FEEDING GOATS AS RUMINANTS
Jane L. Naramore, LVT
from the Rose Hill Veterinary Practice winter 2010 newsletter
All goats are considered ruminants. That is, they swallow
their food and bring it back up the esophagus to their mouth to
chew on it some more before swallowing it again (“chewing
the cud”). Unlike simple stomach animals (humans, dogs, cats,
pigs) ruminants have a forestomach which helps break down
plant material. The goat has 4 chambers of the stomach: the
rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. A young goat
kid’s diet is predominately milk and not forage, thus the
rumen portion of the stomach is not fully functional. When a
kid nurses milk, a flap of stomach wall over the entrance of
the rumen folds over to form a groove that bypasses the rumen
and sends the milk straight to the abomasum. The abomasum
digests food similar to our stomach. As the goat gets older,
the rumen becomes more active, building up healthy
microorganism populations, and enlarges. The diet change
from milk to forage also increases the functionality and size of
the reticulum and omasum. Cows are also considered
ruminents, but one must realize goats are unable to digest the
cell walls of plants as well as cows due to a smaller size
stomach. Feed will pass through the stomach faster thus not
allowing the breakdown of poorer quality roughage such as
plants with high cell wall content and low protein content.
Mature, stemmy hay is not suitable for goats.
If you watch goats eat in a free range area you will notice they
are curious and particular browsers. They expend a lot of
energy looking for that special leaf. They avoid eating stems
and eat the buds and leaves of plants. Due to their small
digestive tract and high maintenance energy needs, they need
a more concentrated diet. This does not mean they need a
high energy concentrate, but it does mean with a low density
high quality forage and low stocking rate most goats will do
well on forage without concentrates. Nutritional requirements
depend on the intended use of the goat. Body maintenance,
growth, reproduction, pregnancy, production of products (ie.
meat, milk and hair) will dictate the nutritional needs. Late
gestation and lactation are critical periods for doe nutrition,
with lactation being the most critical. Growing kids will also
have higher nutritional needs, especially protein levels.
Without adequate nutrition, goats, like all animals, are more
prone to disease.
The most important requirement for good health is access to
clean, fresh water at all times. An adult goat will consume
between ¾ to 1 ½ gallons of water per day. This requirement
will increase if the air temperature rises above 70 degrees
Fahrenheit and may decline in very cold temperatures. Rain,
dew and snowfall may decrease intake but should never
replace access to fresh water. Also, if animals are to drink
very cold water during the winter months nutrient
requirements will increase.
As a rule of thumb, goats will eat 2 to 4% of their body weight
on a dry matter basis per day. Maintenance requirements will
increase when activity, environmental conditions, and stress
(pregnancy, lactation, growth) increase. Pasture, browse, and
hay should be the primary source of nutrients for goats.
Pasture will be high in energy and protein when actively green
and growing. Pastures in a vegetative state(spring/summer/early fall) and that contain a legume such as alfalfa or clover will be rich in protein, energy and vitamins.
In most cases a diet of fresh pasture with a good loose
vitamin-mineral mix of salt, calcium and phosphorus (calcium
to phosphorus ration should be 2:1) will meet all nutritional
requirements. In some cases, especially during lush growth of
small grain, annual ryegrass or grass/legume pastures
magnesium (5-10% magnesium) should be included in the
loose mineral mix to prevent grass tetany in does in early
Hay will replace pasture in the winter or nongrazing periods.
Hay can vary in nutritional content not only with type, such as
legume hays versus grass hays, but also with the maturity,
storage conditions and curing procedure in which it is
produced. Vitamin availability is important when feeding hay.
Goats require vitamins A, D, and E to be acquired through
diet. Vitamin K and all the B vitamins are manufactured in
the rumen and do not normally need to be supplemented.
Vitamin A is derived from carotene in green leafy forages so
will need to be supplemented in the winter. Vitamin E is
derived from plants grown in selenium rich soil. Our area is
selenium deficient so hays and forage will have to be
supplemented for selenium. Forage testing is a good idea if
you are buying large quantities of hay, to determine what feed
supplements you may need. Hay is usually considered a good
moderate source of energy and protein for goats and provides
good digestive exercise!
Concentrates are fed to goats to supplement a basic forage
diet. Energy feeds such as corn, barley, wheat, oats and rye
should be fed carefully as they are high in phosphorus and low
in calcium. These feeds can cause urinary calculi in wethers
and intact males. They also contain inadequate calcium levels
for pregnant or lactating does. Protein feeds such as soybean
meal and cottonseed meal contain high quality plant protein.
These are expensive and should be used as supplemental
protein sources for young kids, lactating/pregnant does or for
goats with protein deficiencies. By product feeds can be cost
effective but should be used with caution since high levels of
sulfur or other harmful chemicals used in processing may be
Complete feeds which are pelleted are an expensive but safe
alternative feed for goats. These feeds are balanced for
particular production classes and should be used wisely to
ensure adequate nutrition for each particular group of
The best way to see if you are feeding your goat wisely is to
determine the body condition of each animal. Hair and fleece
can disguise a starving or obese animal. Body condition
scoring can be done by simply placing both hands on either
side of the spine and pressing down over the rib area and
determining the amount of fat cover over the ribs. A moderate
amount of condition on goats will indicate a healthy weight.
If the backbone and ribs are easily felt and seen, the goat is
undernourished. If the backbone and ribs are not felt without
excessive pressure the goat is carrying too much condition and
considered unhealthy for production. Feed your goat
accordingly by offering good quality feed in the right amounts
to help maintain good health.