Goat Info Series: What do goats eat?
Disclaimer: I am not a vet. I own a herd of Nigerian Dwarf Dairy goats and everything I have learned comes from other owners, trial and error, and my vet. Although there are great guidelines for goats, some of it is like human kids - you know yours best.
If you are just starting to think about getting goats, anyone you have mentioned it to has responded with "well, you'll never have to mow your grass again!" Don't sell your lawn mower, this is not a thing. Although goats will nibble grass, they will not eat it as a large portion of their diet. Goats are browsers who prefer to eat what they can find with their heads pointed up, not grazers who walk around munching with their heads down like cows. This is probably an evolutionary device - parasites are down on the ground, not up in the leaves.
Goats will make quick work of your available browse. We do a few things to supplement their natural goal of eating everything tasty in their pasture as quickly as possible. First, we provide high quality hay - we prefer second or third cutting orchard grass. They tend to throw first cutting all over the ground and waste it. I think first cutting hay is the salad bar iceberg lettuce of the goat world: you'll eat it if there is nothing else but COM'ON! Where's the arugula? We also rotationally graze. We use Premier 1 portable electric fence to move the goats around our 5 acres to new and delicious locales. If you don't have this option, no big deal, just make sure you have lots of hay.
Goats are ruminents, which means they need a very healthy gut - forage and dry, quality hay are key to this. If your goats are not used to a lot of forage, introduce it slowly and after they have had a chance to fill up a bit on dry hay. A goat who switches from hay to lots of lush greens quickly can be at risk for bloat. (Bloat is when gas is trapped in their rumen and they can't expel it. It can be fatal.)
Boring diet, right? Well, wait, there's more! For goats, an ounce of prevention is worth more like 100 pounds of cure. It's much easier to keep a goat healthy than to get them healthy. I always provide free choice loose minerals. What does that mean? It means minerals made for goats (I use Sweetlix) that are not formed into a block, and I keep a full dish of it out all the time. Just like you might crave steak when you are iron deficient, goats will crave minerals when they are copper or selenium deficient. I also provide free choice baking soda. Yes, just the Arm & Hammer kind. This helps with bloat and goats will eat it if they are feeling any digestive distress.
There are so additional supplements that provide to my goats monthly/quarterly that I will discuss in my next post, but to get started feeding your herd - this is all you need:
- Good Quality Grass Hay (2nd/3rd cutting)
- Loose Minerals
- Baking Soda
- Forage if Available
But what about grain? There are bags of goat food at Tractor Supply. First - goats do not NEED grain. It can lead to a whole host of conditions: urinary calculi, bloat, fat goats. It's basically like bread to people: no one needs it but it can be fortified with lots of vitamins and minerals and it tastes like heaven. If you do feed it, start very slow, like 1/8 cup per goat per day. Choose a feed with ammonium chloride added, this will prevent urinary calculi. As with new forage, only feed grain after a full belly of hay.