Feeding a herd of goats can be tricky. Goats have a complex digestive system that requires different types and amounts of food to run smoothly. When you enter the goat world, it seems that everyone has an opinion on what is the “best” way to feed. As a result, it can be confusing to know what is right for your animals.
In this post, I break down the different options to meet a goat’s nutritional needs, so that you can decide for yourself what is the best method for your herd. I also share a bit about what has worked for us, and what we’d like to improve on when it comes to goat nutrition.
Feed Components for our Herd
These ratios change when winter comes and pasture is not available.
- Grass Hay 50%
- Pasture 25%
- Grain 20%
- Treats 5% or less
Hay is essential for two reasons when keeping domestic goats. It helps provide dry roughage to balance the moisture and fiber content in the rumen. And, it also provides nutrition.
Hay vs Straw
I often hear the terms hay and straw used interchangeably and I cringe. Thankfully, it’s usually with people who don’t keep animals. But just in case, or if you’re new to raising goats, it’s important to know the difference as well as why you should include them in your goat's diet.
- Hay is grass that has been cut and dried, then baled or collected to use as animal feed. Much of the nutrition of the grass is preserved in the hay and it makes great feed for goats. Think of it as a dehydrated pasture. It’s usually grayish green and dull.
- Straw is the collection of stalks after grain kernels have been harvested for food. Straw is a by-product of the grain harvest (like wheat for example). It has little to no nutritional value and is used for bedding.
Straw makes for great bedding because it is nice and fluffy and is insulating because each straw is hollow, which traps warm air pockets in the tubes. Straw is also slightly slippery in texture so manure and wetness fall through the straw, keeping debris away from the animals. It also doesn’t rot or mold as quickly as hay. Straw is golden and shiny. You do not want to feed it to your animals. They may nibble a piece now and then, but it should not be a source of nutrition.
Some browning of the hay is normal. But excess or very brown hay is low in nutrition and you may be wasting your money. Brown hay means that the elements were not ideal while the farmer was bailing. Either it was sun bleached, or it was rained on in the drying process. Rain will actually “wash” away nutrition and color from the grass blades.
Brown hay can also be the result of old hay that has been stored too long or in improper conditions.
Never feed moldy hay to goats! It can cause digestive and respiratory problems among other things.
Grass Hay vs. Alfalfa
Grass Hay may contain a blend of different grasses. You may hear types like Timothy, Orchard Grass, Canary Grass, Fescue etc. Each of these grasses may be found in your hay bale. They hold different nutritional values as far as protein, fiber and minerals. Ask your hay supplier what is in the bales you are buying.
We hay our own field which is a mix of grasses including Orchard Grass, Timothy, some Swamp Grass and Goldenrod, it also has an under-layer of red clover. Each year we work to improve our field. This year we plan to plow up sections and plant a hay mix seed. This way we will have a better understanding of the nutritional content of our hay.
Our goats always have access to grass hay.
Alfalfa is a very rich fodder made of the dehydrated legume alfalfa. It has a high protein content, about double that of grass hay.
Most Grass Hay protein is around 7-8%
Alfalfa protein is around 16% which is similar to most manufactured grain blends.
In this way, some goat owners can eliminate the need for grain with alfalfa and good pasture.
Alfalfa should not be fed free choice, it should be portioned into flakes depending on the size and nutritional needs of the goat.
Goats can thrive in a variety of living situations. But they do best when they are exposed to adequate pasture.
In the wild, goats are grazers, which means the herd moves throughout the day nibbling on different things, tree branches, weeds, brambles.
For most of us, pasture mean grass.
Goats do well on grass, but remember to introduce lush pasture slowly to allow the system to regulate the fresh, wet green. Provide plenty of hay to help balance the system.
In the spring we allow our goats out for an hour at a time, until they have adjusted to the new food after the lack in the winter. Wet, lush pasture can be particularly hard on the system and may cause scours.
Rotation of pasture helps keep the plant cycle healthy and reduces worm problems.
In reality, goats were never meant to eat much grain. Goats are natural grazers, their systems are meant to digest shrubs, weeds, small tree branches, bark, leaves and some grasses. In nature, goats would have a hard time finding a mix of oats, corn, soybeans and sweet molasses.
But in the same respect, dogs were never really meant to eat kibble. Dogs in the wild hunt deer and rabbits for food. They consume raw meat and chew bones for healthy marrow. But when you domesticate an animal things change. It would be difficult to hunt for my dog every day and bring home fresh killed meat for his dinner.
So we improvise. Grain is a version of that adaptation.
Feeding grain ensures that a goat is getting enough nutrition. Most formulas provide around 16% protein. Feed amounts should be labeled on the bag by weight of the animal. Or you can discuss portions with your vet.
Does in milk, pregnant does, and fiber goats require more grain than bucks and wethers. Though some bucks need additional nutrition because of the toll that hormone production takes on his body.
An increase in grain amounts should be done so gradually to prevent overwhelming the bacteria in the rumen.
Sweet Feed vs Not
Sweet feed is a mix of whole grains or pelleted food tossed with molasses. The molasses makes the grain very palatable to goats, in fact, they can become obsessed with it! The molasses adds iron, sugars and in some feed mill blends, it helps supplements like minerals or medications stick to the feed.
Our goats will turn their nose up at feed that isn’t coated in molasses. They also prefer a mix of whole oats and pellets rather than just pellet feed. Because goats love sweet feed, it can be used as a training tool. It helps them stay still on the stanchion during milking, shearing, hoof trimming and health check ups. It also encourages them to come when they are called. If the goats get into the garden, grab a bucket of sweet feed and shake it. They’ll be on your tail faster than you can say “tomato.”
Grain can also be useful for administering supplements. We sometimes add pelleted wormers to the goat’s grain ratio, or sprinkle probiotics to help with immune systems.
Our fiber goats get the addition of 5% Black Sun Oiler Seeds to provide healthy fats for lanolin production. Lanolin is a waxy oil that helps protect the wool.
Sweet Feed and Urinary Calculi
Sweet Feed and grain can sometimes cause Urinary Calculi in goats, particularly wethers.
“Urinary Calculi is when calculi or stones usually comprised of phosphate salts, lodge in the urinary tract and prevent normal urination.
The primary causes of urinary calculi is feeding concentrate diets which are excessive in phosphorus and magnesium”
- University of Kentucky http://www.ansc.purdue.edu/SP/MG/Documents/SLIDES/Urinary%20calculi.pdf
Ways to Prevent Urinary Calculi
- Wait until male goats are older to wether. This allows the urinary tract to develop completely.
- Make sure the goat’s diet is made mostly of hay and roughage, and only supplemented with grain
- Check for ammonium chloride as an ingredient in the feed. If it’s not, ask your vet if a supplement would be a good choice.
- Provide plenty of fresh, clean water at all times to help flush the goat’s system. Also, provide salt free choice. Consumption of salt encourages water consumption.
Treats make up a variety of foods that your goats don’t consume on a daily basis.
Treats are given to our herd because we simply love our goats and love to spoil them. They are particularly fond of the new Apple Flavor Goat Treat's from Manna Pro.
Sometimes goat treats are kitchen scraps or things we pick from the garden. Some of our goat’s favorites are pumpkin and raspberry plants.
Some fruits and vegetables are not a good choice for goats. Check with your veterinarian for a list of safe treat choices.
Treats should be given in small amounts. Any time you introduce a new food, do it gradually so that it doesn’t upset tummies.
Once your goat’s diet is balanced, feeding is quite easy and becomes routine. With a basic outline about goat nutrition, you will soon learn what works for your goats and what doesn’t.
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