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.  [9]

According to another source [17] ammonia builds up in the rumen when rumen degradable protein exceeds the capacity of the rumen microbes to assimilate it. The ammonia is absorbed into the blood and converted to urea in the liver. This conversion process takes energy that could be used for making milk. This is why too much protein in the diet decreases milk production. It can further create a negative a negative energy balance which can eventually result in reduced fertility.

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.

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

[13] Gunnar Sundstøl Eriksen, "Effects of phyto- and mycoestrogens indomestic animals"

[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 

[17] "Crude Protein: Ruminant Nutrition, CNCPS, Crude Protein Fractions, Rumen (un)degradable protein" Last Updated 05 April 2012


PioneerPreppy said...

I can't say I know much about Goats and a lot of the grain mix feeds are used not so much for optimal nutrition as they are for making best use out of what would otherwise be waste products. One reason feed mixes become economically viable.

How that translates into feeding x-number of head on your property comes down to what you plan on sowing vs. what you can afford more than just basic roughage v. concentrates.

Many a livestock owner of all types could avoid feeding grain altogether and often did except during the Winter months until feed prices dropped to the point that it was cheaper to feed grain by products than it was keeping the fields constantly fertilized and sown in the proper grasses. The rotations and such to keep pastures producing caused all types of variable feeding schemes. Field beets, turnips, corn, etc. were rotated in a fed depending on the year.

Not saying it can't be done, and a lot depends on the location, but it may not be possible to keep a pasturage and hayfield producing straight grasses for feed year after year without sinking a lot of money into fertilizer and seed. You may need to rotate in grains to keep the overall feed production up to a sufficient level.

Leigh said...

PioneerPreppy, yes, economic viability always factors in somewhere, doesn't it? And as you say, location is key, which means there is no pat, one-size-fits-all solution feeding solutions. Interesting you should mention the field crops, particularly the beets and turnips; this is exactly what we're looking to grow more of this year. Both Morrison and Stephens (The Book of the Farm) have been helpful on that topic. Not only for the goats, but for the pigs as well. The good news with goats, at least, is that if they have good quality hay, those concentrates really aren't necessary, and they're the better for it. :)

Kate said...

This is fascinating and so helpful. I have a very small herd of Nubian/Alpine crosses that I milk for home use. We feed them entirely on pasture forage in the summer, with good hay, including some wheat hay, in the winter. We supplement with minerals and I give them some sweet feed when they are in the milking stand. You information helps me understand why they thrive on this diet!

Quinn said...

Feeding goats well is always a vexed question, and I applaud your determination to tackle it with research and experimentation! Fiber goats have somewhat different "simple" - ha! -requirements, and I've done a lot of reading, and talking with breeders of long experience. Even so, it's always in the back of my mind to wonder if I'm doing the right thing, or if I could do better. I think the "best" thing would be vast acreage of scrub land, safely fenced against predators...that would be a dream for any goatherd, wouldn't it?

Bill said...

Our experience has been with meat goats, not dairy goats, but we have never fed ours any grain, other than an occasional handful of sweet feed to keep them tame. A couple of years ago a neighbor boy bought one of our kids to raise for 4-H. I was surprised to learn that they were required to neuter the goat and feed it grain, neither of which is normal for meat goat production in our experience.

Farmer Barb said...

I can only imagine your feelings as you discovered this shift in paradigm. I have been feeding my goats this way (because I am lazy) as they are a mixed herd with sheep (and because I am lazy). They have enjoyed raiding the garden and eating the green bean plants all the way to the dirt. I needed to clean out the garden (because I'm lazy) so I let them have it. I am interested in planting separate pastures with different mixes to see what they like. The mixed herd gets the job done pretty well.

The best piece of wisdom I take from this whole post is the question "Do I need peak production?" I need to have happy animals. When I think about the generations of humans who have kept animals, I do not understand how they could have kept them--driven them across the width and breadth of this country--while hauling grain for them to eat. I feel much happier for having read your post. Now, I have to go out and toss in some hay and put warm water in the buckets!

Have a great day!

Mama Mess said...

I know for a fact that my girls produce MUCH more milk when they've got plenty of browse. On the rainy days where they don't want to leave the barn and only eat hay, the milk production decreases a great deal! I do feed grain, but only to keep them busy on the milk stand. If I had a way to keep them busy while I milked, without grain, I would be very interested in cutting their grain down, or even out completely.

Dani said...

Your article was a linfeline - thank you so much. RMan tends to feed the alpaca's - and he LOVES feeding them what they prefer eating, namely lucerne (alfalfa). I keep telling him that the breeder said they souldn't eat too much lucerne as it will cause their fibre to "swell" and can cause pulpy kidney.

Husbands don't always listen to their wives, but he certainly understood what you were saying... ;)

Thank you, Leigh.

Frank and Fern said...

Great information, Leigh. We have always fed some grain to our Nubians, but have changed up the ration to eliminate the GMO corn sold at the feed store. We have also decreased the amount we feed. The goats have access to pasture that has all kinds of naturally growing browse at all times, which is their main source of nutrition.

This is our first year to try growing Mangel feed beets and turnips on a very small scale, just to see how well they will grow here. Next year we hope to plant a much bigger patch, for us and the animals. Thank you for all of your effort to learn and share.


Leigh said...

Kate, thank you so much for sharing that! That's exactly the "proof in the pudding" isn't it?

Quinn, it is a vexing question, especially since most "research" is supported by larger companies needing it to sell their products. I have to agree about your dream farm for goats, that would indeed be the best but it's tough when we have less than idea circumstances. For fiber goats I know the emphasis would be on top quality fiber, but it sounds like it isn't actually as simple as all that. I noticed a wonderful change in my goats' coats when I added sulfur to their minerals. More on that soon.

Bill, interesting about the 4-H goats. I know most meat producers are heavy on grain for weight gain. I also know they then have lots of problems with grain related illness such as ketosis. Seems it would work out better if we didn't force the poundage and fed the goats better!

Barb, yes, mixed goats and sheep take different considerations, although a lot of the research I looked at addressed both goats and sheep. One of the things I gleaned is that they do have differences! Have to agree with you about having happy animals too. Without that, what's the point???

the Goodwife, thank you for that! Definitely helps to keep them occupied on the milking stand. I've been adding more chopped vegetables to the feeder when they're there, with a goal to eliminate grain altogether except for whole plant grains. It's a process, however.

Dani, so glad it helped! I have to agree that husbands seem less likely to listen to their wives than others. It always amazes me when my own has a revelation from someone else that turns out to be something I've been saying for years, LOL. Diet is so important and can head off a world full of problems.

Fern, trying to get away from GMOs really started this whole thing for me. It's good you have a good year around pasture, that's key. I hope the mangels and turnips do well for you. This year my best root crops were sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, so that's what the goats get for now.

Harry Flashman said...

Your research is extensive. We had a couple of goats but just bought goat feed at the farmers depot. I had no idea that goat feeding was so involved. But then, just about everything we try here turns out to be more complicated than we expected. If I was getting a herd of goats I'd have to give more attention to feeding them correctly.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

How do you have time to keep your homestead up and read all this! Whew. You are one busy lady. Nancy

DebbieB said...

Fascinating, Leigh! I love how carefully you research and think about each aspect of caring for your animals and the land under your stewardship.

Jake said...

Awesome article! Looking forward to the book. Do you go this deep on chicken feed, too?

Leigh said...

Harry, I started out just like you. I just bought feed and fed them, never thinking a thing about it. Then I started reading. The controversy over feeding goats is what got me digging deeper. Well, that and trying to figure out how to grow our own feeds.

Nancy, well, I get up early!

Debbie, so glad to see you out and about! The research has really been a benefit and I'm glad I love to do it. At one time in my life I could have been a professional student. I like this better. :)

Jake, thank you! Yes, on the chicken feed but they aren't as complicated. Thank goodness for that.

Jean said...

Having grown up as a farmer's daughter with cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, and bees I tend to read farm blogs to get the feel of home without the work (haha). That being said I didn't know what I didn't know so thank you for the education on feeding goats. I am reminded as I remove processed foods from my diet how much better I feel -- never thought until today it would be the same for the animals.

Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh,

Enjoyed the excerpt about feeding goats. Thought I would add some local farm knowledge to the list. You may already no of this though. Anyhow, when I was a kid, my grandfarther used to feed soy bean hay to his dairy cows. He would plant soy beans, cut them with a sickle mower while green and after the bean pods has formed, dry on the ground like hay, then rake into large piles. The beans on the outside dry to kind of a golden crust, preserving forage beneath. To feed, use a pitchfork to open the piles.

Chris said...

I eat a paleo-like diet - not strict, but learning about what we've come to understand "food" is, and the not so great effects it can have on our system, has been an eye-opener.

Grains are a great source of energy and nutrients, if it beats starvation, but its not healthy to consume so much energy all the time. It kicks everything into overdrive and can stress the system from over production.

People are getting sick nowadays from having too much energy. I can see that correlating effect on animals too.

I've never been happy feeding my chickens grains, so I ferment them. Firstly, to break down the poisons most seeds and grains have to avoid being digested by animals, but secondly, it creates enzymes which help the gut to digest more difficult foods.

I'm glad to here you're going down this path. Browse is the perfect feed for goats, because its how their biology evolved over thousands of years. But browse also can act as a windbreak for other crops, mulch and soil protector, and also creates a healthy bug population.

The more diversity you have on your farm, the more benefit to your animals. I always think there are "my" animals (the ones I deliberately keep) and then there are "Gods" animals (the ones he made to keep the environment in balance).

Anything I did to match these two groups up, was a benefit every time.

Hope your browse crops go well. Are you thinking a mixture of trees and shrubs?

Leigh said...

Jean, "I didn't know what I didn't know." I like that. It expresses the naivete I feel about so many things. When I started researching feed for goats I never dreamed I'd end up here! You make a good point, too, about how much better our animals must feel. They can't tell us so how can we know?

homesteader73, thank you for that. I've read that soybeans are difficult to digest, which is why I've never thought about planting my own. But perhaps I should look into it. I don't even know if I can grow them. I do grow a small cowpea which the goats love. Now that I've figured out I can simply grow them for hay without processing, so much the better. :)

Chris, very good points. Really, when one is trying to grow one's own food, there is no other conclusion. I had not thought about fermenting grain for chickens. I know they release amylase, which digests grain, but that's about it. I'd much rather they eat bugs and grubs!

We're definitely planning to plant more shrubs and trees. We want double the fences and grow these plus herbs in the protected fenced area in between. That should help keep the goats from killing the plants while letting them grow. If we use cattle panels, then the chickens can use the area for cover.

Fiona from Arbordale Farm said...

Leigh this was a great post. Goats are something we want to investigate for when we move to NZ but we think it might be too wet and cause foot rot issues.

Joy Metcalf said...

PioneerPuppy said, "it may not be possible to keep a pasturage and hayfield producing straight grasses for feed year after year". You know, it isn't necessary, at least for goats, because they're browsers. My goats love our old pasture, which is chock full of "weeds" and many times when they look like they're grazing, they're actually picking out the forbes. I used to be concerned about all our weedy fields until I realized that just keeping them cut keeps the alders down, the pasture growing, and a great mix of nutritious feed. Now if I could only get someone to bale it for me...

Leigh said...

Fiona, thanks. There are actually quite a few goat owners in NZ, You need to subscribe to the Holistic Goats group on Yahoo. Irene Ramsey who is a walking encyclopedia of goat information is on the list and a resident of NZ

Joy, well put. The first time I bought hay I was shocked that my goats preferred our weedy home grown hay to the pure grass boughten stuff! I bought a sickle mower last summer to cut our fields. No baler; we just make huge piles in the carport.