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Feeding dairy goats

Laura Kieser

Goats are ruminants just like dairy cows. The four-compartment stomach is designed to digest large quantities of forages. Ruminants eat quickly and swallow their food at first without much chewing. Later, they regurgitate their food and thoroughly chew it and swallow. Healthy ruminants will spend as much time chewing their cud as they do grazing or eating hay.

Utilizing pasture with dairy goats

Contrary to the popular image of goats thriving on tin cans, goats actually require a more nutritious diet than do other ruminants. Their shorter digestive system does not retain food for as long, and therefore does not digest nutrients fully. This quicker digestion allows them to eat larger quantities of food to make up for their reduced absorption of nutrients, but it is goats’ unique grazing behavior that really enables them to thrive on pasture. With their small mouths and flexible lips, grazing goats are able to select the highly nutritious parts of plants and leave parts that are less nutritious, giving them an advantage over cattle that graze which end up with large mouthfuls of various quality forage.

Each goat is able to consume up to 3 to 5% of its body weight in dry matter daily (perhaps more if the forage is highly digestible). To consume that amount, however, goats must be pastured in an area with a large quantity of available vegetative forage. Goats will eat less when they are moved to poor pastures. Goats prefer browsing (eating woody plants) but will also graze on grasses and weeds. Goats are known to stand on their hind legs to reach leaves and brush. Since goats, cattle, and sheep prefer different forages, in many pasture situations these species do not compete for the same food. Therefore, they can be managed quite successfully in a multispecies grazing system, allowing the land to be used more fully and generate more income.

Supplemental feeding

While good quality forages are usually adequate, goats may sometimes need supplemental feeding, especially if they are producing high volumes of milk or during the winter. Goats need a proper balance of energy in the form of roughage or grain, as well as protein, vitamins, minerals, and clean water. Protein and energy requirements vary, depending on the type of goat and its stage of production (see Table 1). Dairy goats need both high-quality forage and supplemental grain to reach their full potential, especially during peak lactation or growth.

Goats can be picky eaters, and they may not immediately accept new feeds. Any feed changes should be made gradually to avoid upsetting the rumen microbes. Feeding very high levels of grain can also upset the rumen. Grain should never be more than 50% of the total diet, except for heavily-producing dairy goats. Table 2 gives guidelines for balancing protein requirements when utilizing pasture, hay and grain supplementation. Here are some general “rules of thumb” for supplementing lactating does:

  1. Start the doe on grain a month before kidding and have her consuming about 1.5 pounds of grain by the time she kids. This allows the rumen organisms to slowly adapt.
  2. After kidding, increase grain slowly to about 3 pounds per day by 4 weeks post-kidding.
  3. After peak lactation, feed according to milk production. Feed 0.5 pound of grain for every pound of milk over 3 pounds milk per day, along with good quality forage. For example, a goat producing 8 pounds a day would get all the good forage she could eat plus 2.5 pounds (8 – 3 = 5 lb. x 0.5 lb feed/lb milk) of grain, split into two feedings.
  4. Try not to feed a doe more than 4 pounds of grain per day (Smith, 1994).

Table 1. Dietary Protein and Energy Requirements of Goats
% Protein in Roughage Dry Matter Basis % Protein Needed in Concentrate Crude Protein% Total Digestible Nutrients %
Growing Doe Kid, 45 lb
(0.25 lb/day ROG)
2.4 8.8 56
Growing Buck Kid, 66 lb
(0.33 lb/day ROG)
2.9 9 57
Yearling Doe, 90 lb
(last trimester, growing)
4.6 10 56
3 Yr Old Doe, 110 lb
(milking 0.5 gal/day)
5 11.7 69
Mature Buck, 220 lb
(no wt. gain, moderate activity)
5.3 9 55
Dairy Doe, 150 lb
(milking 1 gal/day, 4% BF)
7.5 11.6 71

Table 2. Supplying Protein Needs For Lactating Goats
% Protein in Roughage
Dry Matter Basis
% Protein Needed in Concentrate
15% +
Excellent legume hay or excellent pasture
High Production (over 8 lb/day) 14
Low Production 12
12 - 15%
Legume-grass mixed hay or good pasture
High Production 16
Low Production 14
10 - 12%
Good grass hay or fair pasture
High Production 18
Low Production 16
Below 10%
Fair quality grass hay or poor pasture
High Production 20
Low Production 18

Sources include: National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service; USDA Cooperative State Research Service, The Office for Small-Scale Agriculture; 1993 American Dairy Goat Association National Convention Proceedings; Supplemental Winter Feeding of Goats, 2000, Clemson University; and Goat Medicine, 1994.

Related resources

Feeding and housing dairy goats

Sound feeding practices and good housing facilities result in high milk production and good health and comfort of dairy goats – University of Missouri Extension

2010, Reviewed 2012 by Wayne Martin

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