Cotton by-product converted into cattle feed and cooking oil in a bid to have zero waste

Move over grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. A new factory that recycles waste from one of Australia’s top crops could lead to more “cotton-fed” beef, and a byproduct of the process could find its way into your fish and chips.

Seed not used to plant cotton has long been made into livestock feed, particularly during droughts, but the nutritional quality can vary depending on how much it is processed.

A new $20 million cottonseed “meat” factory in southern Queensland has developed high-protein food pellets that have similar fat and energy levels to traditional grains through a “waste zero” which also produces cooking oil.

It means more producers can access a cheaper feed product without losing quality, which could put more “cotton-fed” beef on consumers’ plates, while also solving a waste problem for both the industry for food and for cotton.

Fifty million tons of cottonseed are produced worldwide each year, but only 1 percent is planted to grow cotton, creating an opportunity to add value.

To feed cottonseed to animals, it must be hulled, broken down into its component parts, creating a meal that animals can eat and a byproduct, the extracted oil, which is often thrown away.

The plant at Mort & Co’s Grassdale Feedlot in the Darling Downs will come online in the next two months, producing an oil that can be refined and used for cooking.

head and shoulders of a dark-haired woman in a white shirt
Marita Ramia says that sustainability is important to consumers and employees.(Rural ABC: Arlie Felton-Taylor)

Communications manager Marita Ramia said the company, as Australia’s largest private feedlot, was seeking to create a circular economy to ensure the environmental and economic sustainability of the operation.

“We care about where we are going in the future and how we can continue to sustainably grow the feedlot business, it also means making sure that we are sustainable in many other areas,” he said.

“It started with the idea of ​​hulling cottonseed and now taking the oil from the cottonseed meat is another step to ensure there are no waste products in Grassdale.”

“The next generation is very interested… the people we are employing say to us, ‘What are you doing? What are you contributing to the environment?'”

Two rural powers

South Queensland is home to a significant portion of Australia’s cattle feedlots, where animals are fattened before being processed for domestic and international meat markets.

It is also one of the most productive cotton regions in the country.

medium shot of a man pointing to a factory layout image on a screen behind him
Cameron Walker says that both the oil and the meal used to feed the cattle are valuable.(Rural ABC: Arlie Felton-Taylor)

Bringing the two together is the stuff of integrated supply chain dreams, creating a cheaper feed source for livestock from an otherwise unused cotton by-product, while ensuring the process does not generate more waste.

Project manager Cameron Walker said there was growing market interest in both the meal and the oil.

“I think we’ve predominantly looked to cottonseed for the hulls, the fiber, and the meat has been a by-product,” he said.

“We are now looking to process the meats into oil-free cottonseed ‘meat’ and high-quality cottonseed oil.

“Both are valuable… the oil for frying fish and chips and the ‘meat’ is a great source of protein for many feeds.”

Wide landscape of silver factory with silos and tanks
The new Dalby plant will be operational before the end of 2022.(Supplied: Mort & Co.)

Walker said environmental goals would also help the factory’s profit goals.

“The project has to stand on its own commercially,” he said.

“Part of sustainability is both business growth and stability of expansion.

“The project will be a new source of income for us.”

closeup of a hand holding white fluffy cotton seed
Fifty million tons of cottonseed are produced worldwide each year, but only 1 percent is planted to grow cotton.(Supplied: Mort & Co.)

sustainable life cycle

Mort & Co was still seen primarily as a feed-lotting business, but commodities analyst Matt Dalgleish said markets were increasingly expecting companies to take full life-cycle responsibility for their products.

“We need to think about the entire life cycle of the product that we’re producing and what are the inputs that go into that product and the life cycle of those as well,” he said.

A close-up of a middle-aged man's face
Matt Dalgleish says that companies can attract premium prices if they can demonstrate that their products are sustainable.(Supplied: Matt Dalgleish)

“I don’t think we can afford to continue to be as wasteful as we have been in past generations.

“We have to pay more attention to what we use.”

He said that with the rising costs of traditional feed sources like grains, it made sense for producers to address both input costs and environmental outcomes.

“It is a very good opportunity to look for other alternatives and show that the red meat sector and agriculture in general can be a solution to climate change,” he said.

“There’s still room for improvement, but… when we talk about the industry, we need to continue to focus on… the things that we’re doing in terms of technological advancements, sustainability.

“The fact that we’re feeding the planet, I think that’s something to be proud of.”

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