December 15, 2014

Feeding My Goats: Research, Thoughts, & Changes

Over the years I've written quite a bit about feeding my goats. With our self-sufficiency goals, feeding our animals from the homestead is a primary concern. Progress has been slower than we'd like, and I'm always contemplating how we can do better. Recently, I finished some rather extensive research for Critter Tales, the book I'm currently working on. If it hadn't been for the book I probably wouldn't have dug this deeply, but I'm glad I did because I've come to some conclusions and made some changes in the way I feed my goats. The following is an excerpt from the current draft of the "Goat Tales" section of the book. I hope it will be useful for those concerned about feeding their goats.

In the beginning, I assumed we would have to grow grain for our goats. Grains are high in energy but low in crude fiber, as are the beans or peas which are added for protein. Together, grains and legume seeds are referred to as concentrates. This is considered the necessary non-forage portion of the diet. The modern pelleted form usually contains corn and oil or fat for energy, soy or cottonseed meal for protein, plus added fiber, vitamins, and minerals for a complete feed in a bag.

With Dan's and my goal of feeding our animals from our land, I assumed I would need to learn how to make my own concentrate mixture. I would need to know what grows well in our area, plus I wanted to find a soy substitute, because soy requires extra processing to make it digestible. To grow a year's supply of these things would be more challenging than the garden. It would require good soil and adequate moisture, but at a scale needing more land, more water, larger equipment, and more storage space. Because of that I wanted to do my homework first.

As I researched what to grow for our goats, I learned there are a wide variety of opinions about what to feed them. Some folks are able to maintain healthy, productive goats without grain. Others assume it's a must and can't imagine feeding goats without it. They believe grain is essential to a goat's health and well-being.

The reason for feeding grain and legumes to ruminants is to enable them to reach their "genetic potential" for maximum milk production and rate-of-gain, i.e. weight gain for meat. [3] One of the questions I had to ask myself is, do I really need maximum production? If I want to make any significant income from my animals, then my answer will likely be yes. As someone who simply wishes to live on what I can grow and produce for myself, then I need to consider my answer. Is it possible to be satisfied with what my goats can provide without being pushed to their limits? Can I adapt our diet to true seasonal eating? More importantly, does our feeding regimen fit our values of stewardship and self-sufficiency? Is it in their best interests to be pushed to maximum production or will I burn them out? Is it possible for my goats to thrive without a concentrated type goat feed?

In Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals, Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM comments that veterinary textbooks of the 1950's make no mention of acidosis. It was not a problem when ruminants (cattle in his example) were fed on hay and pasture alone. The problem developed when the standard feed for cattle became grain, particularly corn, both as feed grain and as silage. The result has been that acidosis and it's various symptoms are now common: hoof problems, loose and runny manure, decreased resistance to disease, decreased butterfat, and shortened lifespan. Autopsy reveals an enlarged, yellowing liver. [4]
In goats, symptoms of acidosis are similar to those in cattle: decreased appetite, indigestion, dehydration, depression, weight loss, foot problems, scours, B vitamin deficiencies, decreased resistance to disease, and eventually death. Preventative measures include adequate roughage (especially long stemmed grass hay), whole rather than cracked grain, feeding hay first, and slow changes in diet to give the bacteria in the rumen time to adjust. [3] Acidosis is also the reason goat owners leave out free choice baking soda, so the goats can self-treat mild cases.

The problem is that the rumen is not designed to digest grain and seeds. It is designed to digest roughage, which is a generic term for the long stemmed, high fiber plants which make up forage, browse, and hay. According to the classic Feeds and Feeding by F. B. Morrison, the rumen is unique because it contains digestive bacteria which are able to break down plant cell walls, particularly cellulose and pentosans. This is something digestive enzymes cannot do, which is why roughage is low in digestible nutrients for monogastric (single stomach) creatures. Ruminants, on the other hand, are able to assimilate more nutrients from roughages. The longer the roughage stays in their rumen, the more nutrients they can extract. However, the digestive bacteria will also digest the starches and sugars found in grain (and in molasses, which is used as a binder in processed pellets)[5]. Dr. Dettloff, writing sixty years later, makes the connection with acidosis. The digestion of starch throws off hydrogen ions which lower pH, initially in the rumen but, eventually, systemically. The body cell membrane's sodium-potassium pump becomes unbalanced so that the immune system suffers and the animal's condition deteriorates.[4]

What goats need are plant material with long coarse fibers. These stimulate the rumen to function properly in what is known as the "roughage effect." During digestion plant matter is broken down and begins to ferment. Because it is not very digestible, roughage requires re-chewing to further break down the cell walls to release nutrients. We know this as chewing the cud. This action also neutralizes rumen pH because goat saliva contains buffers. [6] This buffer is a naturally produced bicarbonate, which according to M. Hadjipanayiotou, is apparently superior to baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in its ability to regulate rumen pH. [7] The more the animal chews its cud, the more bicarbonate is released into the digestive system. Grinding roughage into small particles (as for making pellets) greatly reduces this effect and the rumen's ability to digest and buffer properly. [6]

Something that surprised me is that goats don't need high energy feed (grains) to keep warm during cold weather. Among other nutrients, ruminal fermentation produces volatile fatty acids (VFAs). These provide over 70% of the needed energy supply, [8] enough to enable the animal to stay warm.[9] Robert L. Johnson of the International Dairy Goat Registry concurs, "They need plenty of real roughages–tree bark, dry leaves, poor-quality hay, even straw. If you give a goat a big bowl full of high-protein feeds on a cold winter night, you are actually chilling the goat; still more energy is needed to digest the meal, and goats can get pneumonia."[10]

Keenan Bishop summarized it well for Kentucky's The State Journal, "Goats do not perform well on high concentrate or high starch diets; however, they perform best on feeds in the range of 55-70 percent total digestible nutrients with just enough nitrogen in the gut to produce microbial protein and enough digestible fiber to produce fatty acids." [11]

The subject became more complex from there. In addition to crude fiber (CF) some articles now discuss acid detergent fiber (ADF). Basically, higher ADF means lower digestible energy and is used as an indicator of when to add grain to the diet. When I could not readily find charts with this information, I began to wonder how complicated I really wanted to get. Isn't the simple life supposed to be, well, simple? My conclusion was that everyone recognizes the inability of ruminants to digest high starch concentrates, but their solutions were finding ways to avoid symptoms rather than eliminate the cause of the problem. They want to dig deeper with scientific research to find the exact numbers needed to obtain a profitable balance between production and health, while adding rumen buffers, neutralizing agents, and inventing rumen modifiers. Trying to find exact, scientifically calculated figures for a roughage/grain/additive ratio may make sense in a dry lot, feedlot, overgrazed, or production situation, but it did not seem the best plan for our goals and our goats. To me that seemed a game of Russian roulette that I don't want to play. Free range goats will choose a large variety of things to eat if available, and are healthier for it. Our job is to steward our land to keep that variety available.

That still left the question of protein, another much talked about topic in regards to feeding goats, and another reason why folks feed concentrates. I've written many a blog post reporting my research on the protein content of things we can conceivably grow on our homestead: wheat, oats, amaranth, BOSS, grain sorghum, corn, cowpeas, comfrey, etc. How to make a homegrown feed mix containing the recommended 16% crude protein (CP) was a concern, because the things we can grow don't contain enough CP to get that percentage. That's why soy is commonly used in commercial feeds.

It was when I read Pat Coleby's Natural Goat Care that I learned that overfeeding protein can actually cause health problems such as mastitis, acetomenia, milk fever, ketosis, foot problems, and also mineral deprivation, especially copper. In addition, legumes which are used as protein sources: soy, alfalfa, beans, peas, tagasaste, clovers, etc., are goitrogenic, i.e they interfere with the thyroid's uptake of iodine. Fed in excess, they deplete iodine and can cause thyroid problems. I know that when I feed my goats lots of alfalfa, they consume more kelp, which is their source of iodine. [12] Phytoestrogens (plant based estrogens) are another concern and are found in significant amounts of in a number of legumes: alfalfa at certain stages of growth, various clovers, and soy, also some grains such as wheat and oats. These can effect ovarian function, fertility, and milk production [13]. Also they can be a contributing factor in ovarian cysts. [14] These things raised red flags in my mind in regards to whether or not the protein they provide is worth the risk. To put it another way, do goats really need all that protein?

Most dairy goat feeds contain a minimum of 16% protein (some higher). Proponents of natural goat care recommend 12 to 14% [12, 15]. According to the online Merck Veterinary Manual, the very minimum amount of crude protein needed by a non-working goat (i.e. not pregnant, lactating, or in rut) is 7% crude protein. [16] These figures are for crude protein (CP, which is actually nitrogen content). Of that, roughly 70% is digestible [10]. That means 16% CP yields approximately 11% digestible protein, 7% CP would be about 5% digestible. That seemed shockingly low to me after years of trying to figure out how to make my own rations containing 16%. In light of the other information, however, I was beginning to reconsider.

An extremely helpful article was one I found by Dr. Robert J. Van Saun DVM, of Penn State University. In "Dairy Goat Nutrition: Feeding for Two (How to properly feed the goat and her rumen)", he states that milk production can be increased by decreasing grain and maintaining a high roughage diet. How is that possible? Because the microbes in the rumen produce the building blocks of protein though bacterial fermentation.

"The dairy goat derives a majority of her energy and protein from microbial end products or the microbes themselves. Bacteria contain approximately 60% protein, which is of high quality and digestibility. In other words, the more we make the bugs grow in the rumen system, the less additional more expensive feedstuffs we need to provide the doe."

He goes on to state that in dairy cattle, microbes can provide protein for up to 50 pounds of milk. All of this supports a low grain, high roughage diet. Grain can cause problems but roughage keeps the rumen active, healthy, and able to extract those protein building blocks from that it.[9]

What does all of this mean to me, in terms of growing grains and legumes for our goats? It means that if I can provide high quality forage, both fresh as pasture and browse, and dry as hay, then I do not need to focus on growing grains and legumes for them. I can put that land to use growing winter greens and root crops to supplement their diet rather than concentrates. If I do feed them grain and legumes, I would rather include it in their hay as whole plants, i.e. before the wheat has been threshed and with the peas still in the pods on the vine. The goats can get the nutritional boost from the wheat and peas, but with the buffering, roughage effect of the stems, pods, chaff, and leaves. They eat it all and the chickens happily clean up any dropped seeds.


I'll stop there for now, except to give you the bibliography below with links to my sources. As you can imagine, this has had quite an impact on how I feed my goats. Of grain, I'm down to only a very small amount: 1# daily for each of the Nubian does, about half a cup each daily for the Kinder does (does are fed twice a day so this is divided into two feedings),  a tablespoon at the most for the bucks and kids, which are fed once a day. They all get a couple scoops of Chaffhaye, chopped garden vegetables, and a handful of dried herbs, fruits, and veggies. The rest is forage and hay, either what we grow here  (including weeds), or the best hay I can find to buy. I've also changed up their minerals and will post about that soon. Since these changes my goats look better than they ever have!

Will also add that most of the book isn't this intense or heavy! Mostly I'm focusing on our crazy experiences with our critters, with lots of hopefully useful information thrown in for good measure.


[3] Susan Schoenian, "The truth about grain: Feeding grain to small ruminants" Small Ruminant Info Sheet, 2007-2014

[4] Paul Detloff DVM, Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals Austin, TX: Acres USA, 2009, 9-12

[5] F. B. Morrison, Feeds and Feeding: A Handbook for the Student and Stockman 20th ed. Ithaca NY: The Morrison Publixhing Co. 1943, 27-28

[6] Suzanne Gasparotto. "Long Fiber: Critical to Good Nutrition", Onion Creek Ranch

[7] M. Hadjipanayiotou "Effect of Sodium Bicarbonate and of Roughage onMilk Yield and Milk Composition of Goats and on Rumen Fermentation of Sheep", Journal of Dairy Science Volume 65, Issue 1, January 1982, Pages 59–64 

[8] R. Bowen, "Nutrient Absorption and Utilization inRuminants", Colorado State University, 2009, Web. 12 Dec 2014

[9] Dr. Robert J. Van Saun, DVM, PhD of Penn State University Dairy Goat Nutrition: Feeding For Two  

[10] Robert L. Johnson, "The Feeding Of Goats" International Dairy Goat Registry, April 29, 1996, sadly the site has changed and the article removed.

[11] Keenan Bishop, "Getting your goat and feeding it too", The State Journal, Oct. 7, 2007

[12] Pat Coleby, Natural Goat Care, Austin, TX: Acres U.S.A. 95 - 97

[14] Carol Raczykowski, "Hormonal Causes of Infertility in the Doe", Pygmy Goat WORLD, 1994

[15] Kristie Miller, "Goat Feeding ", Land of Havilah Farm

[16] NutritionalRequirements of Goats The Merck Veterinary Manual 

December 13, 2014


My little Meyers lemon tree, currently residing on the back porch

I'm going to have a real lemon harvest this year! I've had my Meyers lemon tree for about five years and barely get but two or three lemons each year, if any.  This year I probably paid the least attention to it, even wondering if it was worth keeping. And look! Nine lemons! That means Lemon Cream Pie for Christmas! What a treat. :)

Lemons! © December 2014 by Leigh

December 10, 2014

2014 Goals, How'd We Do?

We did our homestead goals a little differently this year. It seems we're at a point where the next steps are more obvious than they were when we were first trying to get our homestead going. So instead of listing definite goals for the year, I listed next steps. They were still goals, but the time frame was less loosely defined, which worked pretty well for us.

We had five categories: house, outbuildings, fencing, critters, and food preservation.

Goals for the house included:
  • finishing the master bedroom
  • replacing the side windows in the corner bedroom
  • and then completing the siding on that side of the house too

Of those I can report that the master bedroom is pretty much done. We finished the bedroom ceiling last January, and the floor in June. The only thing that keeps me from having an official "we're done and here are the before and after shots to prove it" post are the thresholds for the doorways. That's been one of those little projects that has hung on and on and on, if you know what I mean.

After that our direction for the house changed when we had trouble with the front door. Since replacing the door involved fixing structural problems with the entire front porch, that meant the beginning of a rather extensive project which is still in progress. It's a relief, actually, because it will make the entire living room more energy efficient once it's done. I can't complain about that.

Goals for outbuildings all revolved around building a proper goat barn (plan here):
  • finish chicken coop 
  • finish emptying out the coal barn 
  • tear down coal barn 
  • build new goat barn in coal barn footprint (A goal I didn't anticipate finishing this year.)

We got everything checked off that list except building the goat barn. That was actually postponed because of the front porch project. But we got a nice new chicken coop built and the old outbuilding torn down. Because of the delay in getting started on the barn, we recycled much of the old building to add on to the existing goat shed. And that turned out pretty well if I do say so.

Goals for fencing. We had only one goal for fencing:
  • finishing the doe browse. 

That was the first goal we checked off the list! In addition, we fenced the garden because deer wiped out a number of things and wandering dogs tended to come dig up the beds. Also we purchased electric netting too, and a solar charger (something we've talked about for quite awhile).

Goals for critters. These were:
  • continue working on my goal of developing a dual-purpose homestead breed of goat (my Kikobians)
  • getting Silver Laced Wyandottes for chickens
  • get a dog
  • get pigs (something that's been on the annual goal list for a number of years)

Well, I'm still working on dual-purpose goats, but not my Kikobians. Even though I had a beautiful crop of Kikobian kids this year, I had to make a decision and ended up switching breeds. In September my long time Kinder dream came true with the purchase of two registered Kinder does. That was soon followed by two registered Kinder bucks. All of my Kikobians are gone but not forgotten, and I've never regretted the decision to go with the Kinders.

Our year of Silver Laced Wyandottes was good as chickens go, but they didn't endear themselves to us as we hoped they would. Next year, look for something different for us.

I did get a dog, a Great Pyrenees, but that only lasted about an hour.

Last but not least, we finally got our pigs! Two American Guinea Hogs and I can report they have been a wonderful addition to the homestead. Their presence required another shelter, but this one is temporary, you can see that and the pigs here. Next year, piglets!

Food self-sufficiency goals included
  • garden
  • preservation
  • field crops

It was a pretty good year for growing and preserving. Even though we didn't plan for a large area of corn, we did a small one in. Harvest was only fair, because of a rainless spell. Rainwater irrigation was something else we planned to improve upon. Besides adding another tank, Dan made me an irrigation pipe from PVC. We were pleased that we had good pressure from the tanks for it and plan to make more of these for next summer.

One goal I did not accomplish, was a more extensive fall garden. This was because we've decided to revamp the garden, something I'll share more about later. This fall I planted one raised bed for salad, but that's it.

Of course we got a lot of other things accomplished too, but for our specific goals, I think we did pretty well. Things we didn't check off this year will go onto our goal list for 2015.

How about you? Did you get everything accomplished this year that you wanted to?

2014 Goals, How'd We Do? © December 2014

December 8, 2014

Porch Progress - Posts!

Dan was pretty happy to finally get the porch posts installed and the temporary "flying buttress" supports removed. Not that he worried something would happen, but real posts do seem more secure and solid. Next step will be replacing the drafty, ill-fitting front door with an energy efficient one. I'm looking forward to that, because it will surely make the house warmer!

Porch Progress - Posts! © December 2014