Goats 101 – The Facts on Feed
In today’s goat blog post, I will be addressing the common question that many people have asked me over the years: Goats eat anything, right? Wrong! If you read some of the very first goat blog posts a few months back, you’ll remember that I covered some common misconceptions about goats and this was one of the most frequently spread myths that people have about these funny barnyard critters. Feeding goats, or any animal for that matter, is something to take fairly seriously so you can be sure you are providing them with the best nutrition and care possible.
Like many farm animals, goats can serve many purposes. Milk production is probably the most common purpose for goats, followed by meat and fiber production. What you are raising goats for will determine what you feed them, how often and how much.
Hay…Not just for horses!
It goes without saying that hay is considered the staple in any goat’s diet, no matter what they’re being raised for. High-quality, fresh, dry hay is important to goats because it provides them with the roughage they need to process nutrients and keep their digestive health in top condition. Goats, like cows, are ruminants, and have four stomachs. Feeding hay helps goats digest the fiber they need, as well as aiding in processing grain feed. Feeding too much grain is not healthy because it does not provide the digestible fiber that is crucial for healthy gut function. When choosing hay for your goats, be sure to inspect it carefully. Most farmers are careful to cut fields that are free of plants like milkweed, which is extremely poisonous to goats. However, it’s never a bad idea to ask the farmer if he’s aware of any milkweed that may have been baled along with the hay, and when you cut open a bale, just keep an open eye for the pods that can sometimes sneak in. Most people like to feed their goats second-cutting hay because it has a high level of nutrients and is more easily digested than first cutting, which can be very rich and often too much for goats. Hay that has a high legume content is ideal for goats being raised for milk production because it provides protein levels that support the protein content in grain that is also fed to milking goats.
Some farmers feed hay on a regular feeding schedule, but many will allow their goats to have access to hay all day because it really is that good for them. Obviously, you must determine what works best for your animals and what they need. If you allow your goats to browse on hay all day long, be sure to keep it in a dry location and off the ground to avoid moisture. Speaking of moisture, it’s also a good idea to inspect bales of hay for mold when you cut them open. Sometimes during hot and humid times of the year, even a little moisture in a bale can cause mold growth, which is dangerous for goats, especially young kids or older animals. If you see mold, be wary of it. Sometimes it is easily shaken out or removed, but just keep a careful eye out for any widespread problems with mold.
Another component of many goats’ diets is grain. Feeding grain is a highly debated topic among most, if not all, farmers. This is largely due to grain’s typically high (and always rising) costs. As corn and wheat prices rise, so does the cost to produce and distribute grain, which is reflected at the register for farmers. But for dairy and meat producers, feeding grain is a necessity because of the high protein and fat rations that grain possesses. Farmers who rely on their animals to produce high quality and quantity milk will often incorporate sweet feed into their goats’ diet. Sweet feed is typically a corn-based grain, sweetened with molasses, and high in protein and fat. This keeps a milking doe in good condition to produce milk while keeping her body weight and health up. How much and how often a farmer will feed his does grain depends on the animals themselves, but a typical healthy doe should be fed around one pound of grain per three pounds of milk she produces. As does begin to slow down milk production, farmers will typically stop feeding grain in order to “dry off” and stop milking until the goat has kids again. While a doe is “dry”, some people will debate whether it is good to continue feeding grain or not. In my experience, feeding grain to a dry doe is OK as long as you don’t over feed, which can cause unnecessary weight gain. Most goats love their grain and it can be difficult to cut down because they may seem constantly hungry, but as long as they have plenty of hay and clean, fresh water, they will be just fine with only a little grain here and there.
One thing to note about grain: it is important to always avoid feeding male goats—both castrated or intact—sweet grain. The molasses and other sweeteners in sweet feed can cause blockages, similar to kidney stones in humans, in male goats and can be deadly. It is difficult for them to pass these stones if they develop and even with veterinary attention, it can be a big problem. Bucks and wethers (castrated males) should be fed limited grain, and never a sweet variety. A common option for the boys is called lamb finisher, which is a dry, pellet-like grain that is fed to a variety of farm animals. This is also a good option for does who aren’t milking because it has a lower fat and protein content, yet still provides a good amount of nutrition to keep body condition up.
In addition to hay and grain, goat owners will always have their own ideas about feeding their animals. Another option that many farmers will provide their goats are minerals, either in a block form or loose (trace) mineral mix. These mixes and blocks can be given whenever you’d like, or left in a protected area of a pasture for the goats to nibble at as they please. Minerals are important to all goats—producers or not—because they provide extra nutritional benefits. Think of it as a vitamin for goats! Even a simple salt block will do.
And of course, goats love treats! Typical treats include apples, raisins, peanuts, etc. On our farm, we’ve had some interesting treats that our goats oddly decided were their favorites. My first doe was absolutely crazy about pretzels. We discovered this when my mother would pack us snacks for the fairs. One day, I offered my doe some pretzels just to see what she would do. Well, from that day forward, she would sniff my pockets and go crazy if pretzels were around. We always kept a huge tin of them down in the barn to feed as a treat. Peanuts were also another big hit in our barn, and the Christmas trees never lasted more than a day or two when we’d throw them out after the holidays were over.
Another popular and growing trend in goat feed options is hydroponically grown fodder. As you probably know, we have developed our fodder systems for a variety of farm owners, and goat farmers have begun to pick up on the benefits of this great feed option. Many farmers have seen their grain and hay costs cut in half because they’ve been able to incorporate fodder into their animals’ diet and have seen great benefits. The live, green nutrients in fodder are wonderful for milk-producing goats because it mimics the natural forage that they would get in the wild, on their own. Not only have goat owners seen an increase in milk production when feeding fodder, but it also improves the overall general health of the animals, with shinier coats, stronger feet and happier disposition.
In closing, the best practice when it comes to feeding your goats and finding out what works best is just to spend some time performing trial and error. Goats can be picky and it’s important to find a balance between cost and function when it comes to feeding your herd. If questions or problems ever arise, it’s always a great idea to check with your veterinarian or other experienced goat owners.
Do you have a feed suggestion or regimen that has worked for your herd? Tell us about what works for you and your goats!