Caprine Nutrition Basics: A Case Against Grain for the Healthy Pet Goat

An adaptation of a client information handout.

A. Goats Can Eat Anything

This is a myth. Goats are supremely sensitive to carbohydrates and simple sugars in particular. Please refrain from offering your goats biscuits and Twinkies and such – they drive down the pH of the rumen (discussed more specifically below). The other way this myth manifests is when people buy goats to “clear brush,” which results in toxic plant ingestion and poisoning. 

B. What Goats Should be Eating

Goats are the original gangsters of herbivorism. Goats are adapted to eat a diet of 100% plant forage materials. What does this mean? Goats are “small ruminants” which means that they have multiple stomach compartments that do various jobs, but their main stomach compartment is called the rumen. The rumen has its own autonomous ecosystem that functions via fermentation of plant material. The rumen mechanically and chemically breaks down “roughage” or “forage” (two terms that refer to fibrous plant material such as hay, leaves, and pine needles). The rumen does this fermentation processing by employing a variety of bacteria, and these bacteria require a carefully balanced pH to survive. Think of the rumen as a food processing facility in which the input is hay, the factory workers are bacteria, and the output are nutritional chemical compounds that the goat consumes to survive. It’s a stepwise flowchart in which fibrous plant materials support an appropriate pH, the appropriate pH supports efficient bacterial work, bacteria ferment and convert plants into nutrients, and the goats eat those end products. Therefore, you are feeding the bacteria in the rumen, you are not feeding the goat.

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C. Goats are not Sheep

Cattle and sheep are grazing animals, meaning that they will gladly ground graze a pasture of grass all day long. However, goats are browsers, not grazers. This means that they are even more highly adapted to break down tough materials like tree branches, pine cones and brush. The readily available nutrients that fresh grass offers to sheep and cattle is not usable material for them. This is significant in two ways. One is that goats will have a better appetite if feed is at eye-level or above eye-level. This plays to their natural instincts. The second is that this means that the interest level in grain is purely a learned, behavioral response. It is not an evolutionary requirement and in most cases, is not physiologically necessary.

D. Consistency is Key

The bacteria, who are the ones doing the heavy lifting to supply your goat with food, do not respond well to sudden dietary changes. They can only survive and work if the rumen pH and rumen temperature is stable. pH can have big swings for relatively small reasons, like a box of cheerios or switching from grass hay to alfalfa hay, or getting into the grain bag. When the majority of the bacteria die suddenly, the animal can experience something called polioencephalomalacia where their brain becomes inflamed and they can have convulsions or death. 

E. When is Grain Appropriate?

Over 95% of the goat’s calorie demands should be coming from hay or fibrous plant materials that they are browsing upon. There can be a need for grain during certain life stages, such as juvenile growth, pregnancy, or other medical conditions. The reason why grain should be looked at as an adjunct and not a major component of the diet is because the physical length and branching of the feed material is an important part of digestion. Having stems and brushy pieces of plants rub against the rumen wall stimulates gut motility and keeps the fermentation vat going. This is one of the reasons that goats should eat grass hay, rather than alfalfa for most instances, because grass hay is stemmier and rougher. If you do need to supplement grain, it should be approximately 0.5-2.0 % of the animal’s body weight. Therefore, a 50 pound goat who needs grain in their diet to achieve weight gain should be eating between ¼-1 pound of grain only. This may vary depending on medical condition. A general rule of thumb is that an overweight goat should be eating NO grain, and a goat maintaining its weight should eat no grain to a very small amount of grain. Some people believe that animals need more grain in the winter to “keep their weight up”, but this is false. They actually need more hay, and they will consume more hay, because the heat produced by fermentation in the rumen is what maintains their body temperature in the cold weather. 

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