Ask a dozen goat owners what to feed goats and you’ll get a dozen different answers. While goats are hardy and adaptable, they do need a few basic minimums in order to be healthy. Let’s talk about these basic minimums and then move on to what types of feed you can choose from.
General Nutritional Requirements
Goats can typically be classified into two classes of nutrition requirements: maintenance and production. A maintenance diet is intended to maintain a goat at its current body condition and assumes that its nutritional requirements will also be relatively consistent. Nearly all pet goats will fall into this category – they aren’t doing a lot of physical activity and they’re not breeding. Wethers, except those hard working pack wethers, will do fine on a maintenance diet.
For production animals, we take the maintenance diet and ratchet it up a notch. Production goats include growing kids and goats in all stages of breeding: bucks during rut, gestating does and lactating does. Pack wethers will also benefit from a production diet.
What do the components of these diets look like?
Before we dig into the details, I want to take a moment to tell you about one of the best nutritional data resources I’ve ever come across: feedipedia.org. It is by no means necessary to research your foodstuffs this thoroughly, but if you’re the type who likes to look through the data and crunch numbers, I think you’ll find this website absolutely dreamy. 🤩
Let’s quickly go through how to find the information relevant to us as goat owners. First, go to feedipedia.org and locate the search bar at the top left of the screen:
You can type in whatever feed–hay or grain–you’re looking into here, but for our demonstration, I’ll enter alfalfa. On the search results page, the first entry that includes the latin name is the one you want to click:
There is so much information to be found in each of the tabs in the feed detail page and I like to read all of them, but in particular the one we want to look at is the “Nutritional tables” tab:
Once in that tab, you’ll see several tables but for alfalfa, the one we want to look at is “Alfalfa, dehydrated” because when we’re feeding hay, that’s what we’ll be feeding.
Here is where you can see all the data from tested hay samples, with full references at the bottom of each table to indicate where the data comes from. It really is fascinating to go through! We’ll be talking more in this lesson about specific nutritional requirements, including protein and the calcium:phosphorus ratio, which are two of the more important aspects of goat nutrients we need to be aware of – you’ll be able to find the data for both here in Feedipedia, through forage testing or researching other nutritional data sites.
Goats need a minimum of 10%-12% crude protein for maintenance. For production, increase that protein to 16%-18%. Using data available on Feedipedia, I have listed below some of the most common hay types and their average crude protein percent. Grains have protein as well and can be explored further in Feedipedia, but we’ll just cover hay here to keep things short.
- Alfalfa 18.3
- Soybean hay 15.7
- Lespedeza 14.8
- Timothy: 9.1
- Orchard 13.1
- Peanut 11.1
- Bermuda 10.2
- Oat hay 9.1
Though there is not a lot of settled clinical research and information on specific vitamins and minerals for goats, the one we do know about is the calcium:phosphorous ratio. A correct calcium to phosphorous ratio is essential to health. Imbalances can lead to urinary calculi in males. Not enough calcium can cause issues with pregnancy and lactation. Ideally, the percent of calcium in the diet should be at least twice that of phosphorous in the diet, or a 2:1 ratio. I believe the research will one day show a much, much higher proportion of calcium to phosphorous as ideal and I suggest, based on my experience, a ratio of 4:1 or higher. Many goat producers find excellent results feeding alfalfa as their sole ration and as we’ve seen above, alfalfa has an average ca:p ratio of 8:1. No matter what you feed, just make sure the overall balance is at the very least twice the calcium as phosphorous.
Calculating the Calcium:Phosphorus Ratio
Using the data from the Feedipedia screenshots above for alfalfa, we can see that the average calcium content is 22.1 g/kg DM while the average phosphorus is 2.7 g/kg DM. Since we’re looking at the ratio, which is independent of the unit of measurement, all we need to take from this is 22.1 calcium to 2.7 phosphorus. The ratio is calculated: calcium divided by phosphorus (22.1/2.7 = 8.19) so the ca:p ratio of alfalfa is 8.19:1 or more easily rounded to 8:1. You can do this with any feedstuff as long as you can find data for both calcium and phosphorus.
For a general idea, grasses and grains typically contain much more phosphorous and alfalfa, as we’ve seen above, has a high amount of calcium.
The following list shows the average calcium and phosphorus of some of the more commonly fed hays as listed in Feedipedia:
- Alfalfa C 22.1 P 2.7
- Soybean hay C 8.6 P 1.9
- Lespedeza C 13.5 P 2.1
- Timothy: C 3.3 P 2.1
- Orchard C 4.1 P 2.8
- Peanut C 11 P 1.5
- Bermuda C 4.5 P 2.2
- Oat hay C 3.8 P 2.2
It Doesn’t Have to be Complicated
I know looking at the numbers can seem intimidating so I want to make a point here that it really is not complicated to keep goats healthy and thriving, but it’s a good idea to have a foundation of understanding these components to help you make feeding decisions moving forward. My herd has thrived for over 14 years on nothing but alfalfa hay and good minerals.
Now that we’ve covered the basic nutritional requirements that we need to look for in our feeds, let’s talk about the feeds themselves.
Unless you live in a year-round growing season, the foundation and most critical part of your feeding program is going to be hay for at least part of the year. Goats need long stem roughage for healthy rumen function and for this, there is no substitute for hay. Long stem roughage is hay or browse with a minimum of 2-3″ staple length and is necessary for the balance of rumen bacteria and the goat’s ability to chew cud. As an interesting aside, if you like to read studies this one talks about the increase in rumen pH and bacteria, among other changes, that occurred merely by increasing the chop length of silage.
Which Type of Hay?
As we’ve seen in the examples above, alfalfa has more than enough protein and calcium to meet the nutritional needs of goats. Alfalfa also directly contributes to milk production and in herbal medicine is one of the herbs given to increase lactation in humans as well, which is a consideration if you will have dairy goats. For these reasons, many goat producers recommend and use alfalfa as their hay ration. In places where it is easily accessible, that is my recommendation as well, but the nutritional information we’ve covered in this lesson will allow you to create a hay feeding regimen that will meet their nutritional requirements with what you have readily available in your region.
Say for example you live in the southeast United States. Alfalfa is less common in that area, but peanut hay is readily available from my all-the-way-across-the-country understanding. If you have pet goats, peanut hay will be adequate in protein and has a good ratio of ca:p. If you have production goats, you’d need to increase the protein source which could be done in a variety of ways. First, alfalfa pellets are usually trucked all across the country and could be added to a daily ration. Field peas, which are also generally available in the south, average 23.9% crude protein and are something we use here in our own milker ration. It is entirely possible, no matter where you live, to find a “by the books” goat feeding regimen that works for your herd.
How Much Hay?
A general rule of thumb is 4% of body weight per goat per day. For a 75-pound Nigerian Dwarf adult, that works out to 3 pounds per day. I round up and figure on 100 pounds per ND per month and I count kids as adults for my winter calculations to account for their increased need for nutrients for growth. For a 150-pound standard sized goat, you’d need double that amount, or 200 pounds per month.
Counting kids as adults helps account for some of the inevitable hay waste you’ll encounter with goats. If you aren’t raising kids, consider adding 20%-30% more to your hay estimations to factor in waste. Goats are very choosy eaters and innately know which parts of their hay are not ideal nutrition for them. For example, in earlier season cuttings of alfalfa and in later season if it’s stressed by drought etc., part of the stalk will be thick and coarse, “stemmy,” and unpalatable to goats.
Rather than feel the need to force them to eat foods they know will not nourish them, I try to work with the waste and make the most of it. To accomplish that most efficiently, we feed our goats in high-waste feeders out in the garden over winter, moving the feeder every couple of weeks so the waste they drop is laid down as mulch for next year’s growing season. This results in a more nutrient rich garden and much less work for the goat herders.
A quick story about forcing them to eat waste hay: I sold a couple of goats to a woman in the city. Months later, she talked to me about how her goats never stopped crying and the neighbors were complaining. She’d brought the goats over for breeding and the first thing I’d noticed was how under condition they were. We were standing at the barn talking, so as I continued asking probing questions, I thought to point out to her the stemmy hay we’d been dealing with this year in our own herd, and how it hurts their mouths because it’s so coarse and it just isn’t really “food” for them. As it turns out, she had similar quality hay but thought that since there was still “hay” in the feeder, she would wait until they’d completely emptied it before feeding them more. Since there was no nutrition in those coarse stems, they were literally starving and that’s why they were always so noisy.
While none of us wants to throw money in the form of wasted hay away, it pays in the long run to consider it an investment in the health of our herds. I bred those does for her anyway since she’d made a cross-state drive to get them bred and I knew they’d be on better nutritional footing from now on. One doe didn’t settle and the other had only a single kid, quite likely as a result of inadequate nutrition prior to breeding, making that breeding fee and long drive quite costly for the owner.
How Much Will They Waste?
I feed second cutting alfalfa and generally expect a waste rate of 20%-25% of each bale. Third and fourth cutting alfalfa will have finer stems, but also a higher cost so there’s a balance in there somewhere, but second has worked well for us overall. While 20%-25% is my average waste, we’ve had significant droughts the last couple of years that have had a major impact on hay quality. This feeding season, we were seeing waste as high as 70% of each bale. It was disheartening, to say the least. I figure I spent about $2,000 in remedial feeding options to bridge the gap between the hay we had and the nutrition they needed. Those options included alfalfa pellets, daily grain feeding (a first in our 14 years of goat ownership) and daily alfalfa silage.
I want to mention this feed product because I think it is something to be aware of for a number of reasons. Alfalfa silage that is readily available in sizes that work for goat owners is made by Chaffhaye, Standlee and a new Washington brand, Freshpac. Each of these brands has 20-50 pound airtight plastic bags of compressed and fermented alfalfa. The price ranges from around $15-$25 per 50-pound bag and being a wet feed, it is not an efficient option pound-for-pound as a complete ration. Where it really shines though is in the ability to stretch other feed options. Fermented feeds improve the digestibility of other feeds and goat owners have reported a variety of health benefits to supplementing with these, such as increased milk production and sweetness, faster growth rates, softer coats, overall health improvement, etc. I feel like my kids grow better with daily Chaffhaye and they demand less from their moms, who are also more productive with this feed.
A good example comes from this past kidding season. We’d been feeding our crummy hay and refilling our big feeders almost daily, plus adding daily grain, but still they were struggling. A particular doe with triplets would mother her smallest doe but only let her nurse if she snuck in with another of the kids. I was giving this kid two supplemental bottles a day and about three days after I added in daily Chaffhaye for the does (not just the kids), the bottle doe quit coming to me for bottles. I observed her to see why and discovered her mom was now standing and allowing her to nurse with the rest. She was probably five or six weeks old then and the addition of Chaffhaye, the only change we’d recently made, made such a difference her mom was able to provide for them all.
I like to feed it to kids during the 8-10 weeks after kidding to give a nutritional boost and I am really grateful to have had access to it this year to supplement our awful hay for the does as well.
Another good thing about it is that if the bag is kept intact, it has a several year shelf life. I like that I could tuck a pallet away in the barn somewhere and have it to hold me through if I couldn’t access regular hay for any reason.
In addition to its high cost, another major drawback is the fact that every single bale is wrapped, necessarily so, in thick plastic bags. The plastic waste adds up quickly and the environmental concern is one of the main reasons I don’t keep it as a regular staple through the whole winter season.
Minerals. Ah, minerals. Allow me to step on my soap box here for a moment and explain to you why this is the single most frustrating topic in the whole of goat husbandry and why I have grave concerns about following the social media herd mentality when it comes to how to handle feeding minerals to our goats.
First, a little personal back story. When we began raising goats back in 2008, there weren’t a lot of options locally and I didn’t question the recommendation to get a loose mineral blend for my goats. In addition to free choice loose minerals, we gave copper bolus and Bo-Se shots twice a year. These are the most frequent three recommendations in the goat world and if you’re into any online groups or forums, you are certain to come across the advice to give them all. And indeed, it worked perfectly fine for us for eight years…until it didn’t.
In 2016, we purchased our dream farm 30 minutes away and moved herd and family that summer. From dry lot to lush bottomland pasture, we had some major adjustments ahead of us.
Up until that move, we had experienced no live born kid losses ever. In the 2017 and 2018 kidding seasons, we lost a total of 16 live born kids. In other ways, those were among the hardest years of my life – we had serious safety concerns from an angry neighbor, I was struggling with debilitating health issues and my husband was commuting three hours for work 5-6 days a week. Pattern recognition was not my strong point then (or ever, ha!) and it wasn’t until the tail end of the 2018 kidding season that I finally started connecting all these various deaths.
In almost every case, the kid would be born seemingly normal, but would not be particularly active or thrifty and would be dead within a few days. I found ways to justify them, “That one must have gotten stuck.” “I bet that one was rammed,” etc. I really kicked myself over my ignorance after we got through this period. When I finally realized there were similarities between them all, we were done with losing kids, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I talked with both state and local vets who had no ideas based on symptoms, sent bloodwork in on the dam of a kid who died and planned to send in the next kid for necropsy to get to the bottom of it, but by then we normalized.
The only clue we had was high selenium levels in the adult doe. High selenium can be fatal in toxic doses and a local vet tech mentioned how in our particular area, up a few miles from a defunct aluminum plant, fatal selenium toxicity had been seen in horses on multiple occasions. We’ll never know for sure if that’s what caused our losses, but it was a big wake-up call to me that maybe there’s more to the mineral story than we’re aware of.
It was around this time that I began to have misgivings about forcing copper and selenium through bolus and injection, so we completely stopped giving these products, feeding only cattle and goat formulated loose minerals and pasture or hay. We’ve never since had losses like that.
Later that year, 2018, Kathy at Red Horse Valley in Missouri began posting about the severe losses she’d had to copper toxicosis while feeding goat formulated feeds and minerals. She lost many animals and had a long road ahead of her to remediate the damage done to the ones who survived. You can read more about her story on her Facebook page and by perusing through her Resources page. I’ve included one such post here because these symptoms are among the most common symptoms attributed to “copper deficiency” and are the basis of the constant recommendation to force copper through bolusing:
Now, all of that is a lot to take in when you’re just getting started, but is exactly for this reason I want to emphasize this point now, when you’re getting started, so you can understand two things: a. we really have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to goat minerals and b. neither do most of the people you’ll encounter who tell you you must force feed minerals. If you took one piece of advice from this section, I’d hope it would be this: never force feed minerals without an absolute knowledge that they are necessary.
Does that mean I’m against giving copper bolus to goats? No, not at all. There are numerous studies that demonstrate the benefit from both a mineralization point of view and for helping with parasite control. In situations of deficiency, copper bolus can be a helpful tool in maintaining mineral balance. I think there’s a better way and I’ll talk about that later, but I don’t discount the need and benefit of copper bolus when it is warranted – I just don’t think enough attention is brought to the very real danger over supplementing can cause.
So how do we know when our animals need these minerals? Herein lies the challenge. While many mineral levels can be accurately assessed with a blood sample, copper levels are only accurate from a liver tissue sample. Liver samples from a living animal are difficult and costly, so where does that leave us? I’ll quote Kathy on that:
…ask your feed supplier if they can get a trace mineral assay done on the hay you purchase. That will give you an idea of how much molybdenum (copper antagonist) you have in your feed. Water testing might be good too, for if you have high iron or sulfur, that can effect copper absorption. If you test all feed, concentrate, mineral supplement, and water, you can figure out how much of all the trace minerals they are getting and compare to NRC recommendations (10-15 ppm in dry matter intake for copper where antagonists are not elevated). If you are having losses (and not just coat color changes), you may be able to find vets who can do ultrasound guided liver biopsies on living animals. No general anesthesia… just lidocaine and ultrasound… to take about 100 mg of liver tissue for trace mineral diagnostic panel to see which minerals may be out of balance. https://www.facebook.com/RedHorseValley/photos/a.2058266134188319/2058262294188703
Continue the discussion in the Nutrition forum.