Goats have complex systems and can be quite finicky eaters. Here are basic things to consider for what, when and how to feed goats.
1. Forage First
Goats are ruminants with four-compartment stomachs designed for digesting browse or hay. Unlike sheep, cattle and most other grazing species, goats readily digest cellulose, the fibrous constituent of plant material, and they prefer browse—weeds, twigs and brush—to soft grass.
They aren’t designed to digest large amounts of concentrates such as corn, oats and other grains or even commercial goat feed. Overfeeding concentrates can lead to acidosis, enterotoxemia, slowing of the gut, bloat and death. It also contributes to the formation of urinary stones (urinary calculi or UC) in male goats.
Some classes of goats, among them late gestation or lactating does as well as growing kids, do need grain, but only in measured amounts. When feeding concentrates, choose a quality product such as a nutritionally balanced commercial feed. Most goats, however, do fine on good grass hay alone.
Hay for goats can be somewhat weedy but should always smell fresh and be free of dust or mold. It and any concentrates fed should be kept where mice, rats, birds and cats can’t waste or soil it. Storing grain and bags of loose minerals in metal trash cans or a decommissioned freezer protects it and keeps it fresher longer.
2. Use Feeders
Goats are fastidious creatures. They pull or dribble feed with impunity but refuse to eat it off the ground. But that’s not a bad thing per se because internal parasites, especially barber pole worms, are a huge problem in parts of the country, especially the mid- to deep South. Goats dining off the ground pick up parasite eggs that hatch and mature, shedding more eggs and wreaking havoc on their hosts. Because parasites are becoming increasingly resistant to the chemicals used for deworming goats, be sure to limit re-infestation wherever you can.
Feed is also expensive. It hurts to watch goats’ hooves churn it into the ground. To prevent waste, choose easy-to-clean, tip-resistant troughs or tubs for concentrates and sturdy hayracks for hay. You can also use bolt cutters to trim a 16-foot galvanized hog panel into 5-foot lengths and then tie, wire or snap the bottoms and sides to your wire fences, allowing for a slight bow in the center. Flakes of hay slide easily into these inexpensive fencerow feeders, and goats can browse hay from either side.
3. Minerals Are a Must
All classes of goats require supplementary minerals, best fed as a loose product from specialized mineral dispensers. Some goats, however, turn their picky noses up at loose minerals, in which case you have two options.
- One is to mix a judicious amount of mineral with a small amount of concentrate and perhaps a dab of liquid livestock molasses and feed it as a treat several times a week.
- The other is to buy tubs of commercial goat mineral already formulated in a molasses base. Too much molasses is not good, but goats love it and eat most anything mixed with it.
Choose minerals formulated for goats. Goats require a good amount of copper in their diets, and minerals meant for other species, especially copper-intolerant sheep, don’t contain enough copper for their needs. If you feed sheep and goats together, choose a product formulated for sheep but dose your goats with copper boluses twice a year. Copper boluses are heavy-duty gelatin capsules containing snippets of copper wire that, once in a goat’s rumen, slowly dissolve and release copper into the goat’s system over a period of time.
Selenium is another important mineral. Parts of the U.S. are selenium-deficient, and in these areas, the selenium content of commercial mineral mixes might be inadequate. Consult a county extension agent, a goat-savvy vet or a long-time breeder to see whether you need to add supplementation.
The average goat needs 1 to 3 gallons or more of clean, fresh water every day, depending on what it eats, the ambient temperature, and whether or not it’s producing milk. Goats on lush, green pasture derive much of their water needs from what they eat, whereas a dairy doe or a doe nursing kids and eating dry hay and concentrates might drink more than the minimum 3 gallons, especially when summer temperatures soar. Restricted water intake contributes to potentially fatal urinary calculi in bucks (males) and wethers (castrated males), so males need plenty of water too.
It’s important to keep drinking water clean. If a single dropping lands in a water container, goats won’t drink that water, so several small waterers are better than one big one. If one is contaminated, others are available. Use easy-to-clean water receptacles, and dump and refill them as needed. If algae growth is a problem, spray empty containers with a weak bleach solution and scrub them with a stiff brush before refilling.
Encourage water consumption by placing containers near where goats congregate and in shade during summer. If water still seems unreasonably hot, freeze water in soda bottles and pop one or more in each container to cool the water down.
Likewise, use a tank or bucket heater in the winter or carry water to your goats at least twice a day. If you carry water, keep two sets of buckets so you can haul out one set filled with warm water and bring in and thaw the set filled with ice.
5. No Radical Changes
Goats are creatures of habit. Change brings stress, and stress contributes to lower feed efficiency, lower milk production and a host of potential health problems. Pick a feeding schedule, and stick to it.
By the same token, don’t change your goats’ rations suddenly. The digestive microbes in a goat’s rumen need time to adapt to feed changes, so switch feeds gradually, adding a bit more new feed and a little less of their old feed each day over a period of a week to 10 days.
Feeding goats correctly isn’t too difficult yet it results in happy, healthy animals, fewer vet visits and lower feed costs for their owners. It’s a situation where everyone wins.