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Improving profitability through research

The word “momentum” conjures up a visual image of forward movement. Be it tangible objects or creative ideas, when people use the word, it usually refers to their desire to get things going.

Just outside the windy city of Lubbock, Texas, there's an agricultural engineer on staff at USDA's Cotton Production & Processing Research facility by the name of Greg Holt. He's an energetic, tall Texan who happens to be very creative when it comes to solving agricultural-related mechanical problems.

In 1998, the Texas Cotton Ginners Association conducted a survey to determine what issues were paramount in the minds of Lone Star State ginners. Utilization of gin “by-product” was the number two overall concern registered by the Texas ginning community. With funding from Cotton Incorporated, Holt soon found out that by-product had potential for several commercial uses, but he needed to find a way to condense it into a commercially implementable form. “I think it was about that time that I thought of Weldon Laird, another USDA engineer, and his ongoing work with EasiFlo cottonseed,” explains Holt.

With Tom Wedegaertner, Cotton Incorporated's director of Cottonseed Research and Marketing, Laird was working toward solving whole cottonseed's flowability problems — actually, the lack thereof. “Weldon and Tom were using a water/starch mixture to coat whole cottonseed and paste down the linters that remained on the seed after ginning,” explains Holt. So Holt decided to mix the by-product with a ration of starch before running the mixture through an extruder that would compress and form the concoction into small pellets. Holt calls the mixture, “COBY,” an acronym for Cotton By-Product. “I wanted to get away from calling it ‘gin trash,’ so this acronym fit just fine,” adds Holt.

Holt found that if he cooked the mixture, it pelletized pretty well. “What we're really doing with the by-product is cooking and sterilizing it with heat and pressure,” comments Holt. The wear and tear on the extruder used to make the pellets caused Holt additional problems. “The more water we used in the mixture, the more abrasive the mixture was to the various parts of the extruder,” explains Holt. Cooking the by-product mixture with high-pressure opens up cotton fibers that may be closed, thereby increasing the end products' digestibility as a feed source. The composition of the mixture is high in cellulose (cotton fiber is 90 percent cellulose), so the nutritional value of the product is excellent. “It's actually comparable to bermudagrass and/or prairie hay,” adds Holt. Any changes or additions to the mixture to increase its added value will be done with input from recent feeding trial results that showed the COBY mixture digested better than cottonseed hulls.

What hurdles does Holt still have ahead of him? Commercial implementation by an interested third party would mean a lot. The product has potential as a wood stove fuel source too. He's had a few calls from people interested in the product as a fuel, but using it for feeding purposes is a viable outlet.

If Holt has his way, wood burning stoves will soon have another cost competitive fuel source. A fuel source that once was considered just trash that accumulated and took up space beside a gin, could become a product that could help put dollars back in the pockets of ginners and, in most cases, their grower customers. How big is the potential demand for the COBY? That is yet to be determined, but with over 2.04 metric tons of by-product being generated from cotton gins each year, there's plenty of gin by-product with which to extrude into COBY. Holt is just looking for a little commercial momentum!

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