November 2023 Issue


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Selecting only hay and forage that will provide the nutrients their bodies can quickly digest, goats are often called "picky" and "wasteful" eaters. They have to be. Goats have an 11-14 hour rumen passage rate, which means that whatever they eat has to be easily and quickly digested for them to extract maximum nutrition. There is no single perfect forage or hay for goats. As long as it is easily digestible, a wide variety of plants and hays may be consumed.

Hay quality varies greatly based on how mature it was when it was cut and baled. The time of day that hay is cut and baled makes a difference in its nutritional value. If fiber levels are high, digestibility will be low, even if the protein level is high. Very coarse hay or forage is not readily digestible by goats. They know not to try to eat them.

Hay should be analyzed minimally for protein content, acid detergent fiber (ADF), and non-fibrous carbohydrates (NFC).

ADF is a laboratory analysis that measures the cellulose and lignin levels in plants. Lignin is is not digestible, so an Acid Detergent Fiber measure that is low (below 39 and especially below 35) is preferable for goats. Grass hays with low ADF must be cut early while the leaves are immature and the stems are very small. Stemmy hays have less nutritional value than leafy hay.

Forage, browse, and hay are the foundation upon which your nutrition program must be built. But most of the time they do not provide adequate nutrition, so grain supplementation is required. Hay, forage, browse, minerals, and grain supplements must be fed to goats in a BALANCED ratio. If you do not have training in animal nutrition, do not attempt to mix your own feed. You are not qualified to make this determination and need the assistance of a goat nutritionist from a local feed mill.

Goats consume 3% to 4% of their bodyweight daily in dry matter (forage/browse, grasses. hay). This is an enormous amount of plant material that you must factor into your nutritional program.

Browse (leaves) and forbs (weeds) are preferred by goats over grasses because they are more easily digested. Leaves are preferred over grasses because leaves have net venation that is more easily crushed by the teeth and digested by the rumen than parallel venation in grasses.

Access to adequate amounts of browse and forbs is complicated by the fact that most are annuals, which grow from seed each year, live for a short time, flower, and die. Maintaining year-around grazing with annual plants is not likely to occur in most climates. During droughts, there won't be enough rain to germinate the seeds, thereby reducing or eliminating this excellent source of nutrition for goats.

Forbs that grow back each year and live for many years are called perennials. They grow rapidly in the spring, but when mid-summer arrives, their growth slows. They can be grazed faster than they grow. Over-grazing can occur and cause them to disappear.

Broad-leafed woody plants, commonly called "browse," have the same drawback as forbs; they too are slow-growers that can quickly be over-grazed. Forbs and browse re-grow far slower than grasses.

Grasses are important. The key to grasses maintaining good nutritional levels is to graze them when they are young, succulent, and very digestible. Their growing season is longer than browse or forbs. Here again, it is easy to over-graze and lose this nutritional resource.

The goat's total diet should add up to 14-16% protein. Keep in mind that a 16% protein supplement fed along with an 8% protein forage will reduce the overall protein level below the 16% protein needed. Using alfalfa as a primary roughage can keep the protein level up.

Alfalfa (a legume hay - not a grass hay) is incorrectly associated with urinary calculi. It is not a problem for goats that alfalfa has a high calcium-to-phosphous ratio (3:1 to 5:1). In fact, goats need a minimum calcium-to-phosphorus ratio of 2:1 and preferably 2.5 :1. The culprit in causing urinary calculi is too much phosphorus, not calcium. Other causes can be inadequate ingestion of water, brackish water, water that is high in calcium and magnesium salts, or overfeeding grain with an improper calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.


If you run goats on pasture without grain supplementation most of the year, then you must increase the protein and energy levels of a pregnant doe slowly and carefully, gradually adding appropriate feed to her diet as her pregnancy progresses. A sudden change in type or amount of feed can lead to ruminal acidosis, pregnancy diseases, laminitis, and a host of other problems. Never feed alfalfa to a pregnant doe in the last 45 days of pregnancy; hypocalcemia (milk fever) can be the result. All pregnancy diseases (ketosis, pregnancy toxemia, hypocalcemia) are caused by improper feeding.

When lactation starts, the protein requirement of a goat more than doubles. Feeding a grain to help with energy is not enough. The milk molecule is built around protein. Short an animal on protein and milk production declines, regardless of energy intake. Sacked or bulk feeds can provide this protein, but alfalfa is about the only hay with enough protein to meet the needs of a lactating doe.

Nutrient and mineral requirements vary from location to location. Some areas are deficient in particular minerals. Learn to adapt your feeding program to fit the locale where you are raising goats and the particular breed which you are raising. For example, dairy and dairy-cross animals whose focus is heavy milk production have different nutritional requirements. When raising meat goats, feed grain once a day preferably in the morning. The only time I ever feed grain twice a day is to a doe who is nursing three or more kids.

A perfect diet for goats includes browse, forage, and grazing grasses, along with the necessary minerals designed for your area and supplemental grain as needed based upon the nutrition that your property has to offer. Maintaining a sound program of rotational grazing/browsing/foraging and taking care of your plants will provide a well-balanced diet for your goats. Recognize that nutritional values in your pastures change not only from season to season but from morning to night.

Getting goat nutrition right is one of the hardest tasks for the goat raiser. Find a qualified goat nutritionist and utilize his advice and knowledge.

Suzanne W. Gasparotto, Onion Creek Ranch, Texas 11.1.23

Subscribe FREE now! Monthly issues with new articles and other educational information on meat goat health, nutrition, and management written by Suzanne W. Gasparotto of Onion Creek Ranch and Pat Cotten of Bending Tree Ranch. In all cases, it is your responsibility to obtain veterinary services and advice before using any of the information provided in these articles. Neither Suzanne Gasparotto nor Pat Cotten are veterinarians. None of the contributors to this website will be held responsible for the use of any information contained herein.


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