November 2021 Issue



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Goats as a species are herbivores, i.e.  plant-eating animals.   Goats are ruminants, and ruminants are animals that  partially chew their food before they swallow  it into their rumen, which is the largest of their four stomachs,  then   regurgitate it for further processing  by chewing their cud.

Goats have the fastest metabolism of all ruminants (except deer),  which means that they must eat several times a day  and need to have a higher quality of plant material than other ruminants in order to thrive.  Goats are very selective eaters, using their prehensile mouth (lips and tongue) to choose the tastiest plants.  As a percentage of body weight, goats eat a larger volume of plant materials than cattle eat.

Goats get their nutrition through the use of their highly-adapted teeth, mouths, and digestive systems to break down  the cell walls in leaves.   Leaves are primarily comprised of cellulose, a complex carbohydrate that supports the plant's cell walls, and lignin, which is the chief non-carbohydrate part of the plant that binds with cellulose to harden and strength cell walls.  Lignin is in the vein structure of plant leaves as well as in the stem to give the plant enough rigidity to stand upright and compete for sunlight.  The function of the veins is to act as a conduit for water and nutrients from the soil and transport the products of photosynthesis to other parts of the plant. The cell contents within the cell walls are the most digestible parts of the plant.

There are two types of vein structures in plant leaves: net and parallel venation.  Broadleaf plants, forbs, and browse have net venation.  The only forbs that have parallel venation are those that are "grass-like" members of the lily family.   All grasses have parallel venation.

Here is why goats do best eating forage and browse:  Net venation leaves are easier for goats to break down because the material between the veins is the more digestible part of the leaves.  The micro-organisms in the rumen can break down the material between the net venation  of broadleaf plants more quickly than the material in (parallel veined) grasses.  Since  a goat has a rapid passage rate of material through its rumen, it needs to eat a plant that its rumen micro-organisms can break down more quickly.   Because the venation in very young grasses is lower in non-digestible lignin, the micro-organisms in the goat's rumen can break them down rapidly too.

The more mature grasses -- the grasses with the higher lignin content -- are harder for the goat's rumen micro-organisms to break down and process into nutrition.  This does not mean that goats cannot eat grasses, but it does mean that goats need to eat young immature tender grass leaves -- leaves far less mature than cattle readily eat.

Broadleaf plants (browse and forbs) have their growing points at the top of the stems (apical dominance), which is why goats tend to eat the young tender growing parts of these plants at the tip of their stems.  Goats eat the seeds of many plants  because they are high in energy.

Grasses, however, grow from the base of the plant (basal dominance), so the most digestible part of the grass leaf is the newer growth that comes from the ground level of the grass plant.  And producers should remember that is also where the parasitic worms are that cause so much trouble with goat health.

Suzanne W. Gasparotto, ONION CREEK RANCH   11.1.21

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Proper Feeding Is Not Simple

Most people's conception of goats is 180* out of sync with reality. Goats are extremely selective eaters. They have to be because of the way their digestive systems work.

Goats are DEER in how they eat and live. They have a very fast ( 11 hour) rumen passage rate. Cattle take two to three days to digest their food. What goes into the goat must be easily digested because the animal has a very short time to extract nutrients from what it eats. It is more accurate to say that cattle can eat anything rather than goats.

Much of the plant material in pastures has too much lignin (indigestible cellulose) for a goat to be able to extract nutrients. Quality forage/browse and hay are required. Net venation in leaves is much easier to crush and digest than parallel venation in grasses. Forage/browse and grasses that are high in rough fiber (stemmy) result in worn teeth and a poorly fed goat. When teeth are worn out, the goat cannot eat or chew its cud and dies.

Protein, Energy, and Fiber are essential. If fiber in the goat's diet is highly digestible, then less energy is expended digesting and more energy is available for body growth.

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) is a measure of plant digestibility. The lower the number, the better. Plant materials including grasses with an ADF of 39 and higher have too much lignin (indigestible cellulose) for goats to eat. The taller the grass, the bigger the stem, creating fibrous material that goats cannot digest. Shred pastures to a height that allows sunlight to dry out the ground and also stimulate regrowth to increase the ratio of leaf to stem. Tall dense pastures block sunlight, the ground remains wet, and are "worm heaven."

Non-Fibrous Carbohydrates are goat favorites. A high NFC measurement is good. Simple sugars contained in NFC's are easy to digest and provide quick ENERGY. Energy - Calories.

Pasture quality differs from morning to night. Hay producers have learned that hay cut in the morning is higher quality than hay cut in the afternoon. Never tell a hay seller that you are buying hay for goats. They will sell you junk hay because they believe goats will eat anything. Tell them you want horse-quality hay.

Pastures contain annuals, perennials, and grasses. Because annuals bloom in spring, don't last long, and re-seed slowly, they are easy to quickly over-graze. Perennials grow fast in the spring then growth slows quickly, resulting in over-grazing. cYoung, succulent, highly digestible grasses last longer and re-grow quickly but can also be over-grazed. Forage/browse regenerates much more slowly than grasses and should be eaten to no less than half their original height. Over-grazed pastures put goats eating close ground level, right where the worms are waiting for them.

The previous paragraph makes it clear that you need lots of acreage over which goats can roam to raise healthy goats. Pasture raising puts goats eating at ground level, which isn't good, and feedlotting goats does not work. They can't take the stress caused by crowding and goats can't overcome the increasingly concentrated wormload existing in feedlots. WORMS WILL WIN.

The goat's overall total diet should be 16% protein. Forage/browse and grasses are the nutritional foundation, along with loose minerals that range from 1800 to 2500 ppm of copper. If your forage/browse/grasses test out at 8%, then you need to add quality hay and pelleted goat feed to achieve an overall 16% protein. Shortfalls can be made up with more sacked feed and/or alfalfa (legume) hay. Feed grain in the morning and only one time per day, unless you have dams nursing triplets, then sacked feed twice a day is needed. Goats eat 3% to 4% of their body weight in dry matter daily.

Alfalfa does NOT cause urinary calculi. Too much phosphorus in relation to calcium is the problem. Calcium to phosphorus ratios in goat feed should be at least 2-1/2 to 1. A higher ratio of 3:1 or even 5:1 may be acceptable under some conditions. Urinary Calculi is mis-named and can result from wethering young males too soon, drinking brackish water, and overfeeding grain with too much phosphorus in relation to calcium. If chicken litter is used as fertilizer in your area of the country, your hay will be high in phosphorus and you will likely need to add calcium carbonate to your feed.

Goats pastures are not populated based upon what is available to eat. Instead, the ratio of goats per acre is based upon how the worm load can be controlled and stress levels can be kept down. Fecal matter builds up quickly and contains worm larvae. More than two goats per acre results in too much exposure to worms and too much stress. If you have heavy wormloads at two goats per acre, then you need more land or less goats, or you are raising goats in a too-wet climate.

The perfect goat diet is quality forage/browse along with young grasses and loose minerals with at least 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio and pelleted 16% protein feed as needed. NEVER mix your own feed unless you are a trained goat nutritionist.

If you run your goats on forage/browse year around without any grain supplementation, then slowly ramp up feed on breeding and pregnant does, but no alfalfa in last 45 days of pregnancy to avoid hypocalcemia (milk fever). All pregnancy diseases (ketosis, pregnancy toxemia, hypocalcemia) are caused by improper feeding. MANAGEMENT is always the underlying factor when you have problems raising goats.

The breed you are feeding makes a difference. Dairy does need the most nutrition, and dairy-based genetics (Boers, Kikos) eat more than other breeds.

The milk molecule is built around protein. Lactating females require double the normal amount of protein. Sacked pelleted feed is necessary. Alfalfa is the only hay that has enough protein to be used in place of sacked pelleted feed for lactating does.

The condition of your property determines what and how much you must supplement. This changes not just seasonally but daily. Pasture rotation helps but not on small 5- or 10-acre properties. Significant acreage is needed to make large paddocks.

Hay and forage testing is available in many places, but I use Dairy One Labs in New York. 1-800-344-2697. The #325 analysis for hay is about $25 including postage-paid mailer. Pasture analysis of multiple plants costs more. Ask for pricing. If you don't know your pastures' nutritional values, how can you determine what and how much to feed?

A properly fed goat is a healthy goat. Wormload compromises the immune system and exposes goats to diseases like pneumonia and listeriosis. Don't try to save money on feeding goats. It will cost you in illness and in death in the long run.

Most people have a 180* out of sync with reality conception of goats. Don't be one of them. Learn to THINK LIKE A GOAT.

Suzanne W. Gasparotto, ONION CREEK RANCH, Texas



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