Owning goats is all well and good, but how do you keep the critters fed? Sure they’re browsers, but there’s more to keeping them alive and nourished than simply turning them loose in scrub brush. What happens when the forage runs low? Or if a cold winter dumps feet of snow on top of it? Here’s a general idea of what to feed your cloven-hoofed friends when the natural food outdoors simply won’t suffice.
Hay vs. Straw
First off, let’s clear up a misconception I see a lot of first-time farmers make. Straw is not hay, and hay is not straw. Straw consists of dried stalks of cereal plants AFTER the grains have already been removed. Hay is any form of grass, legume (think alfalfa or clover) or herbaceous plants (in some rare cases, even rye or barley with the grains still on), that has been cut and dried to use as animal fodder. What this means is that straw has absolutely no nutritional value, and thus should not be used interchangeably with hay as food. The nutritional deficits it causes when used as the sole feed item can lead to a host of diseases. It can also be used as bedding, though I prefer to just use waste hay that the goats have already spilled on the floor.
How do you tell the difference, or the quality, you ask? After all, low quality hay has barely any more nutritional value than straw, so buying good quality is essential. Check for the ratio of leaves to stems–good hay will have a high one. Next, dig a little into the interior of the bale and see if there is any green color. While the sun often bleaches the bale’s exterior yellow, the inside will retain the original color. Green can indicate such treats as alfalfa, and is just an indicator of high-quality hay in general. If the hay IS green on the outside, even better! Finally, ensure the individual pieces of hay have a good amount of flexibility to them, and that the bale is free of dirt and mold.
Straw on the other hand, will almost always be bleached yellow, lack any leaves, and will snap when bent, instead of flexing. While you can mix it in with a goat’s diet just for roughage, truth is good hay will supply enough roughage on its own, meaning you should never need to feed goats straw.
Grain is not a necessary part of a goat’s diet, however for goats in cold areas who need to put on some insulating weight, and goats producing dairy, it can be a good idea. It can also be used as a cheaper alternative to hay, to stretch your hay supply when money is tight. Never fully replace hay with grain, however, as goats need the roughage found in hay to keep their rumens healthy.
Prior to breeding season, try to mix in a half-pound to a pound of grain for your ewes per day, in a process called flushing. The increase in weight gain they sustain can help their fertility and ovulation rates, making a successful breeding season more probable. Lactation and nursing is another traditional time to feed ewes grains, as rearing their kids puts them under a greater level of nutritional stress. Finally, creep feeding–the supplemental feeding of kids to speed their growth–is another common use for grain. Grains such as cracked corn, soybean or rolled oats are best, as they provide high sources of protein.
I hope this has given a clear idea of what to feed your goats when natural sources of forage simply aren’t cutting it. Stay tuned for more on everyone’s favorite ruminants!
A humble homesteader based in an undisclosed location, Lars Drecker splits his time between tending his little slice of self-sustaining heaven, and bothering his neighbors to do his work for him. This is mainly the fault of a debilitating predilection for fishing, hunting, camping and all other things outdoors. When not engaged in any of the above activities, you can normally find him broken down on the side of the road, in some piece of junk he just “fixed-up.”