It is becoming more and more apparent, no matter what species you’re referring to, that diet has an incredible impact on the body. Not only having to do with health, as in vitamins and minerals and such – but also issues such as temperament and brain chemistry.
Some of these are obvious. Like hey, if you eat lead, you’re probably going to end up with some brain problems. But other things are more subtle. Harder to catch.
Issues of feeding and diet are no less important to goats than they are to humans. They’re strange conundrums. On one hand, they’re resilient creatures that will shock you how much they can handle. On the other hand, something as simple as a copper imbalance may turn them brain-dead. (Granted, it will need to be a severe imbalance.)
I’m going to give you the advice that every vet I’ve spoken to has told me: get your soil tested. Then take it to a goat nutritionist who can prescribe the best diet that you should be feeding your lovelies based on what nutrients they’re already receiving from the grass/shrubs/etc.
Why? Because every area is different. Even the difference of a few miles will change the chemistry of the soil, and cause a different intake of vitamins and minerals. A feeding regime that works in one area may overload (or underfeed) a certain vitamin in another area, leading to problems. Testing your soil is the best way to figure out what your lovelies need. In some cases, the only way to test levels of certain minerals in the goat is to send a sample of their liver to be tested at a lab (after they have passed away, of course).
Are your eyes wide or eyebrows raised?
Yeah, that was about my reaction. It’s an overwhelming prospect.
With all of that being said, not many of us have $700 to drop on testing our soil and hiring a nutritionist (that’s a rough estimate). I have not tested my soil. But I also grew up with goat herders in the area, and they already knew the deficiencies in the area and were more than happy to share this information with me.
Hint: can you make friends in the nearby goat community? It will help, though it may not be completely accurate.
Of course, if your goats are eating primarily what you give them, and not grazing for any decent part of their feed intake, it makes balancing their diet easier. But you will still want to test your hay, and study the nutrition label on any grain you may be giving (<- which, incidentally, is a lot less expensive).
Now. With the scary part over with and gestating in the back of your head, let’s move on to some facts that any goat herder should know.
Firstly, goats are built to eat roughage. That means hay, brush, trees and the like. They cannot be fed with just grain. For adults, they need to be getting 2-4 lbs of either alfalfa, grass hay, or pasture every day – I go into details about which of these to choose below. Kids need less, obviously.
On a similar note, goats are browsers. That means that they much prefer to eat trees, bushes, and interesting plants, rather than grass. They’re not sheep. They won’t mow the lawn, unless it’s a last resort. And even then, the lawn won’t be even.
Goats need and prefer variety in their diet. Even more interesting, I think they’re more willing to stay inside fences if they have a variety of things to eat and don’t have to look elsewhere for it. Breaking down fences to get to the rose bushes on the other side is fun!
Additionally, never change a goat’s diet rapidly. Ease them slowly into a new feed, feeing regime, or pasture browsing. Particularly if you’re bringing a new animal to your farm – the shock of moving on top of a new diet can lead to illness, and sometimes, even death.
Also, immediately pound this into your brain: quality feed leads to quality animals. You can wiggle a bit in making your feed bill cheaper, but there are some things you just can’t replace. Just like your own body, if you feed it only McDonalds cheeseburgers, you’re not going to be healthy. Same for your goats. Quality feed equals healthy, high-producing animals. They will repay you in delicious, nutritious milk, and bright-eyed, healthy love – and less vet visits.
And finally, and very importantly: always supply fresh water. I give at least one or two buckets of fresh, new water every feeding, even if there is water left (I usually combine that into one bucket if it’s still clean smelling and looking because I wince at the waste — but still give new water, as well).
Deciding what to feed a goat when is a little tricky, but I’ve tried to simplify it here:
The Alfalfa rule: If your goats are growing, pregnant, milking, or in rut (bucks), they need some alfalfa. Their 2-4 lbs of roughage doesn’t need to be completely in alfalfa, particularly if they have a lush backyard full of brush, but it should be a decent chunk of it.
The Grain rule: If your lady is milking, she should have some grain (no more than 1.5 lbs a day). If they’re under a year and over two months (roughly), they should have some grain (no more than a lb a day).
The Grass Hay rule: If your ladies (or gentlemen) are not producing anything, and they don’t have access to a large variety of brush and pasture to munch on, supply grass hay. This is particularly important in the winter, not only because there will be less to eat, but because full bellies = warm goats (they generate heat through digestive movement!).
The Mineral rule: Always give access to minerals, be that a salt block or a container of loose minerals. You can find horse salt-licks at pretty much any feed store, and I’ve found several goat-specific loose minerals.
The Water rule: I’m going to say again — always supply fresh water.
Those are the basics on goats and goat feed. These posts go into more detail on each thing:
(A post on grass hay arriving shortly!)
Have a “yeah, but what about – ” question? Ask me below, or send me a private message from my contact page!