They aren't calico cows, and it's not cotton candy. But many Georgia cattle are grazing cotton fields, quietly munching leftovers.
"With the market situation and low calf prices, we're looking for ways to cut our production costs," said Robert Stewart, an animal scientist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
"One of the practices we recommend," he said, "is to take advantage of crop residues." Cotton fields, in particular, provide low-cost feed for beef cattle.
Beef prices are just coming out of an 18-year low, Stewart said. Because of that, farmers must manage costs carefully to keep making a profit. That includes using alternative feed sources.
"Once the cotton is picked, there is quite a bit of residue out there," he said. "The lint and cottonseed that's left, as well as a lot of the grass around the field edges, make pretty good cattle feed for this time of year."
One acre of residue provides enough feed for one cow to graze for two to four weeks.
Field residue provides about the same nutrition as low- to medium-quality hay, Stewart said. So it does more than just fill their stomachs. It provides enough nutrition for even pregnant cows expected to calve later this winter.
Stewart tells farmers to use common sense when putting cows into cotton fields. The cows need access to a free-choice mineral block, he said. And to know when they've eaten all the good leftovers, just put a round bale of hay in the field.
"When they eat up the hay," he said, "it's time to move them into another field."
Wilcox County farmer Don Wood put his cows into harvested cotton fields around the middle of December.
"It's good feed for them," he said. "And it comes in at a time when the pastures are going out and before we have winter grazing. So the timing is excellent."
Stewart tells cattle farmers to make sure the cotton field is fenced to keep cows where they belong. The cows also need a good supply of fresh water, he said.
Many Georgia cattle farmers are choosing to keep their cows until they will bring more money at the market. Keeping cows costs about 50 cents to 70 cents per day for each.
If a farmer gets 30 days' grazing (in a harvested cotton field), Stewart said, he may realize $20, and maybe as much as $30, savings per cow.
"There are some economic benefits to using these crop residues," he said. "The primary benefit is to lower production costs by using feeds that otherwise may not be available."