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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A Summary of the AABP Conference

Last year, March 2019, I had scraped enough money together to attend a continuing education conference. This was quite a relief for a couple reasons. When you enter the workforce as a veterinarian, one of the things that you expect to see in your job offers is reimbursement for your continuing education, or your “CE”. Not having it in your offer package is uncommon, and you should negotiate if it’s lacking. One of the things I was cautioned about when started my own practice was that I would soon find out how expensive CE is without a boss footing the bill. Without getting enough CE credits, you can’t renew your medical license, and you can’t practice. The other obstacle I was anticipating was that while small animal conferences are a dime a dozen, it could be harder for me to find the type of CE that applies to my practice. So, you can imagine how happy, proud, and excited I was when three months in to owning my own practice, I was able to attend a conference. I polled my existing clients and asked them, what do you wish your vet knew more about? The answer was almost unanimous: alpaca medicine. So, I flew out to the International Camelid Health Conference in Oregon. It was just as amazing an opportunity as I hoped it would be.

This year, in 2020, I took a similar strategy. I asked my clients, what do you want? Again, the answer was clear: we want to raise more cattle. So, first thing’s first… I bought a mobile cow chute for safe restraint, then I became a member of the AABP (American Assoc of Bovine Practitioners) and registered for their recent grad conference (anyone less than 7 years out of school). There are a lot of things I want to share about my trip and what I learned at the conference. I remember that last year, my alpaca clients really enjoyed hearing exactly what topics we were discussing, and in fact, some of my lecture notes went right to them to read. Knowledge is power, right? And I truly believe that as a veterinarian, one of my roles is to pass on as much information as you could possibly want.

First and foremost, this time I elected to get to Ohio by Amtrak train. What a cool way to travel! I caught up on a bunch of paperwork, made phone calls, watched Netflix, did my finances… and watched the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside roll past. When I got to Ohio, one of the things that I noticed that was different about this conference was that AABP got us all in the same hotel. It was a NICE one, and somehow they made it pretty dang cheap. Well played, folks! That can’t possibly be the regular rate for that place. I appreciate the effort made to get us all closer. Every lunch hour, we had a hot lunch (really, a unicorn finding in the world of medical conferences) and immediately following the cessation of lectures every night, we got a hot dinner and dessert. I found a new love – Buckeye Pie. We were offered a truly generous amount of drink tickets every night. Talk about luxury treatment. I have never felt so well-fed in my life.

Our first day of lectures, it was all about self-care. We were lectured on how to build confidence in our skills, how to communicate successfully, how to seek mentorship and build a network of support, how to identify and cope with imposter syndrome, and how to stay mindful of your thoughts and feelings. We also got a full hour on how to adjust your posture while driving, how to stretch before doing strenuous farm work, healthy sleep habits, keeping your back healthy while operating all day, etc. What a great way to emphasize overall health to a group of people who classically abuse themselves, mind and body.

Then, we really got into the nuts and bolts of it. In the dairy room, the lectures were on mineral disorders, appropriate ventilation for calf barns, supporting lactation during conception, metritis updates, nutrition updates, and ketosis. In the beef room, the lectures covered lameness therapy, low-stress handling and natural cattle behavior, picking the right bull for your ladies for easy calving, new diagnostic options at labs, updates on vaccination programs, and much more. In the clinical skills department, we had two different hours on C-section approaches, strategies for teat health, regional limb perfusion, vaginal/uterine prolapse repairs, and more. In total, it was over 15 hours of education.

Between lectures, vets were gathering in groups and sharing the topics being discussed during their every-day visits to cattle farms. Their farming clients are talking about soil health and runoff, utilizing as much waste as possible from the crop ag, converting manure to energy, and making sure all staff are trained and upholding animal caretaking protocols. These are things that American farmers have been discussing, pouring money into, and acting upon for well over a hundred years. After all, regenerative agriculture is being discussed in American history as far back as the mid 1800s. Unfortunately, today’s media is not kind to our American farmers, despite their consistent history of being the most proactive industry in our nation when it comes to lowering the carbon footprint, limiting waste, and preserving land. People quietly working hard is never a sexy story.

Our last lecture of the conference was given by Dr. Hake, and it focused on the problems farmers and veterinarians are having when they try to reach out to the general public and show them what’s happening on their farm. It seems that the more accessible and open we are, the more we are receiving threats, experiencing violent acts, or finding ourselves on the butt-end of orchestrated plans to defame our operations. Her message was clear: while we do have to protect ourselves and our animals, we have more of a duty than ever before to stay transparent. We owe it to the consumers to let you into our lives, to show you what we’re working on this week for environmental sustainability, or next week on calf handling, or how we write animal caretaking protocols. She lays out a specific and detailed approach on how to help your farm clients put their philosophy into words, onto paper, and how to train it into those who are handling their animals.

From the delicious meals, to the emphasis on mental and physical self care, to the lectures on the latest and greatest in medicine and surgery, to the conversations shared over coffee and beers about animal welfare and environmental stewardship, I left with the warm fuzzy feeling of someone who is so proud to be a part of all of this. I called my good friend Dr. Dauten on the trip home to fill her in, and I remember saying “I’m just surprised at how incredibly progressive everything was.”  “Of course,” she said, “we’ve always been this way.”

Overall, I want to make sure I’m sharing my experience at this conference for anyone who feels like reading this. I hear a lot of passing comments from family and friends about how they’re “not sure about that cattle farming stuff” and it feels like an insult to all my education. And if you’re not sure about something, what should you do? You should ask about it. Ask someone who’s involved in these conversations, someone who is making it their business, literally. Ask someone who is writing up the farm philosophy, who is receiving EPA guidance, who is updating their animal handling protocols yearly, who is asking third-party welfare agencies to perform random audits. Don’t let yourself waffle in obscurity, falling prey to whatever emotional manipulation and fear pandering pops up on your social media feed. Send a message to your closest farmer and ask the question. She may have you swing by.

 

 

 

 

For those of us who never lost our connection

I remember the spring the year after I turned 13, standing in the kitchen, scrubbing dirt off of the beets that I just pulled up from the garden row. I was looking through the kitchen window at the soggy brown field that we use to turn out newborns with their moms. It was empty, except for mud. The wash water was slowly turning magenta and it was speckled with dirt. I was trying to kill two birds with one stone by washing under my fingernails while I prepared these beets for pickling. I knew that when the summer showed up, suddenly and with a blaze of heat and humidity specific to Kentucky, that this is what we would be snacking on. As the husband and wife that I was working for started preparing dinner (likely that we wouldn’t get to eat until it was dark), they started giving me instructions for the night.

“See that?” she said, pointing at the barometer on the wall. “Tonight that’s going to start dropping, and when it does, you need to be in the barn. These moms have been overdue a while.”

I nodded, knowing that I would get an hour nap before I woke up at 10 PM to start my eight hour watch. And then I would get another nap during the day, before getting up to do the afternoon shift caring for the babies.

 

 

Over a decade later, I was standing in front of the seasoned farmer as a newly minted veterinarian, fresh out of school. We were running his cows through the chute to get everyone vaccinated, dewormed, and otherwise ready for the year. I suggested castrating the bull calves today, because it had been a tough year for farmers financially, and if I came out on a different day, it would cost him more money. No, he insisted, we don’t cut bulls during this phase of the moon. I blinked. With a head full of science, I told myself I knew better.

Five minutes later after textbook castration technique, I stood at the back of the chute watching a steady stream of blood splatter onto the ground, struggling to find an explanation as to why this was happening. But, he didn’t need one. Shrugging, he said “I told you kid, we don’t cut bulls if it’s not the right time,” and pointed at the sky. He stood at the calf’s head, explaining to the calf that he would be just fine, as a calf stood there munching on some grain, seemingly undisturbed. I called my boss and explained to her that I had just castrated a bull and there’s a steady bleeder that I couldn’t find.

“Well,” she said, “why would you cut a calf during this time of the month? Where are you at? I’m shocked Bill even let you do it. He knows better.” She chuckled. “Don’t worry. All bleeding stops eventually. Just don’t tell him I said that.”

It’s been a couple years since then, and my former boss sent me a text message reminder  last week. It said: don’t forget, put off all of your castrations until after the 10th. And she punctuated the reminder with a winking emoji.

 

 

Looking back on my first laparotomy and abdominal explore on a sheep, I remember that he was small. Once I felt around the perimeters of his rumen, I was able to sweep my palm across his diaphragm. I could feel nothing abnormal, but the perfect rhythmic hammering of the apex of his heart caused me to pause. For a moment, I lost my breath as I felt his heart beating in the palm of my hand. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear spring to my eye in pure wonder and appreciation for what his body could do.

There have been countless times since then that I’ve had to lay my hand on an animal’s chest as I feel their heart beat fade away. And I always think back to that first exploratory laparotomy. In my own way, every patient that I usher towards death adds to my sense of spirituality. As you watch for those final deep breaths, it takes a conscious effort not to align your breaths with theirs. It’s difficult to feel the tension being released from your own body as you see them finally relax, knowing that you get to keep on living but they don’t. Mother Nature takes who she wants, when she wants them.

 

 

Going back to that spring in Kentucky when I was 13 years old, I remember having to tell them that a groundhog ate most of our greens. I remember feeling like their anger was a total overreaction, until I realized what that meant for our dinner plates and those of our neighbors. That’s the day they taught me how to shoot a gun. Later that week, a rabid raccoon killed our kindest and gentlest workhorse.

Nature is the most beautiful and the most violent thing that I know of. She is neither fair, nor just. Nature is primal, poetic, somehow symmetrical yet nonsensical. She causes joy and pain. If you’re reading this, and it doesn’t make sense to you why I had to go out to the barn when the pressure dropped, or why certain procedures have to wait for certain weather, or certain changes in an animal‘s life are timed with specific seasons, or why some things have to die so that others may be safe, just know that there is a huge demographic of people that will understand all of this as they read along. They are the farmers. They are not Hollywood. They’re not the people whose only connection to food is the Trader Joe’s. Next time someone on TV complains that society has lost our connection with nature, just know that he’s definitely correct about that. He’s just wrong about who. There are so many of us who still feel the connection with our earth every day, and live that truth no matter how ugly that might be. I know this because although I am not a farmer, I’ve spent my life working for them.