Goats love a good buffet. The menu throughout the year should be fresh, varied and—of course—vegetarian.
Our goats’ longing for fresh forage is only natural. A diverse diet of vegetation can also help our goats stay physically healthy and benefit goat owners as well.
Goat Eating Habits
A goat’s diet bear no resemblance to the eat-everything-in-sight, tin-can-consumers of farm mythology. Although they eat many plant types, goats rarely eat the entire plant or ingest every species in sight. Instead, they select the most nutritious parts and pick out the palatable plants.
Goats are ruminants, possessing four stomachs to digest the large amount of fibrous plant material they eat. After eating its fill, a goat will find a safe, peaceful spot to ruminate, regurgitating the barely-masticated plants, called cud, so it can chew them properly and swallow them again.
Fiber, protein and carbohydrates in the food are broken down, fermented and digested by living microorganisms that inhabit the rumen, the largest of the four digestive chambers. A balanced, healthy population of these bacteria is necessary for your goat to thrive.
Your goat’s rumen organisms flourish when the animal receives a diet rich in roughage: browse, weeds, grass and—if these forage plants aren’t available or sufficient in quantity—quality hay. A diet heavy in grain, bread or other “junk” foods can alter the rumen’s pH to a level that kills the organisms and sickens your goat. Your goat needs these bacteria to digest its food.
Goats adore woody browse, but they also enjoy eating other plants.
“Goats are one of the most flexible eaters,” says Steve Hart, PhD, a goat extension specialist at Langston University Research and Extension in Langston, Okla. “They can eat as much grass as cattle and as much browse as deer. In their natural state they would eat across the spectrum.”
A warning: Goats will also consume native vegetation along with undesirables and—if they break free from their enclosures—your beloved ornamentals and berry bushes, as well.
While many goats are fine eating brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts, mustards, radishes and rape, “brassicas do have the potential to cause health issues in goats,” according to Amber Barnes, a research specialist of the Open Sanctuary Project.
Cabbage, for example, has been shown to cause hypothyroidism and goiters in pregnant ewes and their kids.
Watching goats in feasting mode, it’s easy to see they crave different plants, but they have their likes and dislikes.
Given a diverse diet, goats can help themselves to the species and plant parts that contain the nutrients they need. Dandelion greens, for instance, pack a hefty dose of vitamin A, while tree bark and leaves are rich in minerals.
In effect, says Hart, goats will balance their own diet.
“One of the mistakes we often make is thinking we’re smarter than the animals when it comes to choosing their diets,” concurs Kathy Voth, who owns Livestock for Landscapes, a consulting company that uses livestock for landscape management.
According to Voth, research has shown that animals choose what to eat based on their individual nutritional needs plus the feedback they get from the nutrients and toxins in their food.
In short, goats will usually choose the right things to eat if they’re offered a varied diet.
“Provide your animals with variety, and leave the mixing and thinking to them,” she advises. “They’ll be happier and healthier, and you’ll have a lot less work to do!”
Diet Crasher: Bad Plants
Goats do occasionally make poor food choices.
As herbivores, goats must navigate a menu teeming with toxins. Milkweed, bracken fern and locoweed, as well as many of the ornamentals growing in our yards, from lily-of-the-valley to yew trees, are toxic to goats. In fact, nearly all plants naturally contain a variety of toxins. Certain plant parts, like the seeds of the castor bean or the wilted leaves of wild cherries, may be more toxic than others, and normally benign plants can become poisonous under specific conditions, such as during a drought or when too heavily fertilized.
Goats may eat poisonous plants by accident because they’re bored by limited forage choices, or when they’re starving and have no alternatives. Fortunately, plants with higher concentrations of toxins often have a bad taste that repels herbivores.
Also, goats will take their cue about what to eat from an older doe, adds Judy Taylor, who has kept Angora goats for 18 years in Auburn, Wash.
The goat’s eclectic diet offers protection from plant toxins, too. If you offer them diverse food choices, goats will not get too much of any specific plant toxin, says Hart.
“Also, they have a large liver in proportion to their body weight and that’s thought to give them greater capacity to detoxify poisons in their diet,” he says.
If you keep goats for dairy production, be aware that certain plant toxins and chemicals are secreted in a doe’s milk. According to A Guide to Plant Poisoning of Animals in North America, by Anthony P. Knight and Richard G. Walter, poisoning can occur in people who drink the milk of animals that have fed on white snakeroot and rayless goldenrod. More common, however, is for certain plants eaten by dairy animals to produce a non-lethal but definitely undesirable flavor in the milk. Milk-tainting plants include wild onion, garlic, buttercup, mustard, cabbage, chamomile, cow parsley and bitterweed.
Raisers of fiber goats who market to handspinners will also want to watch out for vegetation that can contaminate their animals’ long, silky hair. Trees are a major culprit, notes Taylor. Goats will rub against the bark to ease an itch and stand underneath branches where they’re showered with needles and other debris.
“Goats love blackberries, but if they’re in full fleece, they’ll get the blackberry vines tangled in their hair and berry juice will stain it,” she says.
You should aim to identify and, if possible, eliminate toxic plants from your goat’s diet.
Given an abundant and diverse mix of quality forage, your goats may require little in the way of hay and grain for a good portion of the year—or even none at all. Of course, as plants die down, drop their leaves or become dormant in winter, your goats will need hay to supply the roughage that keeps their rumen organisms healthy and their digestive system functioning properly.
To supplement forage, hay and grain, most raisers also offer their goats free-choice trace-mineralized salt in either loose or block form to ensure they’re getting all the minerals they need. Before hitting the feed store, research available supplements (choose a goat-specific supplement if possible) and perhaps even contact your extension agent about having your goats’ forage analyzed for mineral content.
About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a freelance writer who frequently writes for Urban Farm magazine. She raises goats in Graham, Wash.