Landowners and hunters wanting to produce bigger and better white-tailed deer through deer management practices are often looking for an economical way to provide supplemental foods. Food plots are a common way to provide additional forage, but often times the most cost is associated with high protein foods. Protein pellets are the most common supplement delivered through feeders, but other options exists, such as roasted soybeans and whole cottonseed. But is feeding cottonseed to deer a good idea, and does it work?
The intensity of deer management across much of the whitetail’s range is high and many managers provide supplements to meet management and deer nutrition goals. Many managers have considered cottonseed as a supplement to pelleted feeds because cottonseed delivers a high amount of protein (23% protein) and it does not easily degrade, even in under moist conditions. In addition, in many areas cottonseed is readily available and much less expensive (half the cost) than formulated pellets. Lastly, cottonseed is not readily eaten by animals other than deer because it contains the chemical gossypol, which protects cotton plants from herbivores.
In the past, gossypol was considered to be a potential problem associated with feeding cottonseed to whitetail, but research has shown it does not have any substantial negative impacts to deer. Gossypol has greater negative impacts on monogastric mammals such as raccoons and feral hogs than it does ruminants such as cattle and white-tailed deer. However, research has found that gossypol can reduce antler density, body condition, and sperm quality in cervids.
Though findings suggest that cottonseed can cause some problems when eaten in very high amounts, cottonseed can work very well as a supplemental protein source when implemented into an overall deer management program. First, cottonseed should strictly be used as a supplement, not supplied to penned deer as a full ration. When provided in the habitat of free-ranging deer, animals will consume additional food sources, such as forbs, browse, and mast, in addition to cottonseed. In addition, to avoid infertility in bucks cottonseed should not be made available to deer within 6 weeks of the breeding season.
Whole cottonseed is high in protein and makes an excellent alternative to formulated pellets as a supplemental protein. Feeding cottonseed to whitetail deer is a good deer management practice that can pay dividends in the form of bigger, healthier deer, better deer hunting, and the fact that it is less expensive than other protein sources. Roasted soybeans (35% protein) are also an option for landowners and hunters interested in provided whitetail with supplemental food sources, but they are more expensive than either cottonseed or pellets.