Updated March 4, 2021
If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special goat residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of goats at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. While goats are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider in their physiology and nutritional needs!
Although goats have been given the reputation that they will eat practically everything in their path, they are actually quite sophisticated eaters (though a curious goat may try to nibble on a fence post or two)! In fact, goats are known as “browsers”, rather than “grazers”, because they take their time in deciding what to eat; they try to prioritize the more nutrient-dense offerings available before moving onto the less nutritious calories.
Rather than directly receiving nutrients from the food they eat, goats must first ferment their food in their complex digestive system consisting of four-chambered stomachs and then absorb the nutrients out of the resultant fermented mixture. As a result of this complex digestive system, goats typically need to browse for at least eight hours per day!
Daily Food For Goats
Pasture Or Hay
A healthy goat needs to eat approximately 4-6% of their bodyweight in hay, with more food necessary if they are health compromised, very young or old, a new mother, or during colder seasons. If possible, the best grass for goats comes in the form of high quality pasture, especially mixed grasses and clover varieties kept higher than three inches in growth. Before letting goats loose in their pasture, ensure that it has been thoroughly checked for toxic plants first! As mentioned, goats will typically prioritize eating other plant life like weeds, leaves, and other interesting things over grass alone. Planting goat safe high tannin, chicory, birdsfoot trefoil, or sericea-lespedeza plants can help reduce goat parasites such as Barber Pole. Goats have variable needs in terms of total food required depending on size and health, but if healthy goats are having a hard time keeping on weight, they may need more food access.
Your pasture should be divided up and their use rotated throughout the season to give the foliage time to regenerate and lower the chances of parasites from spreading in the pasture and infecting your residents.
Lacking adequate pasture, you should feed goats high quality goat-approved hay, like timothy. Keep in mind that goats will avoid eating any hay that has been trampled underfoot, so if you are primarily feeding goats with baled hay, it’s best to utilize a goat-friendly hay feeder that will keep their living spaces cleaner and limit waste. Avoid designs optimized for other animals such as horse feeders as goats can get their heads stuck in them. These designs often have tapered vertical bars that have wider gaps towards the top that narrow at the bottom. A goat may fit their entire head in the gap at its widest point but then become trapped when they bring their head closer to the ground. We’ve heard devastating stories of goats dying as a result- either from strangulation or breaking their neck trying to free themselves.
If allowed adequate pasture, forage, or hay, they should get enough protein in their diet, but some goats, such as those who are older, younger, ill, or new mothers, may need to have extra protein supplemented in their diet, such as with soy meal or extra legumes added to their hay. Low protein can increase parasite problems in goats and lead to other significant health challenges, whereas slightly higher protein intake has fewer downsides.
Limit Or Avoid These
Alfalfa pastures should not be used generally for goat feeding as its high calcium and protein content can cause health issues like obesity and urinary calculi. Urinary blockages are especially dangerous in neutered male goats, and therefore it’s best to avoid feeding alfalfa to them. Alfalfa should only be fed to babies or females who are pregnant, recovering from an illness, or struggling to keep weight on.
Grain (and formulated goat food from farm supply stores) should be highly limited (if not typically non-existent) on a goat’s menu. It is very high in fat and can easily cause obesity and painful and dangerous urinary calculi in goats. It can also cause laminitis. Grain should only be offered to goats who need the extra nutrition due to weight loss or illness on the recommendation of a veterinarian. Healthier options for supplemental feeding includes soaked timothy hay pellets or beet pulp. If you do offer grain to goats, talk to your veterinarian about ammonium chloride supplementation to prevent struvite calculi.
Water For Goats
Like every sanctuary resident, goats require a clean, freely-accessible water supply. Automatic watering systems with thermostats for automated heating are a good option to minimize spilling and keep the goats well-hydrated in freezing conditions.
Goats require more water in the hot season, when pregnant, and when eating hay rather than grass.
Minerals And Supplements For Goats
Goats should always have ready access to goat-formulated minerals, either in the form of loose minerals or from mineral blocks. These help supply goats with essential nutrients like calcium, chlorine, sodium, phosphorous, magnesium, sulfur, potassium, Vitamins A, D, and E, and trace minerals like copper, cobalt, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and zinc.
Generally, a goat must be fed a 2 to 1 calcium to phosphorous radio in order to prevent urinary calculi.
Goats typically do well to get many of the nutrients they need from what they eat, but deficiencies can arise depending on the nutrients in the food you’re feeding them and if they switch diets, such as going from pasture to hay in the winter months. If you are concerned about specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies in goats, you can have their blood tested to highlight any problem areas and adjust their diet and supplementation accordingly on the recommendation of a veterinarian. If you are worried about the quality of their hay, you can get it tested for nutritional analysis.
Goats can also be given access to black oil sunflower seeds on occasion to naturally boost their vitamin E and other trace minerals, which can benefit their overall health and improve their coat.
If the goats in your care have been very susceptible to bloat in the past, your veterinarian may recommend adding a little baking soda into their mineral mix, but be aware that too much baking soda can cause urinary calculi, so you must weigh the risks for your residents.
Treats For Goats
You should not feed too many treats to goats, as they can become overweight or develop urinary calculi quite easily. However, an occasional treat can go a long way in keeping goats happy (or motivated to come to you if they’ve snuck out of their living space!) Once you’ve ensured that they’re cut down to goat bite-sized pieces, Safe and healthy goat treats include vegetables and very limited fruit such as:
- Sunflower Seeds
Things That Are Toxic To Goats
Like many herbivores, there are some common plants and foods that are toxic and must be kept out of a goat’s living space for their health. In the case of toxic trees, even their fallen leaves in autumn can contain enough toxin to seriously harm goats. This includes:
- Animal products of any kind
- Bracken Ferns
- Cherry, chokecherry, elderberry, and plum trees
- Holly trees
- Lily Of The Valley
- Ponderosa Pine trees
- Mountain Laurel
- Red Maple trees
- St. John’s Wort
- Yew trees
- Many ornamental plants
Check out our full resource on things toxic to goats here.
Special Food Recommendations For Older Goats
Older goats can typically lose, break, or wear down some or many of their teeth through the course of their lives, especially if their food comes primarily from grazing on natural terrain. Damage to or loss of a molar can then cause issues in other molars- for example, without a matching upper molar to keep it ground down, a lower molar can become painfully sharp and may need to be routinely filed down by a veterinarian. As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older goat with dental issues to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues. They try their best to chew the grass or hay, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest. It’s especially important to monitor an older goat’s weight as they age to ensure that they are getting enough to eat (and are able to eat the food available to them). If necessary, you can make your own special food by soaking grass hay pellets and beet pulp or offering chopped hay (for females, you can offer alfalfa if they truly need the extra calcium and protein, but this can lead to urinary calculi in males). By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and grass require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. You can also have a veterinarian evaluate and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful. Never put your hand near a goat’s molars, as they have very strong jaws and sharp teeth which could cause a permanent injury.
If it seems like older goats aren’t thriving, it could be a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective chewing and digestion. Make sure they continue to have easy access to minerals given where they graze and spend time indoors! If necessary, you can administer a goat-safe vitamin booster to help clear up any nagging deficiencies. Elderly goats can also benefit from vitamins A, B12, D, and E, Selenium, Calcium, Copper Bolus, anemia, which can lead to dangerous health challenges. Consult with your veterinarian before making big changes to their supplementation., Kelp, Sugar Beet, Black Oil Sunflower Seeds, and multivitamin formulas like Calf-Manna Pro depending on the elderly goat’s needs. You should also regularly make sure that they aren’t developing
In general, you should be very mindful of an older goat’s weight. It is not uncommon for elderly goats to lose weight, which could be due to dental disease, an underlying health condition such as CAE, or they may be losing out on food from competing goats. It’s important to identify the cause of the weight loss, take steps to address the issue, and make changes to their diet or offer supplemental foods to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need. You can supplement a thin goat’s food with a source that is higher in protein to help them put on more weight- just make sure to keep monitoring their weight to evaluate its effectiveness! It is also possible for some goats to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or stiffness. Overweightness in goats can lead to a host of health issues so you should look at ways to help them maintain a healthy weight such as feeding first cutting grass hay rather than richer cuttings.
Read more about older goat care recommendations here!
What Do Goats Eat | Weed Em And Reap (Non-Compassionate Source)
Feeding Goats | Morning Chores (Non-Compassionate Source)
How To Protect Your Goats From Poisonous Plants | Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)
What To Feed Your Goats | Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)
Treats That Goats Can Eat | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)