Goats are ruminants and are adapted to browsing foliage, woody plants and a variety of wild herbaceous plants. Since domestication, they have learned to eat what we give them. But for healthy goats, we need to respect their natural diet.
In this section, I’ll discuss the importance of good, weedy hay, meadow grass, trees, bushes and brambles as natural forage, as well as water and minerals. I have links to resources to look up poisonous plants you may need to eliminate from pasture. I’ll also discuss the use of fruit and vegetables and cereals as complements and why we need to be careful with hard feed.
- Pasture: preferably trees, bushes, brambles and forbs, long grass and a variety of weeds;
- Hay: ad libitum, all year round to ensure good rumen function;
- Water: daily clean, fresh and tepid;
- Mineral lick: ad libitum, all year round, including copper and selenium;
- Alfalfa: during lactation or growth in moderation;
- Vegetables: in moderation to avoid mineral unbalances;
- Fruit: in moderation to avoid excess sugar;
- Cereals: hard feed, goat pellets, barley, oats, maize: in minimal quantities to avoid rumen upsets–these are concentrated feeds that would rarely be found in nature, so feed with care; whole grains are preferable to crushed as they are digested more slowly;
- Wheat: never, as can easily cause serious digestive problems and lead long-term to hoof problems. That includes bread and other wheat products.
- Gradual changes: to give the rumen time to adjust, all new foods should be introduced gradually and quantities increased slowly.
Goats are ruminants and need a constant supply of dry roughage to maintain a healthy rumen. The most convenient source is hay. Preferably choose weedy meadow hay from the most recent early summer harvest, as this best fits a goat’s nutritional requirements.
The goat’s system favours a variety of woody shrubs, trees and forbs (wild herbaceous, flowering plants). As a selective browser, variety ensures adequate nutrition. In a hay and grass management system, such as most farming and smallholding installations, a supplement of branches and leaves is valuable. I suggest clearing brambles and tree branches and laying these out for your goats on a platform or hanging them up so they don’t get trampled and soiled. I spread mine over a pile of branches to keep them off the ground. Ivy (but not ground or poison ivy) is good if you remove berries. Avoid cut prunus (plum, cherry, peach) leaves and branches as they develop toxins when wilting.
Goats love the freedom to forage for plants. They tend to wander as a group, focusing on early morning and late afternoon as prime browsing time, normally lead by an older, more experienced doe. They wander from plant to plant, moving to whichever best provides their current nutritional need. This browsing technique developed over millions of years of living in difficult terrains where forage was hard to find. They thrived in arid and mountainous areas in the Middle East, living thriftily on a wide range of vegetation, from long grasses to tree bark.
To a large extent they have adapted to our domestic facilities and will eat meadow grass, although never crop it short, like sheep would. They reject trampled grass and wish to move to fresher, longer herbage. Many weeds, like plantain, dandelion, thistles and meadow flowers, remain favourites, due to their higher mineral content. If you cut nettles, goats will love them once they are wilted or dry.
Goats normally ignore unpalatable and poisonous plants, such as buttercup, and the landowner will have to remove them herself before they spread and take over. Goats raised by their mothers normally learn to avoid poisonous plants, but those separated at birth, or those who have little else to eat, may sample even toxic plants.
If your pasture is overgrazed, goats will resort to eating the unpalatable and poisonous plants that they have previously left. These may cause sickness, death or act more slowly to cause liver or kidney failure.
Chronic poisoning may go unnoticed: the goat appears healthy until a critical build-up of toxins and then dies unexpectedly. This is the case of ragwort, laurel and many other plants that are known to be toxic to other grazing species.
Even temporary sickness is serious for goats as it upsets the balance of their rumen. They rely on a delicate balance of micro-organisms to digest tough plant matter. If they loose these friendly bacteria or the rumen stops functioning, their health can quickly suffer.
Dangerous plants to grow where your goats can access them are:
- evergreen garden shrubs, such as box
- ornamental garden plants, especially bulbs
Other poisonous plants are normally rejected or have little effect in small doses: for example bracken, foxglove, celandine and buttercups. I would try to eliminate them from spreading in the pasture.
Some really good lists are available on the Internet. I recommend:
Feed with caution
All new foods must be introduced gradually to allow the rumen to adjust. Similarly, quantities must be increased slowly. If the rumen is upset it can be difficult to get it functioning again properly, which can lead to serious illness.
Garden vegetables and alfalfa are highly nutritious, but often high in protein and calcium, nitrogen or other minerals. Goats will love them, but the nutritional excess can be damaging long-term. An excess of one mineral can lead to suppression of another. Feed sparingly and as a treat. Alfalfa (luzerne) is often fed to dairy stock, but again, it is rich for a goat and should be reserved for lactation and growth periods. Small amounts of pellets make great treats when fed in moderation.
Pregnant does should be fed the same portion as other goats so the foetus does not grow too big for delivery. The quantity should be slowly increased during the last month.
Hard feed is concentrated energy and protein: it is bought as cereals, pelleted food, goat mix or goat nuts. It would only be found in small quantities in the natural habitat. Goats crave it like we do sweet things; like sugar, it is bad for them in large quantities. The rumen cannot cope with the quantity of gas produced during digestion. Gorging on cereals can cause a quick death as the gas cannot escape. Regular eating of large quantities can lead to acidosis and long-term to painful laminitis (founder) in the hooves.
Barley, oats or pellets can be used in small doses (up to 200g per meal). If split into several meals it is digested more safely and efficiently. Grain or pellets are not required until lactation, unless you have no pasture, and must be supplemented with plenty of hay/forage.
Wheat is a worse culprit for acidosis. I avoid it: including bread and flour-based snacks.
Nutritional needs change with the seasons. Does hormone levels put different demands on their bodies and at times they need to store up specific nutrients. Metabolism speeds up in early spring and goats favour succulent feed, like fresh grass, buds and leaves. They may tire of last year’s hay, which will have lost its freshness by now. However, it is very important to have hay available all year round.
You can avoid mineral deficiencies by providing a salt/mineral lick especially formulated for goats (sheep lick does not contain enough copper), of which they can help themselves when required. Make sure the lick is available all year round, even if they don’t appear to be using it, as they will only lick it when they need it. Keep it clean and give it a scrub if it appears grubby or hasn’t been used. If the coat looks dry or bleached out, they may be lacking copper or suffering a worm infestation.
In summer they should regain weight and put on reserves for the breeding season and winter. Make sure they have a good body condition before breeding (not bony or fatty around the chest or tail).
In autumn the preference turns to dry, woody food. Branches and brush will be most appreciated. In winter, make sure their main feed is hay and supplement with a little hard feed only if forage is insufficient or bodyweight is low (except for wethers, who should avoid cereal feed).
Read advice from the International Society of Livestock Husbandry.
For dairy goats, I highly recommend The Dairy Goat Handbook by Ann Starbard.