For the Love of Goats
One of the most common questions I get from readers is, “what should I feed my goats?” But there is no short answer. The reason you hear so many different answers is because the right answer can be different for different goats.
In this episode, ruminant nutritionist Laura Marie Kramer, Director of National Accounts for Standlee Premium Western Forage, talks about alfalfa and grass hay, as well as the difference between pellets and long-stemmed forage. But first we get nerdy about the whole ruminant digestive tract and how it is different from monogastrics. For more information on feeding goats, see the links below.
To celebrate the launch of the new podcast, Standlee has agreed to give 3 of my listeners a coupon for their choice of a free Standlee product, such as a bag of hay pellets or bagged hay. And after listening to this episode, you’ll know which one you need — because you know, the answer is, “it depends!” (Sorry you missed the giveaway, but there will be more in future episodes!)
For more information on feeding goats and goat nutrition:
Today’s episode was sponsored by Standlee Premium Western Forage.
Want to chat with other goat lovers? Visit For the Love of Goats on Facebook!
For the love of goats. We are talking about everything goat, whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures. We’ve got you covered. Today’s episode is brought to you by Standlee Premium Western Forage. And now, here’s Deborah Niemann.
0:21 Deborah – Welcome back, everyone. I am so excited about our guest today because I know she is going to clear up so much confusion. For many of you one of the most common questions I get is about how to feed your goats. And Laura Marie Kramer, who is a ruminant nutritionist who works for Standlee Premium Western Forage, as their director of national accounts, is going to explain everything. And if you’re wondering why on earth do some people say, put out baking soda and other people say no, don’t put out baking soda. And some people say you can feed pellets and other people say no, don’t feed hay pellets. Why do you get all of this conflicting information? You know, I always say you can’t just do what the guy down the road does and expect to get the same results because everybody’s got different goats, different pasture and everything. And so Laura Marie is going to explain everything to you. We’re going to talk about the ruminants’ digestive system, which is crazy, because they have four stomachs. And then we are going to talk about the different types of hay, like timothy and alfalfa. We’re going to talk about the difference between hay pellets and long stem forage and you know, regular hay, and just all of this terrific stuff right now.
1:40 Deborah – Hi, Laura Marie. It’s really great to have you with us today to talk about forage for goats. I know this is a topic that a lot of people have questions about. So it’ll be really great to have you talk about this because I know you have a background as a ruminant nutritionist. And I know when I heard you speak at the Livestock Conservancy Conference a few years ago, it really cleared up a lot of things for me that I was a little bit unclear on. So it’s great that you’re going to be here and help explain all of this to my listeners.
2:14 Laura Marie – Thanks so much, Deborah. I’m really excited to be here. ruminant nutrition is a passion of mine. I grew up on a dairy farm. So I have a lot of experience working with ruminants.
2:24 Deborah – Can you first tell us what a rumen is? And how exactly is it different from a monogastric animal like humans?
2:33 Laura Marie – Sure things. So monogastric is, we’re monogastric, horses are monogastric, pigs, your pet dogs and cats are monogastric. They just have a simple single compartment stomach. Some of them like horses are hind gut fermenters unlike pigs, which are not fermenters but that’s basically they just have a single, simple compartment stomach. Whereas ruminants on the other hand, have a four compartment stomach and this is all of your cattle, your goats, your sheep, deer, and then there is a subclass called pseudo ruminants that have a three compartment stomach and this is your llamas and alpacas and your hippopotamuses. So they are very similar to a ruminant, but they only have three compartments instead of four like a ruminant.
3:26 Deborah – Okay. And then I know they like once you get into the ruminants there’s also different types of ruminants. And I know a lot of us will say, you know, cows are grazers and goats are browsers. But goats can eat grass, which technically means that they’re not 100% browsers. Can you explain more about a goat’s ability to kind of straddle that line between grazer and total browser like most deer?
3:48 Laura Marie – Absolutely, so goats fall under what’s considered an intermediate feeder. So we divide ruminants up into three classes, your concentrated selectors are what we like to call browsers. And those are all your deer and your moose, and then your intermediate feeders, which does have a few varieties of deer in it, but your goats and your sheep fall into intermediate feeders, and then your grazers, which are what we typically think of ruminants as being cattle, and eating high amounts of high fiber roughage to eat really large meals all at once, and then go lay down someplace and ruminate and eat it. So they’ll spend typically a third of their time out eating a third of their time out ruminating and then a third of their time just being idle doing nothing. So that really large rumen that they have just lets them hold a whole lot of forage all at once. Whereas when we look at a horse, for example, they eat a lot of little tiny little meals all day long. And horses will spend the majority of their time grazing all day if you leave them out on a pasture versus a cow which will eat for a long time or goat that will eat for a long time and then go lay down
5:03 Deborah – Very different from a single stomach. And what is it? Exactly? That makes it so special? And I know when I saw your presentation, you had a slide that said, Why do we want to keep the rumen happy? Yes, it kind of feels like that’s how I spend my life trying to keep my goats rumens happy.
5:24 Laura Marie – Um, so the rumen is this large fermentation vat. It is covered in these pili that gives it like the look and feel of a shag carpet. And that this pili is where all this nutrient absorption happens, all the starch and soluble sugars will be absorbed there, your VFAs are produced and then also absorbed by those pili. And then this is where all your microbial fermentation takes place in the rumen. And that’s the digestion of all the cellulose from the plant cell walls. So it’s really important for the rumen to stay in a perfect pH and be happy. It needs to be at about 6.5 to 6.8. And if it’s not happy, those rumens of pili will start to die off, and then the animal loses its ability to absorb the nutrients from the plants eating and the microbial population will start to change and your fiber digesters will die off. So that’s why it’s so important to keep that room and happy and balanced is to keep this the pili alive and working.
6:30 Deborah – That’s really interesting. And that’s why I guess you’ve got so many different problems that can happen with the rumen. Like so many different diseases, you know, from bloat to vitamin deficiency and all kinds of stuff.
6:47 Laura Marie – Yes, I guess keeping that rumen balanced and happy. It’s very easy to do. But once it gets imbalanced, it’s really hard to get back healthy again.
6:59 Deborah – Should we talk about the reticulum? Is there anything that people need to know about the reticulum and the other stomachs that a goat has?
7:05 Laura Marie – Yeah, absolutely. So the reticulum is, a lot of people don’t consider it as part of the rumen but it is directly involved in rumination. So that is the part of the stomach that’s going to move foodstuff back into the esophagus for regurgitation so they can rechew their cud, but it’s also the part of their stomach that makes the decision if it’s time for it to move on to the abomasum and move on for further digestion. And a lot of times we hear with ruminants, hardware disease and feeding magnets. Well, this is where that magnet will go. All of the heavy dense objects such as nails and wires that goats and cattle will pick up while they’re out grazing will get stuck in the reticulum. So we’ll feed them a magnet, which will get stuck in the reticulum area and it will collect all that heavy dense metal objects to prevent hardware disease.
8:03 Deborah – Okay, and then what happens to the magnet? Does it just stay there? Does it pass through?
8: 07 Laura Marie – No, it stays there for life.
8:10 Deborah – Okay, but it keeps like the wire or nails or whatever from damaging the inside of the animal.
8:16 Laura Marie – Yeah, it keeps the wire and nails from poking through the reticulum. Back in the day, almost all hay was built with wire instead of baling twine. So this was a long time ago was a real problem because pieces of wire twine would get left in the hay, the animals would eat it and then it would end up poking through and causing issues but by feeding them the magnet it gets trapped up against that bag.
8:44 Deborah – Oh, that is so good to know. You know I bought hay or straw or something one time when I couldn’t get it from my regular supplier. And it had wire on it which drove me crazy because like you can’t just snip wire like you can baling twine. But now I understand why that’s like such a thing because I’ve heard about hardware disease and I’m like, what kind of trashy pastures do people have that this is a problem?
9:12 Laura Marie – Yeah, it really wasn’t an issue with the pastures it was more so an issue with the old style balers that use the metal wire to build the hay.
9:22 Deborah – Oh, awesome. I always love learning about the history of all these problems, because then everything is so clear.
9:28 Laura Marie – Yeah. And if you think about how often you see a piece of baling twine that you know you missed and ended up out in the feeder it’s really an easy mistake to make.
9:37 Deborah – Yeah, okay. Okay, now, I think everybody probably has a really good understanding of the ruminant digestive system, which is so important for people to understand that. So let’s go ahead and move on to feeding goats. And one of the big questions I get all the time is what is the difference between alfalfa and grass hays,
9:59 Laura Marie – So alfalfa is a legume. So it’s going to be higher in protein typically lower fiber and then also lower in sugar than a grass such as timothy or orchard grass or bermuda or teff, which is going to be a little bit higher in fiber, lower in sugar and — or excuse me higher in sugar and lower in protein.
10:22 Deborah – And then I know that like stained Standlee sells, both orchard grass and timothy grass, and for some people in their area, they’re able to get different types of grass haze from their local farmers. What is the difference between orchard and timothy and is one better than the other for various stages of production for goats?
10:45 Laura Marie – When it comes to goats, they’re going to be about the same. Orchard grass is going to have a slightly higher sugar content normally, but not always. But both are moderate to low and energy. Orchard grass is going to have a slightly higher protein level than timothy but not high enough to make a huge difference in its digestive system. So you can feel really safe picking orchard grass or timothy grass for a goat.
11:12 Deborah – And I know like with the alfalfa really, I always tell people really the alfalfa is just for goats that are either pregnant or milking because they need that high calcium.
11:24 Laura Marie – Yes, late gestation and during lactation phase, I will give my rams and my sheep flock some alfalfa when they’re really in peak breeding season and they’re really working hard. But you do have to be careful with alfalfa with urinary calculi.
11:42 Deborah – And now we’re going to take a quick break. So that I can tell you a little bit about today’s sponsor, which is Standlee Premium Western Forage. I actually started using Standlee alfalfa hay pellets more than 10 years ago when I first saw them at our local Tractor Supply Store. And the reason I needed them is because I had a goat who was a huge grain hog, she would finish her grain on the milk stand, before I was half done milking her, and then she would get mad and she wanted more grain. Now, you know, you can’t just let them have all the grain they want, they’ll get diarrhea and who knows what else you can wind up with, because too much grain will upset their rumen. So my only answer initially was to gather up all of the leaves from the alfalfa hay that would fall to the ground. And I would add that to the pan so that she could nibble on that, and hopefully stay happy while I finished milking her. So when I saw the hay pellets at my store 10 plus years ago, I was super excited. And I bought that very first bag and I have been buying them ever since. And we actually now mix them in with the grain for all of our dose so that they don’t get as much grain on the milk stand and they get more alfalfa. Because the alfalfa is really high in calcium, which is what your milkers really need. Now on the flip side, I’m also really excited that Standlee makes grass hay pellets like timothy grass, because that’s what we use for our bucks in the winter, when we can’t find enough local grass hay for them. Now if you’ve read on my website, thrifty homesteader about bucks and zinc deficiency and the problem with giving them alfalfa, then you totally get this. And I don’t want to go into too much into in this episode. But you know, your bucks really should have grass hay. And sometimes you can’t get the kind of hay you need locally because it’s dependent on the weather and supply and all kinds of stuff. So you know, if I can’t get enough grass hay to feed my bucks all winter, then I will definitely stretch it by getting the grass hay pellets from my local store. And that is my Standlee story. So when Standlee came to me a couple years ago and asked if I wanted to be a brand ambassador, it was a really fast Yes, because I already used and recommended their products anyway. So anyway, I’m really excited that they are today’s sponsor. And now back to our episode.
14:06 Deborah – Um, now one thing that is kind of interesting when I saw your presentation, because I know that I’ve seen it Standlee’s packaging says premium for it. And I just thought that was a marketing term. You know, it’s like, yeah, our stuff is great. But then in your talk, you talk you said that hay, is actually graded. So premium is like a real thing, not just a marketing term.
14:30 Laura Marie – Yes, so hay is actually um, it’s graded. Premium number one and number two is typically refers to a visual grade. And what plays into that is the color of the forage, you know, is it bright green, or does it have a lot of bleach in it? What size the stem is, is it really coarse or is it really fine? So a finer stem is going to be a higher quality and for alfalfa if the leaf stays attached to the stem or not, or if the leaf falls off the stem and then of course, sustained maturity that it was cut up. And then if there’s any contaminants in it, like native grasses that have gotten into the stand or any type of weeds.
15:11 Deborah – That is so good to know. And I think maybe I’m gonna start using different terms because I know I tell people, you know, when they’re buying hay, even when, you know, just feeding hay, I say, it needs to be green. And people are like, what do you mean green, and, like, just green, not brown. Because you know, I knew that like, the more brown it is, then you’re gonna have like lower vitamin A lower vitamin E and stuff like that. And so it’s a lot more nutritious if it’s green.
15:43 Laura Marie – There’s also a difference between it being brown and it having surface bleach. So surface bleach means some sunlight got to the outside of the stack, that once you cut that bill open, it’s still nice and green inside, vs it being brown that it was left in the field way too long, and that it’s fallen down and other things have grown up on top of it.
16:06 Deborah – And that’s definitely important, because I know when you stack it in the barn, normally, it should look green. And then just even I don’t know, I think maybe within a month or so the outer part of the stack is starting to not look green anymore. But when you cut the bail open, it is still nice and green. And that’s what you want.
16:25 Laura Marie – Yeah, a lot of people get surface bleach confused for it being a bad thing. It’s just the sunlight is bleached out the green color on the outside.
16:35 Deborah – What is relative feed value and relative forage quality? And why should we care.
16:42 Laura Marie – So the thing about relative feed value and relative forage quality that you have to remember first off that this is a calculation that is used to determine dry matter digestibility in cattle. So, a lot of people use this across the board for all species, but it’s um, it’s really important that it’s designed for how the rumen in the cattle digests forage, so it’s not quite the same for a goat or a horse or any other. It’s just strictly looking at the cattle. So relative feed value takes the digestible dry matter of alfalfa only. And it calculates that from ADF and comes up with a number of what the diet, what they predict the digestibility of that forage is going to be. And then relative feed quality RFQ looks at grasses and legumes, not just alfalfa. So if you’re buying a grass, you don’t want a relative feed value on it, you want to relative feed quality, but both of us are looking at it for cattle. I’m sure you remember, my presentation did have some horse numbers thrown in. No, we will look at it across all species and use it for buying. But we don’t necessarily want to use this to calculate how good that hay is actually going to be for that animal unless it is a cow. And I think one other important thing to keep in mind, too, forages that have the exact same relative feed value aren’t always going to perform the same because it’s a calculation. So those numbers are several other numbers that get put together to calculate one number. So you might be feeding an RFV value of 175 and your animals are doing really good. You buy a new load of hay and it’s 175. And now your animals aren’t doing well. And two RFVs aren’t always going to perform exactly the same.
18:47 Deborah – Okay. And with goats it’s not really that big of a deal.
18:53 Laura Marie – It’s really not. Goats are designed that they can easily eat a lower quality RFV value hay and get plenty of nutrients out of it the way their rumens work.
19:08 Deborah – Ah, okay. All right. So I wonder if that’s why some farmers say it’s good enough for goats, which always scares me. Because then I’m like, Well, what do they mean good enough for goats? Like is it moldy or something? Because if it is, it’s going to make them sick.
19:22 Laura Marie – Yeah, and that’s so you know, people use that old phrase, oh, that’s cow hay in the horse world, saying, Oh, it’s fine for cows. You can’t feed that to a horse or Oh, that’s goat hay. But really, we need to get away from that type of terminology and start looking at the qualities we need from our hay for animals. And high end dairy cattle and high producing dairy cattles are being put on under so much strain to produce high amounts of milk and butter fat, their relative feed quality and rfv values need to be really high, where our backyard goats might not be in pushed for as much milk production as what these commercial dairy cows are.
20:06 Deborah – Now, another thing I know this for quite a long time, it was I used to hear people say that goats needed long stem forage, you know that like you couldn’t just feed them hay pellets. And people would get on these getting these discussions online. And like I remember one woman saying, well, I really don’t see the difference because my goats chew up the hay. So it all winds up, you know, the same once it’s inside of them. It doesn’t matter how it starts out. But again, when I heard your talk, you shed some light on that, like, why is it important that goats get the long stem forage?
20:48 Laura Marie – Well, it’s because of the rumen. So that long stem forage helps slow down the digestion rate in the rumen and makes them regurgitate and rechew their cud, which is what they’re made to do. And it keeps them producing bicarbonate, which keeps the rumen buffered and they produce the bicarbonate in their saliva. So every time they regurgitate that long stem forage to chew on it, they produce more saliva, which buffers the rumen and which keeps that pH at that nice 6.5 to 6.8, where we want it to keep the rumen healthy. So you can feed hay pellets to cattle, goats, sheep, but you really should be feeding some long stem fiber with it also, to help keep that rumen happy.
21:35 Deborah – That is so good to know. Because that also, I think, comes into this discussion that I’ve seen and this is a great example of where a little knowledge can be dangerous. Because when I first started raising goats in 2002, everybody, I mean, everybody had baking soda out for their goats free choice. Yes, if you didn’t have baking soda out free choice for your goats, people just thought you really feel worse goat owner ever. And recently, like on Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing about this and saying goats make their own bicarbonate. You don’t need to have baking soda out. And again, and I’m like, why are people arguing about this all of a sudden, because I feel like having baking soda out it, you know, has helped my goats. Who knows how many times when they like got into the chicken grain or something or one time they busted into the milking parlor and got into the grain. You know, it’s all about that the chewing. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons that like grain can be so bad for them, because some of them don’t even chew, they just inhale it.
22:39 Laura Marie – Yeah, so when it comes to, I’m a big proponent of putting out baking soda or sodium bicarbonate for them free choice. And that especially if you are feeding a hay pellet, high green concentrated diet, it’s really important to have that sodium bicarb out there for them so they can keep their rumens balanced. If you look at your feed ingredients from your feed company, it’ll have sodium bicarbonate in it already a little bit. But they really do well with that free choice and having that ability to buffer their stomach themselves.
23:14 Deborah – Yeah, and so it’s really funny because I know that lady, you know, all those years ago who said, Well, my goats chew, so it all winds up the same once it’s inside. But as it turns out, it’s that chewing of the long stem that is so important and they don’t necessarily have to do that with pellets.
23:31 Laura Marie – That’s right. So they don’t have to, you know, they’re going to chew that hay up some the first time swallow it regurgitated a few times with those pellets, they’re not going to regurgitate it as many times as they would with long stem forage, they’re not going to get as much saliva into their stomach. You can absolutely feed 100% pellets, but you need to be making sure that you’re giving them plenty of sodium bicarb to help buffer that rumen.
23:58 Deborah – This is such great information. And I think this is going to clear up so much confusion for people. Because, you know, I again, this is one of those emails I get where people are saying, you know, say I’m seeing people argue about this online, you know, do my goats need long stem forage or not. And do my goats need baking soda or not. And the funny thing about that is that even though those things are totally tied together, the conversations are not usually happening at the same time.
24:29 Laura Marie – No, they’re not. And one of the things to is also if you’re going to feed a high pellet diet, you’re going to want to select a forage, a long stem forage to feed with it that’s a little bit higher in fiber a little bit rougher. That’s going to take them some more time to chew and re-eat. A lot of times also people who feed high pellet diets, and I mean forage pellets will tell me that they feel like their goats are hungry all the time. Well, they seem like they’re hungry all the time because they’re not spending a third of their day laying around chewing their cud, even though they’re getting the same pounds of fiber, because it’s moving through their rumen faster and getting digested faster, they are looking for something to do because they’re used to, they’re made to spend a third of their day sitting around chewing.
25:13 Deborah – Wow, this is such great information. And I know that my listeners are going to find it so valuable. So I really appreciate you joining us today. Is there anything else that you think people need to know that I didn’t ask you about?
25:26 Laura Marie – So the main thing that I would keep in mind is to look at your total ration, when you pick out your forage, what you’re feeding as far as green as well as hay, what your pasture availability is, if you have a higher fiber pasture, that is a lot of grasses, or if you have some lagoons mixed in your fields that let them be able to browse what they like to do. So you need to look at the whole diet and what’s right for one goat farmer isn’t going to be right for the next one. It’s going to really depend on what your entire farm and all your feedstuffs your farm has.
26:05 Deborah – That is great advice. That’s what I always tell people. You can’t do the same thing as the guy down the road from you because they have a different farm and different animals and everything. So it’s really important to figure out what’s going to work on your specific farm.
26:19 Laura Marie – Yes, it’s so important. I’m a sheep farmer and what works on my sheep farm isn’t necessarily going to work on the next sheep farm.
26:29 Deborah – Perfect. That is a great note to end on. I so appreciate you joining us today. And helping us to understand the why behind you know all of the suggestions and stuff like why the goats need long stem forage and why they need baking soda and all that kind of stuff. So it’s really great to get all of the details behind that. Thank you so much for joining us.
26:53 Laura Marie – No problem. Thank you for having me.
26:55 Deborah – I hope you enjoyed today’s show and found the information helpful. I want to thank our sponsor again for today’s episode Standlee Premium Western Forage. To see the show notes you can go to www.fortheloveofgoats.com. Join us for our next show where we will be talking to Marc Wornke about his pack goats. And no, I did not say pet, I said pack. Packing with goats next time right here on for the love of goats.
Subscribe to my weekly newsletter!
My weekly newsletter includes recipes and articles on homesteading, raising livestock, health, and gardening.