration analyst for Agri-Nutrition Consulting, Inc., DeForest, Wis., and dairy nutrition consultant for TLC Tech Services, Eldorado, Wis., says that before the price of cottonseed started to rise, he was recommending up to 5-6 pounds of whole fuzzy cottonseed per head per day.

Producers who booked cottonseed last fall are in the best situation, he notes. "Our strategy is to hold in the cottonseed as long as we can with the booked prices. If producers are buying as they go, we recommend keeping it in at the 2-pounds-per-head-per-day level for the high producers.

"I've been consulting for 20 years and have seen that when you try to replace the oil in cottonseed, cows lose body condition over time," he adds. "Plus, cottonseed is a great source of forage-type NDF that can be used for forage replacement. For producers in some parts of the country, cottonseed could actually be a cost-effective alternative to high-quality hay."

Titel says producers should carefully weigh the pros and cons when replacing an ingredient. "For instance, you cannot wholly replace the oil in cottonseed with distillers' grains, but you can replace a part of it," he says. "When you have a high-production herd, you could risk losing production by taking out too many things."

Dr. Paul Chandler, retired nutritionist and regular Dairyline contributor, concurs. He says producers should resist reacting emotionally to the marketplace by replacing cottonseed with cheaper feeds.

"You've got to keep the milk flow up on a daily basis," he says. "Cottonseed helps do just that."