As with all ruminants, the key to keeping goats healthy lies primarily in keeping their rumens healthy. The rumen is essentially a big fermentation tank that makes otherwise indigestible grasses and other plants digestible. Beyond that, the goat’s rumen is where critical B vitamins including B1 (Thiamine) and B12 are synthesized. Without sufficient B1, goats get polio (not to be confused with the polio that humans get, which is viral). Without sufficient B12, goats lose weight and suffer overall metabolic problems. The first can kill a goat rapidly—the second can do it over time. Properly feeding goats is the primary way we can promote good rumen health. Yet there are a few other tips and tricks you can and should consider.
Give The Proper Feed
As stated, the primary function of the rumen is to break down grasses and other plants, so it follows that your goats need to eat grass and other plants. If your goats do not graze and browse they need to have constant, regular access to hay. Even goats who do have access to proper forage should get supplemental hay, as the quality and quantity of forage declines seasonally. Many goat owners supplement graze-and-browse with grain. Always consider grain as just that—a supplement. Too much grain can change the pH of the rumen, affecting and even killing the good bacteria in the rumen which are key to the rumen’s digestive function.
We generally allow all our goats free access to a good quality loose mineral as well as baking soda. The mineral access helps to balance nutrition-poor forage and allows you to feed less grain to make up for those imbalances. In addition to a general, multimineral formula, we sometimes consider extra cobalt for goats who are not eating and keeping weight on well. Cobalt deficiency can lead to a reduction in B12 synthesis, and that B12 is one of the things that keeps goats eating and their rumen cranking. The whole system can end up in a downward spiral if the levels of any of the rumen-generated vitamins plunge.
The baking soda lets the goat self-medicate when the rumen gets too acidic. It is basically the same way people have long used bicarbonate of soda—baking soda—to treat indigestion.
The final supplement we keep handy is probiotics. Any compromise of rumen health means a compromise in the complex bacteria that live in there and power the fermentation process. Feeding a probiotic during times of stress and after giving any medications, especially antibiotics, can help repopulate some of the good bacteria.
Check On That Rumen
The most obvious sign that a goat’s rumen is functioning well is chewing a cud. The cud is a mass of partially digested forage, regurgitated from the rumen for a final chew and some nutrient extraction before moving on to the next chamber of the stomach for further digestion. That process is universal. Healthy goats chew cud. But because they don’t chew it 24/7, you can also get an idea of rumen health just by listening. Press your ear up against it (the rumen is on the left side) and you should be able to hear noises resembling your own stomach when it is “growling.” You might want to invest in a cheap stethoscope for this to help drown out distracting noise in the environment.
Use Additional Supplements & Cud-Transfer
If the rumen is not functioning well, it’s time to apply some of the supplements listed above. Baking soda and probiotics are our first-stage supplements. If you feed grain, stop all grain feeding until normal function returns. If those supplements don’t fix things, or if the goats are low in energy or off feed, we give B vitamins. Fortified B Complex contains the B12 that stimulates appetite and some of the B1 that goats need until they are making enough of their own. Usually some combination of the above will get an impaired rumen going again, but if not, our last trick is cud-transfer. It’s not fun, but it can be super effective. Basically, you steal the cud from the mouth a healthy goat and then force it down the throat of the sick goat. There’s no easy way to do this, just be careful of the teeth and know that both parties will be highly offended.
We always say that ruminants are really hardy animals until they aren’t. Keeping them strong really is mostly just about keeping their rumens working properly. Manage feed well and be observant. You and your goats will definitely appreciate it if you never, ever get to the cud-transfer stage.