Nutritional Wisdom of Goats

Episode 54
For the Love of Goats

Nutritional Wisdom of Goats featured image

Although everyone pretty much agrees that goats do a good job of consuming just the right amount of loose minerals when they are available free choice, there are still a lot of people who don’t think goats (or other animals) can selectively choose to consume plants that they need when they need them.

The concept of “nutritional wisdom” is something that Dr. Fred Provenza wound up studying throughout his career at Utah State University. I’ve heard about Dr. Provenza’s research for about as long as I’ve raised goats, so it was really interesting to be able to talk to him in this episode.

While most people would look at goats eating urine-soaked rat houses or a cow eating a rabbit and assume that it had no clue what it was doing, Dr. Provenza asked why.

For more information

Read about Dr. Provenza’s research and other researchers studying “Behavioral Education for Human, Animal, Vegetation, and Ecosystem Management” at

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Introduction 0:03
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. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.

Deborah Niemann 0:18
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. Today is extra-special for me, because I am interviewing someone whose research I have been quoting for well over a decade, and that is Dr. Fred Provenza, professor emeritus at Utah State University. Welcome to the show today, Dr. Provenza!

Fred Provenza 0:39
Thank you for having me. Wonderful to be here with you.

Deborah Niemann 0:42
It’s really exciting to talk to you, because for years I had read information that quoted your research that talked about how animals are nutritionally wise, and that if they have good choices that they can kind of figure out what they need to eat. And I think this was sort of the basis of, like, cafeteria-style minerals that some people started using and things like that. And that’s probably a horrific summary of many years of your work. So, can you go ahead and tell us a little bit about what you learned about nutrition in animals, and including goats?

Fred Provenza 1:19
Well, I was thinking as you were saying—what you’re saying, you’re off to a really good start, actually. I, nowadays, think about this as three legs to the stool. One’s the availability of alternatives of wholesome, alternative foods. And diversity matters a lot, in that sense—plant diversity and richness—because it gives animals choices that can help them to really stay healthy. No question about that. And, if they get sick, if the medicine chest is sufficient, why, they can get better, really, by selecting particular plants. So, you said that briefly, you know, but you were right on target in terms of the choices available.

Fred Provenza 1:58
And then, there are two other things that we studied a lot that are really important in terms of nutritional wisdom being expressed. One of them is mother—mother, as a model, actually—and we may not think of that much. But, you know, we did so much work over the years, starting simply with mother as a model, that mother influenced what young animals select and avoid. And it was very easy to show what a powerful role she played. We’d train moms to eat one food and avoid another food, for instance, in really simple studies, and then turn the young lambs out with her, or the young kid goats, or whatever it was, calves. And, you know, they pay attention to what mom does; she’s a model for them. And so, the more we went with that work, too, we realized, well, you know, it’s not only after birth and when they start to forage, but maybe even mother plays an important role through flavors in her milk. And we did studies on that, showing that if mom’s eating onions, just as a simple example, and onion flavor is getting into her milk, that predisposes her offspring to eat onions. It’s a cue that onions are a safe food, basically. And then we thought, well, geez, you know, there’s, you know, several months before they’re even born when they’re in the womb, and they’re probably learning about foods then, also. And research has shown that the fetal taste system is fully functional during the last trimester of gestation, and so flavors of foods that mom eats that get into the amniotic fluid also become cues for offspring. So, that’s the second leg to the stool, and mother is just such an important what I like referred to as “transgenerational link” to landscape, so you can go mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and all that knowledge, the animals become a repository for that. And then the young animals benefit from that. So, that’s the second leg of the stool.

Fred Provenza 3:53
The third leg is one that was really a shocker to me. I think about it all the time now and don’t even question it. But, this whole idea of feedback that, you know, if I were to ask you why you like a particular food, you’d tell me because it tastes good. If I asked you why you don’t like particular food, you tell me because it tastes bad. And that’s absolutely the case. But what we weren’t realizing is that our liking for the flavor of food is being mediated by cells and organ systems throughout the body. Maybe a good example nowadays is the microbiome, which is an organ system. And it’s a good example, because humans are studying that, and they’re talking a lot about how the microbiome influences what we want to eat, right? Well, you can think about that for all the organ systems of the body, the brain, the liver, the muscles, and so forth. And feedback is simply how—through hormones, neurotransmitters, peptides, and so forth—how cells and organ systems are communicating with the central nervous system to change liking for the flavor of food as a function of need. So, that’s a mouthful. But it’s an amazing thing. When we first started doing those studies, and we would offer cheap—for instance, a really poor quality food, like straw. And then, after they ate that, we would infuse nutrients directly into the bloodstream or put them directly into the rumen. And then we’d see that it totally changed liking for this not so good food as a function of doing that, and it just stops you in your tracks because it becomes real. It’s not… It’s you’re watching that happen. The next day, the group that got infused with a nutrient that they needed is really showing a great liking for this straw. The group that got water isn’t showing any liking at all—I’m trying to make it come alive. But, when we first started doing those studies, it took me a long time to fully understood what I saw, to really fathom that you can put something in their gut and it totally changes their liking and how much of that food they eat. It really gets you thinking about that. And so back, you know, 40 years ago, 45 years ago now, when we were first doing those studies, it was, like, mind-boggling, but we did so many of them over and over and over and over again with energy, with protein, with ratios of energy to protein as a function of need. Then with minerals—sodium, phosphorus, calcium, and so forth. And friends in Australia did work with vitamins, like vitamin E. And you just come to appreciate that that’s how cells and organ systems, which is what we’re feeding, ultimately, that’s how they meet their needs. I have a video I often show that it is worth 10,000 words, because you just see these sheep; one group is just gulping the straw down, eating every last blade of it, and the other group is standing there watching them like, “Well, what have you got that we don’t have?” You know? And it was feedback that changed that; it was simply feedback.

Deborah Niemann 6:56
That is fascinating. So, the sheep that had water infused into their rumen were in there just kind of watching the other ones that got the nutrients put into their rumen and weren’t doing the same thing. So, that’s fascinating!

Fred Provenza 7:12
Right! Right. You just changed liking. And, you know, we infused water, because oftentimes water was a good carrier for the nutrients that we were putting into solution and infusing into the rumen. But you can imagine—and it would have been fun to do this study—if we’d have made them water deprived, they probably would have really eaten the straw to get a drink, so to speak. You know, because it’s really was a function of need. And we learned this, too. We learned this: If, for instance, you have minerals available to them, and they’re eating minerals to their needs, and then you infuse those same minerals into them, they form an aversion. They don’t want to eat the straw anymore. Why? Because it’s too much. It’s in excess of what they need.

Deborah Niemann 7:55
Oh, yeah.

Fred Provenza 7:56
Yeah! So, it’s excesses and deficits that they’re really keyed into. And it’s about balance, you know, and they’re really good. And, you know, a lot of this—we were obviously studying these things—but that had really some interesting implications across the boards for what you supplement or don’t supplement, for how you feed animals in the barn. We are doing a lot of work with a good friend Darrell Emmick in New York, who was a State Grazing Land Specialist at the time, and he was doing a lot of work with pasture-based dairy. And we were thinking about, well, given all this background, does what a producer feeds in the barn influence what animals do when they go out on pasture? And we were able to show it certainly does. If you feed a high amount of protein in the barn, they avoid the most protein-rich plants and plant parts when they go out to forage in the pasture. So for instance, we could decrease their liking for clover as a function of feeding a high-protein supplement in the barn, because they don’t want more clover, right? They don’t want more protein. And they would also back off of some of the most protein-rich plant parts, the really young, actively growing, green leaves of grasses. So, excesses and deficits were really what it was about, and animals being able to regulate their intake of things in ways that you would never think. You know, if you just think of foods as something separate, so you say, “Well, we fed them this concentrate that was high in protein in the barn, and that’s surely different from clover out in the pasture.” Well, of course, it is superficially, but when you get at the nutrients that are in that, there’s a real similarity. And the animals’ bodies know that, if that makes sense.

Deborah Niemann 9:34
Yeah. So, what I find really amazing is that you still hear from so many people that “Oh, animals have no idea what they’re eating. They don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gee, I think I need more calcium, so I’m gonna go eat more this plant.'” In this world where so many people think that animals are just eating random foods, how did you come up with the idea to even do this research in the first place?

Deborah Niemann 9:59
That’s a good question. And it raises so many thoughts, too, because honestly, when we started the research 45 years ago, there was the belief among animal nutritionists that wild animals still had those abilities. How else? They don’t have nutritionists to formulate rations for them. They don’t have pharmacists to treat them when they get sick, and so forth. But the idea was that as a result of 10,000 years of domestication, domestic animals had lost the ability. And so, how did we get going on that? For me, it really started, in a sense, back… I spent seven years working on a ranch in Colorado back when I was going to college, and working on the ranch, and just observing animals and thinking about them. Took a plant taxonomy class when I was a sophomore, to just absolutely fell in love with plants. I couldn’t believe that that whole world existed even, and then that relationship between plants and animals. So it started then. And when I finished at Colorado State University, I said—you know, I loved all the classes, learning about all that stuff. But I said, “That’s enough school for me for this lifetime,” right? And I didn’t know what I was going to do. So, I went back to the ranch and ran the place for a couple of years. And I thought, over that time, “Well, what am I going to do?” And research sounded interesting, so shopped around, finally got into Utah State University, and my idea would have been to study mountain goats foraging in the Rocky Mountains. I ended up studying domestic goats in southern Utah on landscape dominated by a shrub called blackbrush. But I learned so much down there watching those goats that really set the trajectory, along with the years on the ranch, and talking with Henry about what does it mean for animals to know the range. Those two things really set me on the trajectory.

Fred Provenza 11:52
And two things happened in southern Utah. One, we were using goats as mobile pruning machines during the winter to prune this shrub blackbrush, because we knew that that would stimulate new twigs to grow on the plant. And we knew that those new twigs were higher in energy and protein and minerals. And so we thought, you know, the overall project were to use domestic animals to make land better for wildlife species. So, that was one facet of that project. And that was the idea. Well, come to find out, the next year, after we’d pruned all those shrubs and put the goats back on there, goats didn’t want to eat those new twigs. So, that was one thing. It’s like, “Wow, this is interesting. Are the goats just stupid, or what?” And I didn’t believe that for a minute. The second thing: We had six pasture set up down there, separate pastures, and the goats in one of the pastures—that first winter we had the goats on there—started eating woodrat houses. Now woodrats are these little mammals that—picture a rat. And what they do at the base of trees, like these juniper trees, is to build a big house. This house is made of densely packed vegetation. And then for siding, they used juniper bark. But, when you look inside those houses, there’s different rooms in those houses, literally. And one of the rooms is the bathroom, and that bathroom is soaked in urine. And what that becomes—I’m jumping ahead here. You know, we’re watching those goats. One, they’re not eating the new twigs; two, they’re eating woodrat houses. It’s like, “Wow, blackbrush isn’t good, but woodrat houses…?”

Fred Provenza 13:31
But again, I didn’t blow it off as just like, “They’re crazy.” But it’s like, only these goats in this pasture are eating them. And every one of them is eating those woodrat houses. They’re all together there. The other five pastures, none of them are doing that, even though they have lots of woodrat house. So, I went back to campus; I was telling people there what I’d observed. And I remember a toxicologist, he looked at me and he said, “Well, I guess that just goes to prove that domestic animals don’t have nutritional wisdom, doesn’t it?” And, I didn’t know what to say to him at the time. So I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t believe it, and that launched us on the path. So, why don’t they eat the new twigs? What the goats knew is those twigs are so high in a condensed tannin that can make them sick that it takes all the goats, when you put them out there, about a day and a half to figure out that those new twigs are bad. And the way they do that, as soon as a goat eats more new twigs than old twigs in a meal, and they cross a certain threshold, from then on they avoid the current season’s twigs. So their bodies are figuring out “Whoa, I ate too much of this current, it’s no good, that’s it.” So, their bodies figured it out in no time flat, you know, basically. The woodrat houses—as I was alluding to—when you have vegetation that’s soaked in urine, that becomes a non-protein source of nitrogen that helps their microbiome to maintain its health. So, when they were getting this non-protein nitrogen source, their rumens were functioning much better than in the rumens of goats in the other five pastures. And as a result, when we’re measuring their body weight throughout that three months they were down there, they’re not losing weight like the other goats are, you know?

Fred Provenza 15:12
And I remember talking to my major professor, Thomas, “You know, I’m really interested in this idea of learning. How animals learn. How they figure stuff out.” And he said, “Yeah, that could be really interesting. You could do one nice study of that stuff.” Well, we did 45 years of study of that stuff. You know, for me, I always said to the people, you know, it doesn’t matter if our name gets associated with it or not. The key thing is that those ideas get out there. And if people want to really delve into the research, we’ve published it all; we’ve got 300 papers out there. What’s interesting to me now is to see the human population. And in the book that I wrote, Nourishment, it’s all about, first off, making the case that domestic animals still have nutritional wisdom; they didn’t lose it. And then, secondly, about saying we still have it, too, it’s simply been hijacked by the food industry, and all that goes on with food, medical, pharmaceutical industries. That whole thing’s been hijacked. So that’s a travesty, what’s happened. And then to not recognize that of course a body still has that. That’s the most fundamental thing in life. If you don’t eat well, you don’t reproduce; if you don’t reproduce, your species doesn’t survive. That’s not something that you’re going to lose, even in 10,000 years of domestication.

Deborah Niemann 16:30
Yeah, that was something that I learned really early on with my goats, because we had some severe problems with deficiency in copper because our well water was so high in sulfur and iron. And it was really frustrating. And that was kind of the beginning of the end of how I became an accidental goat expert. It was either, like, well, just give up, because all of my goats were literally dying. Like, they weren’t getting pregnant; they were dying. So, it was either give up or figure it out, you know? And there was just so many people saying, like, “Oh, animals don’t know what they’re doing,” and stuff. And we had a selenium deficiency, too. Not as bad as the copper, but because we had some antagonists for selenium in the well water also. And after, you know, reading a lot of people who had quoted you—and maybe there was some of your original research in there, too, in all the reading I did, because this was, like, 15 years ago—I got the idea to provide my goats with a free-choice selenium supplement. And one of the things that I remember reading was that some of the research that muddied the water in this area used individual minerals that had salt in them. And if all the minerals just had salt in them as the carrier, that the goats were not able to pick and choose wisely. But if you use something different, that they did. And so, I was able to find a selenium supplement that used wheat middlings, and it was terrific. We used that for five years, and our goats never showed any issues with selenium deficiency during that time. And I saw, like, as long as their mixed minerals were full, they hardly touched the selenium at all. But every time those mixed minerals would run out, the separate selenium would go down, like, so fast. Because it was like, “Well, this is our only source of selenium. We’re really gonna eat it all now.” And unfortunately that company quit selling it, and I haven’t been able to find another source of selenium that doesn’t use salt as a carrier. So, is it really an issue if salt is the carrier?

Fred Provenza 18:46
That’s wonderful examples with that. I bet you were reading some of our work, because we did several review papers, and there’s one I’m thinking of where we were reflecting back, “Why did people come to believe that domestic animals had lost their nutritional wisdom?” And there were a handful of studies that were done—and they were done with the best intent and the best of what people knew. But there were just so many things that people didn’t understand about how animals figure things out, basically. You know, we did, in that paper, I think it’s a really thorough review of all those studies and why they went asunder and what needed to be done to make them different. But, one of the issues you raised is sodium. If you’re putting sodium in everything, once animals reach the amount of salt that they want in their bodies, they’re not going to eat anything more with salt in it because they’ve satiated on sodium. And I think there’s some really good evidence of this. I was reviewing that in Nourishment, that our bodies regulate their intake of sodium, that there’s a lot of red herrings out there related to salt, and so forth. But once we get a certain amount of salt, you don’t want anything more with salt in it. You’ve reached your limits, you know? And that’s the problem when all of the carriers have sodium in them is that, you know, the animal can’t probably get what it wants, because it’s met its needs for sodium and then exceeding them, and so, yeah, that’s a real deal. And we talked about that in that review paper.

Deborah Niemann 20:14
So, if you have an extra source of selenium there—or some other mineral—and it has salt in it rather than wheat middlings or some other non-sodium type of a carrier, will the goats mostly ignore that, then? Or will it confuse them if they’ve got a mixed mineral that has salt in it also?

Fred Provenza 20:35
Yeah. I think what will happen is that sodium will end up overriding them, you know? No doubt they would sample it, but then the sodium that’s in that would be a cue—at the taste level, you know. I mean, it’s the feedback regulating that. But they would taste that and say, “Eh, I don’t need any more sodium for today,” you know? And so yeah, it definitely would put animals off of that. We used to think about that, too. Let me give another example: We used to do a lot of work in what are referred to in Utah as “salt desert shrub communities.” They’re these diverse communities of grasses and shrubs, and a lot of the shrubs have high salt contents. And so, you know, our recommendation was, you certainly don’t need or want to supplement salt, put salt blocks out on those landscapes. Why? Because if you want them to utilize some of those salty species, the last thing you want to do is provide them supplemental salt, because if they’re using that, then that’s going to decrease their intake of those salt brush, you know—which is appropriately named—and several of the others. It’s those downstream effects. And it goes back to the point I was making with what’s fed in the barn influences what animals eat when they go out on pasture. So, it’s a very good point that you’re raising, and then the question is, as you say, “Well, what form can you supplement those, provide those, free-choice supplements in so that the animals are able to really key in on the nutrient that they need and not have limits set by some nutrient that they don’t need anything of?”

Deborah Niemann 22:13
Mm-hmm. This is kind of a weird question, I think, but I have noticed that when I watch my goats if they’re, like, in our yard or something… Well actually, they don’t have to be in our yard, because we have some things that grow wild in our pasture, even, that I think are delicious, like mint and that little pineapple weed that looks like chamomile. Like, I think those are really tasty, and I have never seen the goats eat them. I mean, I will see their nose, like, go over them. Like, I know, they see them, they smell them, but they just ignore them. And so I kind of feel like, “Okay, what do they know that I don’t know?” Because I think those are awesome foods.

Fred Provenza 22:53
Right, and that’s not a silly question at all! You know, anybody that’s spent time observing animals, you see those kind of things, right? And you can see those things change within the day, or seasonally even. Something that they’ve been totally ignoring, now, all of a sudden, they want it. And you know, that’s what we ended up spending a lifetime looking at are those kind of questions. You know, “Well, what’s going on?” And, we focused on physical and chemical characteristics of plants. You know, and trying to understand what all is going on that can cause them to either eat or not eat particular plants at particular times. And, you know, there’s certainly physical and chemical characteristics, no question about that, and then there’s the whole experiential part of things, too. Kathy Voth—Kathy worked on our project during the decade of the 2000s. She and a lady named Beth Burritt did a tremendous job on outreach for the program during those years, and Kathy got really interested. She was looking at a picture that I used to show of a cow eating a rabbit. Cow was eating a rabbit. She said, “Man, if cows can learn to eat rabbits, they can certainly learn to eat a lot of these weeds that they don’t eat,” you know? That really got her thinking about that. Well, the reason the cow was eating the rabbit, and the cows in that pasture were digging up soil and eating it, was they were deficient in phosphorus. And they were getting bones from the rabbits and they were getting minerals from the soil that were alleviating their deficiency.

Fred Provenza 24:31
When we were doing some of our studies of deficiencies, mineral deficiencies, I remember when we were doing the phosphorus work, and we had sheep penned individually in individual pens, twelve that were getting phosphorus, twelve that phosphorus was deficient in their diet. And we had allocated them at random to the different pens, so an animal that’s replete in phosphorus might be adjacent to an animal that’s deficient in phosphorus. This is important, because when we were monitoring blood phosphorus levels, we wanted to get them deficient. And then we would see if they could learn to self-select for food—just like what you’re talking about—that had phosphorus in it. We couldn’t get their phosphorus levels to drop, though, in the ones that were supposed to be deficient, that were on the phosphorus-deficient diet. We started observing. What they were doing is sticking their heads through the holes in the wire panels, and they were eating the feces of the animals that were phosphorus replete.

Deborah Niemann 25:31

Fred Provenza 25:32
So, they figure stuff out. So, what we had to do was then separate the animals, and then the group that was on the deficient diet became deficient; we were able to show, then, that they would self—you know. I mean, they were already showing us that they could do it; they were eating the feces of those sheep. But the bone-chewing was that sort of thing as well. So, the animals can figure these things out.

Fred Provenza 25:55
But, going back to your question, one of the things that happens is, like us, when you go to the supermarket, how many items are there? I don’t know, tens of thousands of items, right, are in the supermarket? And you learn to select a certain subset—we all do, right—depending on our dietary habits. Well, animals do that same thing. And so, a person’s got to think, is it the physical and chemical characteristics of the plant that are the reason they’re avoiding it? Or is it just that they’ve never really eaten much of it before, and so they don’t know that this could be a decent dietary item? And that’s where Kathy launched off on her work, and, you know, doing different ways basically to try to familiarize the animals with the plants. And then, in many cases, she was able to get them to eat plants that they ordinarily wouldn’t eat, simply as a result of familiarization. So, that’s one piece of it. The other piece, though, is that they may, in fact, have already sampled it and decided, “This doesn’t work for me right now”—like the goats and the blackbrush. You know, within a meal, a goat could figure that out. Maybe they think, “You know, we’re just not into this mint and chamomile-like stuff.” You know, what amazes me, for something that seems so simple, it’s so many levels of complexity. You could spend a lifetime studying it and still feel like you don’t really know very much about it.

Fred Provenza 27:20
Then you get this other part that’s still just a huge fascination to me, of where animals learn to eat appetizers that can help them eat main courses and desserts. I’ll give you an example. Let me tell you about the friends’ work. They were working at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho; they had several thousand sheep at the station. And they wanted to create a flock of sagebrush-eating sheep. Sagebrush is a really common shrub that dominates landscapes. You know, they thought, “Well, if we can get a group of sagebrush-eating sheep, we can use them strategically to reduce the abundance of sagebrush,” basically was the idea. And so, they used fecal analysis to identify sheeps that ate a lot of sagebrush, and sure enough, they created a flock that ate a lot of sage. And all of us thought—and this is realistic—that it was physiological; they simply have a better ability to detoxify the terpenes that are in sagebrush. But that wasn’t the case. What they found was that the sheep that were eating a lot of sagebrush had learned that if they eat this other shrub, bitterbrush, as an appetizer, they can eat far more sagebrush. That’s amazing, actually. What’s going on? Well, we were doing studies to show that tannins in plants like bitterbrush will bind to terpenes in shrubs like sagebrush, alleviating their adverse effects. They don’t get absorbed into the body; they get excreted. And so, the sheep had really figured out something quite functional about how to utilize a landscape that many of the other sheep hadn’t figured out. But you know, that’s a whole other level of complexity to this deal.

Fred Provenza 29:02
You know, we talk about genetics a lot. And certainly genetics are important. But what we don’t talk about is our epigenetics—genes being expressed as a function of the environment where an animal’s mother is grazing, and grandmother, and so forth. And then, we don’t talk about the culture, social culture, of learning what and what not to eat, how and how not to use it, where and where not to go. That becomes such a huge, huge, huge part of what it means to be locally adapted to a landscape, and beyond that, how to get out of fossil fuel loops. You know, it’s that work we were doing along those lines that complemented what some of the ranchers were doing, is that they’re thinking, “What are my costs of operation?” And out here, it was feeding animals in the winter, because you have to irrigate, cut, bale, haul hay; buy expensive machinery to do that; then you feed it all winter long. They thought, “If we want to cut costs, we got to get out of the hay. We got to get out of that totally.” And then they’re thinking, “Well, how do you winter graze,” you know? And the studies we were doing is showing that if a young offspring, when it’s in the womb, if it’s mother is eating poor-quality foods during the winter, that offspring has a better ability to eat; it’s going to eat them more readily, and its body is better able to utilize them. You know, it starts at one level, and you don’t think about it, but it ultimately links very strongly to what does it mean to be locally adapted to the landscapes we inhabit.

Fred Provenza 30:28
So, that was all great fun, I have to say, and pretty amazing. You do realize that everything is so linked. So, some simple observation like you made, “They run their nose across there and they don’t want it,” you know, I can think of ten reasons. And we used to do that with the short course we’d teach. We’d take them around and show people sheep doing things they’d never expect they’d do with foods. We used to say, “Well, how many different ways could an animal end up doing that? If you get into some of this “What’s going on?” and “Why is that going on?” it’s pretty amazing and fascinating. And then you realize all these creatures are doing these kinds of things, it’s pretty… Puts you in awe. It puts me in awe of the whole thing, anyway. You realize—and I say this in all truth—that you probably don’t know much at all about it, even, you know, spending 50 years working on it. But you can always do what you did; you can always observe, and then think, and then run your own experiment, you know? I often think of the French shepherds in that sense, because they really… What I know of them through my friend Michel Meuret and through some that I’ve met, they’re really into understanding behavior and relationships of animals with landscapes, and how, across a landscape, you do what I was talking about with bitterbrush and sagebrush, but then they’re looking across whole landscapes, and thinking about different habitat types, and how do we utilize all those habitat types, and how do we use some habitat type as appetizer to get them to utilize a habitat type that they might not want to utilize at all? It’s disgusting in theory, but in fact, it can be utilized if they have the right appetizer, and then, how do you boost your stages, and dessert stages; it’s incredibly, incredibly nuanced, you know?

Deborah Niemann 32:20
One of the things that intrigued me—because it always kind of bothered me that wormwood is supposed to be this natural dewormer, and yet people who sell these herbal dewormer concoctions talk about how they’re not palatable. The goats are not going to want to eat them, so you’re going to need to make these dosage balls, which involves sweeteners and stuff. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is like trying to get kids to take medicine by adding sugar to it.” So, I actually started growing my own wormwood to see like, “Well, how do goats really feel about wormwood?” And I discovered that some of them absolutely love it and will knock you down if they know you’ve got some. Like, they’re gonna come running at you and jump on you because they want it all. And others are gonna just completely turn their noses up at it. And unfortunately, my wormwood experiments got destroyed by too much rain, and I keep wanting to find some seeds and plant more of it to pick this up. But, I found it really interesting that it did reduce fecal egg counts and everything for goats that would eat what we would think are pretty large quantities of it, you know? So, I love the idea of, like, planting a medicinal goat herb garden. Many, many years ago, when I got started, there was somebody who said that they had that, and it was in a special pen where they had all these planted, and if a goat was looking a little off, they would just go put them in there and let them eat whatever they wanted. Did you ever do any research with medicinal herbs?

Fred Provenza 34:03
Oh, yeah, we sure did. And you raise two really, really important points. One, that individual variation, huh? That’s so, so important to understand and appreciate that. We did study after study after study where we would look at that and offer animals choices of different things—sheep and cattle, I’m thinking of now. And, you know, no two individuals ever selected the same combination of foods, and no individual ever selected the same foods from day to day. And when Clara Davis was doing her studies with babies given up for adoption back nearly 100 years ago in orphanages, they were finding exactly the same thing. They were studying the nutritional wisdom of people. They ran this study for six years, giving these young infants choices, day in and day out, of 34 different foods available seasonally, and simply showing that the young children could figure it out, and they could do what they needed to meet their needs. It was amazing. That variation among individuals… You know, we know each one of us is so unique a bloodhound can track us by our odors, we can be identified by our fingerprints, that same thing is happening with form and function inside of our bodies. So, that’s a key point you make.

Fred Provenza 35:17
The second point, though, is simply self-selection for something that an animal needs. And we did a lot of work that fits with what you found. You know, we were working with internal parasites, and when animals had heavy loads, if they had learned to use plants when they got high internal parasite loads, they would eat a lot of those plants. If we gave them a dewormer, they quit eating so much of those plants. So they were doing what yours did. We did many, many, many studies of self-medication in animals, not only for internal parasites, but one of the last studies we did that I think was so much fun and so neat was to show, with three different medicines and three different maladies, that sheep would learn to take the medicine they needed to rectify the malady that they had at the time. So, it wasn’t just that they can “self-medicate” in the general sense. They knew which medicine cured which malady, you know? But again, what we were showing is they needed to learn that; they didn’t just inherently know that, you know? They needed to have the experience. And we had mom involved in one set of those studies. And, yeah, we did studies that fit with what you’re saying.

Fred Provenza 36:33
I often think, too, there’s two ways to self-medicate. One is prophylactically—that is, preventatively. The other is therapeutically. And I think, when you have landscapes that have a diverse array of different plant species, and that are really what I refer to as “photochemically rich”—they have lots of different compounds in them. For those of us who used to follow animals around early in our careers, documenting what they were eating, you know, we’d see 3 to 5 to maybe 7 plants would make up the bulk of a diet in any one meal. But they need—on these diverse landscapes we were on—50-75 other species. And we didn’t think so much of that; that’s just what they do. You know, they ate a lot of things, and it makes it really complicated to analyze their diets. Basically, it’s mind-boggling. But I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. And I think those 50 to 75 others are just as important as the 3 to 5 that make up the bulk of the diet within a meal. Because that’s giving them this tremendous diversity of different phytochemicals that, at a cellular level, promote health. Cells can only forage on what’s in the capillaries, right? If you think of it as, like, a fish in a stream, this cell is foraging with all these thousands of receptor sites in its membrane. If it can get compounds that it needs, it can prevent errant kind of behavior, right? So, I’ve really changed my thought about that over time. I think that diversity really enables health of animals prophylactically, preventatively, when they can do that. And it’s neat to see now some of the “young people” doing research studies of that nowadays. I’m just loving reading about some of those, where they’re talking about if you have a very limited number of plant species versus more diverse, what’s that do for immune function, for nutrition, for physiological functions related to health? And yeah, it’s just showing what, to me, makes sense, you know, that that matters, just like it does in our diets, too. If you eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and if you eat meat that’s coming from animals that are “grass-fed,” that are eating really diverse arrays of different plant species, then you’re getting those compounds into your body through the plants, through the animals, and so forth.

Deborah Niemann 38:51
This has been so much fun. I cannot believe how the time has just flown by! And I could just keep going all afternoon; I could keep talking about this. This is so fascinating. And really, just so much fun. So, I really appreciate you joining me today. Do you have any final thoughts?

Fred Provenza 39:12
Well, I would just say thank you, Deborah, for having me on. And I love your experimental approach to things. I think it’s a relationship, right? Everything’s a relationship, and you get out of it what you put into it, right? But if you’re into it, and you’re putting a lot into it—and I loved listening to your stories about that, because it’s… I think that’s what it is. And it becomes really unique to each person, and each person’s family and landscape and so forth, and to put in the interest and the effort to figure it out. So, it’s been fun to visit with you, and keep up the good work on the podcasts, and on what you’re doing at your place.

Deborah Niemann 39:51
Thank you! It has been a lot of fun.

Deborah Niemann 39:55
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit, and you can follow us on Facebook at See you again next time. Bye for now!

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12 thoughts on “Nutritional Wisdom of Goats”

    • No. There are no foods that have enough selenium in them to provide enough selenium for a goat to replace a free choice goat mineral. Even with free choice goat minerals available, there are still people in the US who have to give additional selenium to avoid selenium deficiency. Most soil in the US is deficient (except in the Dakotas), so plants can’t have what doesn’t exist in the soil. A goat would have to consume impossible quantities of a plant to get enough selenium, which is why we have mixed minerals specifically made for goats. You need to find one that has 50 ppm selenium. Both Sweetlix Meat Maker and Purina Goat Mineral — LOOSE minerals only — have that much. Blocks don’t have anywhere near enough selenium in them, even made by those companies.

      • After reading through this, particularly the section regarding goats avoiding salt once they have enough, I am curious about the salt content in say Sweetlix Meat Maker and and Magnum Milk. They both have 50ppm of selenium but they also list salt as the 4th ingredient. The nutritional breakdown shows between 10 and 12 percent salt. Is this enough to affect the amount of selenium they get?

        • Hi Mary
          Minerals are mixed with a proportioned amount of salt to encourage a certain amount of the loose minerals per day.
          That being said, not all minerals are created equally 🙂 Some have very high salt content with few minerals.
          SweetLix MeatMaker is a great choice for most goats. The Magnum Milk is made for goats on high calcium diets, such as mostly alfalfa hay.
          Here is some great info for you on loose minerals.

  1. Thank you for this very informative podcast, Deborah! I have a question about free-range medicating. I started growing wormwood for the same reason you tried it, and first started offering it to my goats dried, and found they didn’t like it. However, on one of our walks, we got close to where it was growing and the goats went crazy for it! I figured it was what they needed and in the (fresh) form they needed it, and maybe they were getting parts of the plant I hadn’t offered them dried, but became concerned when I saw how MUCH they were eating. Can they poison themselves with fresh wormwood?

    • The only negative things I’ve heard about wormwood are that it can be addictive and that it can cause abortions. I’ve had goats eat quite a bit, both dried and fresh, and one time I had a doe get diarrhea, but I didn’t do anything, and the diarrhea went away on its own by the next day.


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