By Patrice Lewis
Feeding goats can be as diverse as their purposes. Goats – and for that matter, sheep – have many different purposes: Meat, milk, pets, therapy, commercial production, and valuable homestead livestock. Different breeds have been developed to fulfill different needs – a dairy goat differs from a meat goat, a milk sheep differs from a shearing sheep – but they all have one thing in common. They must eat.
Goats especially have the reputation for being ingestion virtuosos (picture the proverbial snaggle-toothed buck eating grandpa’s long johns off the clothesline), but like any other domestic animal, they thrive best with optimal diets. A goat typically eats 3 to 5 percent of its body weight in dry matter daily; and to ingest that much food, they should be pastured where lots of forage is available. Goats prefer eating woody plants (browsing), though they’ll also graze on grasses and weeds.
Regardless of the breed, age, or gender, goats require the same basic nutrition for energy: roughage or grain, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water. Protein and energy requirements vary, depending on the type of goat and its stage of production. Just remember when feeding: goats are not “little cows” and sheep have different nutritional needs from goats. Goats are foragers and browsers (like deer) while sheep are grazers.
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Goats have the fastest metabolism of any ruminant except deer, so they must eat low-protein plants almost continually. They can’t safely eat high levels of “hot” protein (grain) without risking numerous health issues such as bloat, urinary calculi, laminitis-founder, ruminal acidosis, ketosis, and hypocalcemia. High-calorie diets can even damage the skeletal system by expecting bones to support too much weight (fat goats!). These animals can even develop gout-like symptoms.
Dry roughage such as grass hay or dry forage/browse is essential for a goat’s good health, especially for proper rumen function. Of a goat’s daily intake, basic metabolism takes up to 50 to 100 percent of total daily nutrient requirements. The variation is due to the animal’s stage of life, whether they’re growing, lactating, gestating, or fattening.
Under commercial circumstances, the nutritional requirements for meat goats vs. dairy goats are similar; but because of the high lactation production expected of dairy goats, nannies are often fed limited amounts of grain mixtures (concentrates) in addition to their forage diet to encourage maximum milk flow.
Meat goats, which are expected to lactate only long enough to nurse their offspring, are generally not fed concentrates since it is not cost-effective in terms of return investment for the offspring. In fact, for meat goat farming to be economically viable, they must get most of their required nutrients from foraging. When foraging is substandard, then proper supplements are offered, but commercial growers must consider the cost-benefit of these supplements. In fact, using grain supplements to produce weight gain in meat goats is largely uneconomical. Goats convert plant material into muscle meat much more efficiently.
Of course, feeding goats for commercial production of meat or milk means utilizing precise and scientifically determined diets so output can be maximized when raising goats for profit. But what about the homestead animal, where maximum output is not expected or even desired?
Non-commercial animals, whether they’re homestead producers, therapy animals, or just pets, can be fed a less scientific (but still well-balanced) diet of roughage or grain, protein, vitamins, minerals – and water, always water. This doesn’t mean the quality of the food should be decreased; it just means smallholders don’t have to be quite as scientifically precise about things.
If forage is limited or unavailable due to seasonal conditions, bad weather, or limited pasture space, goats should be fed good hay (free-choice) from a manger or feeder. Hay for goats can be either legume hay (alfalfa or clover) or carbonaceous hay (timothy, brome, orchard grass, mixtures). Legume hay is pricier but has higher nutrition. It’s an excellent feed for pregnant or lactating does, and kids. Grass hay is less nutritious and also less expensive, so homesteaders often feed a 50-50 grass-legume mix. All hay should be fine-stemmed, leafy, and green in color. Choose hay meant for horses rather than cows.
Some smallholders feed Chaffhaye, which is legume hay (often alfalfa) that has been cut early, chopped, and sprayed with molasses. The material has a culture of Bacillus subtillis added to it before being vacuum-sealed into 50-lb. bags. The Chaffhaye ferments in the bag and enriches the food with yeast, enzymes and beneficial microflora that aids in digestion, as well as adding nutrients, minerals, and energy to their food. Recommended amounts of Chaffhaye are 1.5 lbs. per 100 weight of the animal.
Grain or concentrate supplements for non-commercial animals can mirror commercial requirements, but toned down or even eliminated if pasturage is adequate. When feeding goats, it’s not necessary to match or duplicate commercial conditions unless you want to match or duplicate commercial results. With animals that aren’t in milk or aren’t being fattened for market, grain is generally unnecessary unless forage is inferior or unavailable.
What about feed requirements for sheep? As with goats, a ewe’s dietary requirements will vary along with her reproduction status. All animals should have access to a loose trace mineral salt formulated for sheep, and of course, water should be available at all times.
Sheep are grazers (unlike goats, which are browsers), so pasturage should be managed appropriately, rotated, and fertilized as necessary. A surprising number of sheep holders don’t maintain their pasture properly, in which case free-feed hay should be offered.
For non-lactating ewes, or ewes in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, the animal’s nutritional needs don’t change and her feed requirements are fairly low, and commercial feeds are not recommended. Less expensive grass hay is often fed during this time, over the more expensive legume hay. Interestingly, many ewes late in their pregnancy can’t eat too much forage because their digestive system is squeezed by the lambs in her uterus. During this period, a combination of hay and grain may be necessary.
Regardless of the types of feed given to goats or sheep, it’s best to use feeders suited to the species. Cow or horse feeders are simply too large for feeding goats. Livestock are notorious for wasting food, and any hay that gets spilled on the ground usually isn’t eaten. Legume hay, especially, is expensive, and when animals trample it underfoot, they may as well be trampling dollar bills. This is why the proper feeder is essential.
There are many different styles of goat and sheep feeders on the market: small bale feeders, basket feeders, bunk feeders, collapsible feeders, round feeders, walk-through feeders, etc. Each style is adapted to diverse farm setups, different number of animals, types of hay, and other factors. A well-stocked livestock supply business can help tailor the best type of feeder for any circumstance.
Feeders for commercial enterprises will obviously be geared toward larger numbers of animals. For small homestead farms, smaller structures will fit better within limited spaces such as barns, milking parlors, etc. Arrange feeders so free-feed hay can be available at all times, particularly in regions or during times (winter, bad weather) when foraging is reduced or not possible.
Because the amount of grain given to both goats and sheep should be carefully monitored, specialized feeders (grain troughs) are often used. These, too, come in a variety of sizes and shapes suited to different set-ups, and the grain troughs are often combined with hay feeders.
Taking care of the needs of livestock is complicated enough, and anything to ease the burden for everyone from commercial growers to smallholders is helpful. Since feeders and other livestock equipment infrastructure are heavy, bulky, and often far away, search for companies which deliver equipment right to a customer’s doorstep. This saves the hassle of driving, hauling, loading, and unloading hefty apparatus.
Remember, the last thing your goats should be eating is grandpa’s long johns off the clothesline. The biggest dangers with goats is keeping their digestive systems healthy, but feeding goats – or sheep – doesn’t have to be as complex as a science project either. The right information, the right tools, the right equipment, and the right feed will keep your animals healthy and your job easier.