Updated May 24, 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!
Like sheep and cows, goats are ruminants. Rather than directly receiving nutrients from the food they eat, goats must first ferment their food in their complex digestive system consisting of a four-chambered stomach and then absorb the nutrients out of the resultant fermented mixture. Due to the way they absorb nutrients, they need to be gradually introduced to new and novel food if changing their diet is necessary; abruptly changing their diet can lead to bloat and other digestive issues.
Daily Food For Goats
While many people lump sheep and goats together as having the same dietary needs, there are actually quite a few key differences between what they want and need when it comes to food. First, while sheep are grazers, goats are browsers. They can (and do) eat grass, but they also forage for other foods such as brush and woody vegetation (these plants are referred to as “browse”). A healthy goat’s diet should consist primarily of goat-safe vegetation, either fresh (in the form of quality pasture and browse) or dried (in the form of hay).
The amount of food a goat needs is often estimated on a dry matter basis (“dry matter” refers to what would remain if all of the moisture was removed from the food). The amount of dry matter a goat needs to consume in order to meet their nutritional needs depends on many factors including the temperature, the type and quality of the food, and the individual (their weight, life stage, general health, and activity level all factor in). Because of this, there is a wide range of estimates different sources provide regarding dry matter intake, ranging from below 2% to 6% of their body weight. According to Susan Schoenian, Sheep & Goat Specialist for University of Maryland Extension, in order to meet their nutritional requirements, goats generally need to consume 2-4% of their body weight in dry matter. By offering foraging opportunities and/ or hay free-choice, individuals can consume as much food as they need (though some individuals may require additional supplementation on top of this and others may need their intake restricted, in which case your veterinarian can make specific recommendations regarding their dietary needs). In order to maintain healthy rumen function, goats typically need at least 7% dietary crude protein and at least 50% dietary fiber.
Pasture And Browse Vegetation
While we often talk about pasture in terms of outdoor space and food sources for goats, as browsers, they thrive in outdoor spaces that provide both the opportunity to graze on pasture and also the opportunity to browse. Keep this in mind when designing outdoor spaces for your goat residents. If available, browse will typically make up over 60% of a goat’s diet. According to Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition, most goats prefer browse over grass and grass over legumes. Your local cooperative extension office should be able to recommend browse plants and a pasture seed mix (containing grasses and forbs) for your residents that will grow well in your area, but if you care for male goat residents, be sure to ask about plants that are suitable for neutered males, as some forages may increase the risk of urinary calculi.
Before giving goats access to outdoor spaces, ensure that they have been thoroughly checked for toxic plants! Your pastures should be divided up and their use rotated throughout the season to give the foliage time to regenerate and to lower the chances of residents ingesting parasites, especially barber pole worm, in the pasture. When considering rotation for regeneration, don’t forget about browse plants. Goats can easily kill plants by eating all of the foliage, so you’ll need to rotate them accordingly (you generally need to leave at least 20% of the foliage if you want to have any hope of the plant surviving, though some plants may require a higher percentage of foliage remaining). It can be helpful to plant some shrubs, bushes, and trees along the fenceline on the outside of a goat herd’s outdoor space so that some foliage is within the residents’ reach, but a portion of it remains protected. Another idea is to plant trees or large shrubs inside their living space and protecting them with solid fencing to prevent goats from stripping tree bark or otherwise destroying the plant. This is especially helpful if there is a limited amount of browse in their space or if frequent rotation is not possible.
Although a diet consisting solely of grass is not a natural diet for goats, when fresh vegetation is not available, residents will need to be fed grass hay, such as timothy or orchard grass. The specific variety will depend a lot on your location and what is available. Hay can come in multiple cuttings, with 1st and 2nd being the most frequently used. The cutting simply indicates when the hay was harvested (cut) for the season- first cutting was harvested first, second cutting is harvested second, and so on. In some areas, first cutting may be all that is available to you- it all depends on your region, the growing season, and your supplier. Depending on the type of hay you use, there may be physical and nutritional differences between the different cuttings. For example, when comparing first and second cutting timothy hay, first cutting is typically coarser than second cutting, which is often richer, softer, and also more expensive (though in some cases, first and second cutting may look very similar).
It’s best to provide hay in a hay feeder in order to keep it clean and dry and to reduce waste. Be wary of hay feeders designed for horses, as certain styles can pose the risk of entrapment for goats, particularly wall-mounted styles with 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 of getting stuck in these feeders- either from strangulation or breaking their neck trying to free themselves- so we recommend using a safer type of hay feeder for both sheep and goats.
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 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, but there are alternatives that can be used to supplement a goat’s diet without the risk that comes with grain and concentrates; healthier options for supplemental feeding includes soaked timothy hay pellets or a mix of soaked timothy and 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. The amount of water your residents will consume in a day varies based on their size, the temperature, and the water content of their food, but in general a non-lactating goat will drink 1-2 gallons of water each day. Water consumption will increase as temperatures rise, and individuals eating hay will drink more water than those eating lush grass and other vegetation due to the much lower moisture content of hay. Individuals who are pregnant or lactating will require more water than those who are not- on average between 2-4 gallons per day. Automatic watering systems with thermostats for automated heating are a good option to minimize spilling and keep the goats well-hydrated in freezing conditions.
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 should be fed a 2 to 1 calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in order to prevent urinary calculi.
Even with an appropriate diet and mineral supplementation, deficiencies are still possible. If you are concerned about specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies, you should consult with your veterinarian. In some cases, simple blood tests can be used to screen for deficiencies, but with certain nutrients, diagnosing deficiency is more complex. If you are worried about the quality of their hay, you can get it tested for nutritional analysis.
Goats can 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 offering a little baking soda in addition to their mineral mix, but be aware that too much baking soda can cause urinary calculi, so you must weigh the risks for your residents.
If you change the available mineral mix for your goat residents, be sure to watch closely to make sure your residents are consuming the appropriate amount (as some are more or less palatable than others) and watch for any signs of potential nutritional imbalances.
Most healthy goats will get enough protein from quality forage or hay, but those who are growing or lactating have higher protein requirements and may need supplementation. Individuals who are ill, especially those dealing with internal parasites, might also require additional protein. If protein supplementation is necessary, talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your residents. There are mineral formulas that contains added protein, or they may recommend offering an oilseed meal or other protein source. It’s important to meet your residents’ protein requirements without greatly exceeding them, as too much protein can contribute to certain health issues such as pizzle end rot. Most goats who are not growing or lactating require around 7-8% protein.
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
Foods You Should Not Feed To Goats
Foods to avoid feeding to goats include:
- Animal products of any kind
- Avocado (Any part of the plant -fruit, leaves, stems, bark, and seeds- can be toxic to goats. The toxic element in avocado is persin)
- Brassicas -Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts. Turnips and kale are also in this family. Turnips have some specific toxicity issues concerning thyroid production. (Use caution. Don’t feed large amounts. Avoid seeds and roots.)
- Celery (Use caution. Celery contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitization. Never feed roots or seeds.)
- Citrus (Citrus can cause gastric distress in larger amounts or if fed regularly.)
- Chocolate (While there aren’t many sources to confirm whether chocolate is a great danger to goats, it does contain theobromine which can be toxic in a number of other mammals. There are limited studies indicating certain amounts can be toxic so it is best to use caution and avoid altogether.)
- Nightshade “vegetables” (Use caution. Do not feed green, immature fruits or leaves, vines or roots of any nightshade vegetable, such as eggplant, tomatillo, pepper, or tomatoes.)
- Onions (While goats have a greater resistance to toxicity issues than some other mammals, onions are not a great treat.)
- Parsley (Parsley contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitisation)
- Potatoes (The skin, particularly green skin, and “eyes” contain glycoalkaloids and solanine toxins; leaves and vines can be toxic as well.)
- Rhubarb (There are a number of factors that affect levels of toxins in rhubarb; the leaves are particularly toxic but it is better to avoid the whole plant as it contains oxalic acid. Cooking it may reduce toxin levels in the stems.)
- Un-Pitted stone fruits (Pits can lodge in the intestines and pits contain toxins.)
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 foraging 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 vegetation 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, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break food 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 vegetation 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 forage and spend time indoors! If necessary, you can administer a goat-safe vitamin booster, under the guidance of your veterinarian, 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.
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!
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What Do Goats Eat | Weed Em And Reap (Non-Compassionate Source)
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Treats That Goats Can Eat | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)