Goats are famous for “eating anything,” but in reality, finding the right goat feed and providing the proper nutrition for a thriving goat herd is complicated.
What you should feed your goats will depend on what kind of goats you have, what products your goats provide (meat, milk or fiber), how old your goats are and what quality of pasture your farm can provide.
But first, let’s start with the basics.
Goats are Ruminants
Goats are ruminants, similar to cows, with a four-compartment stomach. That gives them the ability to consume much more fibrous materials than single-stomach animals (like omnivore species).
But unlike cows, goats are more browsers versus grazers. They prefer to eat just the tops of grasses and enjoy woody species, like shrubs and vines (hence why they are great at clearing overgrown pasture land).
In general, goats should have access to pasture. But, depending on the pasture quality, time of year and the production needs of the goats, they may also need supplement feed, including forages (like hay) and potentially grain rations. Goats typically get most of their vitamins and minerals from their food but may require supplements of vitamins A, D and E. They should be provided free-choice salt, calcium and phosphorous (and possibly selenium supplements, if you are in the Pacific Northwest).
Goats should always have access to unlimited fresh water.
Feed for Goats (Dairy)
A high-producing dairy goat breeds of Nubians, Alpines, Saanens or one of the other popular dairy goat breeds need special attention paid to their diet to support their production levels and ensure they produce sweet-tasting, high-quality milk.
Dairy goats should have access to pasture — a typical rule of thumb is ½ acre of land per milking goat in temperate climates (drier climates will need more land or risk over-grazing). But, dairy goats in production and growing stock and pregnant does should be supplemented with high-protein legume hay (like alfalfa). Kids, bucks and milking does should also receive a standardized dairy grain ration.
Also, be careful of what you feed your dairy cows as certain types of feed (soy is often identified as a culprit) can flavor the taste of the milk, making it “goaty.” Some goat owners report tasting specific pasture weeds (like wild onions) in their goat’s milk as well.
Feed for Goats (Meat Goats)
The key to profitably raising meat goats is maximizing their feed to meat conversion rate efficiency. Each breed has slightly different nutritional requirements and many meat goat farmers consult with veterinarians or feed specialists to dial in the most efficient feed regime for their herd.
If pasture quality is high, goat farmers don’t need to buy as much feed to supplement their herd’s nutritional requirements. The trick is understanding the total nutrient requirements of your goats and then figuring out how much is provided through pasture. Then, you can determine how much supplement feed you might need to provide.
Remember, pasture is more productive at different times of the year and the stage of growth of the animals you are feeding will determine your goats’ total nutritional requirements. Check with your local agricultural extension office to have your feed, hay and pasture tested for their nutritional composition.
As a general rule of thumb, Boer goats (one of the most popular meat goat breeds in the U.S.) require at least one pound of feed per day. However, in group feed situations where you cannot control how much each goat consumes, it is best to feed at least two lbs per goat. That ensures the more aggressive goats get their fill but still leaves feed for the timid members of the herd.
How their nutritional needs are met — whether through grazing pasture, feeding hay or providing a high-energy supplement — is variable. The key is knowing the nutritional value of what you feed.
Other Goat Feed Considerations
Goats are highly susceptible to parasite infections, with potentially devastating results for your herd. Strategies to avoid that including selectively breeding for parasite-resistant stock but also using smart feeding methods.
Never feed hay or grain on the ground. Goats do not like to eat that close to the ground (remember they are browsers, not grazers) and it encourages parasite infections. Ensure your pastures are not overgrazed and rotated, leaving them un-grazed for several months. Some producers follow goats with cattle to break up parasite cycles in paddocks.
A final rule of thumb is always, always know what plant you’re feeding to your goats and its toxicity level. Despite their reputation for “eating anything,” there are many plants poisonous to goats, including common landscaping shrubs like azaleas and oleanders. More than one goat herd has accidentally been poisoned by an uninformed owner or neighbor feeding the herd “trimmings” from their yard.
For more extensive information on goat nutrition, including raising milk, meat or fiber goats, check out Langston University’s American Institute for Goat Research, based out of Oklahoma.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.