What do goats eat? It depends!

goats eating grass

Many new or aspiring goat owners ask what goats eat and expect a short, simple answers. Some just expect you to say, “Everything!” because they even eat tin cans, right? Um, no, they don’t eat tin cans. And they don’t eat everything. Compared to cows, goats actually have a fairly sensitive digestive system, so it’s fairly easy to create a problem.

The answer to the question depends on gender, age, stress, health, pregnancy, and milking status. In general, goats are browsers, which means they prefer to eat small trees and bushes. They are not naturally grazers, but they will eat grass, if there isn’t anything else growing in their pasture.

Goats never lived in the wild in North America, and we don’t have what they need to thrive in most areas. (So-called mountain goats are actually members of the antelope family.) Goats originally came from mountains and deserts in Africa, Asia, and Europe. That means we must pay special attention to their diet. It’s not as simple as sheep and cows, which are grazers. In addition to everything listed below, all goats need 24/7 access to a high quality loose goat mineral.

What do male goats eat?

As a rule, bucks and wethers (castrated males) should not have grain because it can cause urinary stones. (Goat “feeds” are made of grain.) During breeding season, however, some bucks may lose quite a bit of weight because they are fighting with each other, breeding does, and not taking the time to eat much. If you have a buck that’s losing a lot of weight, you can give him some goat feed for a short time to get him back into condition. You should not feed individual or mixed grains, such as corn, oats, barley, etc because they are high in fat and carbohydrates and low in protein, so they are not that nutritious. 

When you feed any type of grain (goat feed) to bucks, you need to provide baking soda free choice so that he can self medicate if the grain upsets his rumen — especially when you first start feeding him the supplemental grain, which should be introduced gradually.

It’s also a good idea to get a goat feed for male goats that has ammonium chloride in it to prevent the formation of urinary stones. Bucks and wethers have such a small urethra that even the tiniest stone can cause a blockage and kill them. According to Sheep, Goat, and Cervid Medicine (2021), struvite (magnesium ammonium phosphate) and apatite (calcium phosphate)  are commonly seen in goats fed high-grain diets.

Wethers are especially easy keepers, and it’s easy to kill them with kindness. Since they are not growing babies or producing milk or sperm, they have a pretty easy life. They do well on pasture, browse, and a good grass hay after they have reached about 50% of their adult weight, which usually happens between 6 and 12 months of age. These ages are just a guideline. Size is the most important factor as some goats can be small for their age if they had a serious parasite challenge as a young kid. On the flip side, they can grow much faster if they mother was a bucket busting milker. 

Can male goats eat alfalfa?

Alfalfa is too rich for male goats after 6 to 12 months when their growth rate slows down, and it can lead to a zinc deficiency because of the high calcium content. Calcium is a zinc antagonist, which means that it can bind with the zinc making it unavailable for the goat to absorb, even if the goat is consuming enough zinc. 

Alfalfa can also cause urinary stones. Some people mistakenly believe that only grain can cause stones, but there are several different types of stones, and different types of stones are the result of consuming different types of feedstuff. According to Sheep, Goat, and Cervid Medicine (2021), goats “consuming legumes are predisposed to calcium carbonate uroliths.” 

What do female goats eat?

The answer to this depends on whether does are pregnant, milking, or dry, meaning not milking. Dry does are fed very similarly to bucks and wethers after they are about 6 to 12 months old and have done most of their really fast growing. Again, size is more important than age, and that can vary tremendously from goat to goat. They don’t usually need goat feed after they’ve reached about 50% of their adult weight, although if you plan to breed them, you can feed them alfalfa hay rather than grass hay

When does are in milk they need grain in the form of a 16% protein commercial goat feed, which will have additional vitamins and minerals added. It is not a good idea to feed something like corn, which is high in fat and carbohydrates with very low protein.

As with bucks, if female goats are eating grain, they should also have baking soda available in case of an occasional rumen upset. Please do not add baking soda to their grain. (That would be like us eating Tums with every meal.) If they never touch the baking soda, that’s great. 

Milkers also need alfalfa hay, which is high in protein and calcium. 

goat eating hay

Many does are milking the first three months of pregnancy, which means they are eating grain and alfalfa hay. You should stop milking about two months before the due date so that all of the doe’s energy can go towards growing the babies. Although you don’t need to continue feeding grain during pregnancy, you should continue feeding alfalfa. At least 50 percent of the pregnant goat’s hay should be alfalfa (or another legume such as peanut hay) because she needs the high calcium for growing babies. If you have access to 100 percent alfalfa, it’s fine to feed that.

The closer you get to the end of pregnancy, the faster the kids are growing, so if you are not feeding 100% alfalfa hay, then you should feed a small amount of grain to boost the protein content of the doe’s diet. 

Some people who are familiar with cattle will warn you against feeding 100 percent alfalfa to your goats because research in cows has linked a diet high in alfalfa to hypocalcemia, but that is not the case in goats. Hypocalcemia happens most often in goats towards the end of pregnancy because they are growing multiple fetuses, whereas it happens in cows after freshening because of their extremely high milk production. 

Check out my interview with Dr. Robert VanSaun, a vet professor and ruminant nutritionist at Pennsylvania State University, about hypocalcemia in goats and how it is different from cows.

What do baby goats eat?

When kids are first born, they should get their mother’s colostrum within six hours of birth, or they will probably die. The textbooks say that they need at least five percent of their body weight in colostrum within the first six hours and 10 percent of their body weight in the first 24 hours but up to 20% of their body weight is great. If a kid is healthy and nursing vigorously, they will get that without any problem. The numbers are for us human when we have to bottle feed. Here is a post on the basics of bottle feeding baby goats. 

baby goat in a bottle

When baby goats are dam raised, meaning raised by mom, they will imitate her and start to nibble on grain and hay within a few days of birth. They are not getting a substantial amount of  nutrients from the solids though. The vast majority of their nutrition will come from their mother’s milk for the first two months at least. In addition to a lot of protein and calcium, which they need for rapid growth, they also get antibodies from the mom that help to keep them healthy as their own immune system matures. Because of the nature of the goat placenta, there is not as much transfer of antibodies at birth as there is with other mammals, such as humans. 

baby goat nursing

If a baby goat has been nursing on mom, it should never be sold to a new goat owner unless it has been completely trained to take a bottle, which will take several days. I have received a frustrating number of emails from people who’ve been sold kids as young as three weeks old and told that they’re eating now so don’t need milk any longer or that they’ll take a bottle if they want it. Neither of those things is true and will lead to a kid that will not grow well and will have problems with coccidiosis and worm overloads, which may ultimately lead to death. Some of these kids also get dehydrated and die because they are not drinking enough water. 

When do baby goats start eating grain and hay?

If you are bottle feeding and the kids have no adults to imitate, they may not start to eat hay or grain until closer to a month old. This is why I discourage people from raising baby goats in the house. Even if the kids don’t appear to be eating anything, you should have hay available for them 24/7, which is kind of messy in your living room. Like human kids, goat kids put everything in their mouth, so if the hay is there all the time, they’ll eventually put it in their mouth and figure out that they can chew and taste and swallow and all of that good stuff. If they are in your house, they might try things like paper and electrical cords. 

Can goats eat corn, wheat, barley, oats, and other grains?

There is no place for simple grains in a goat’s diet beyond a handful once or twice a week as a treat. Think of individual grains as goat candy. Corn, wheat, barley, and oats are not good for goats. They are high in carbs and low in protein. Milking does need 16% protein in a goat feed, and simple grains have half that or less.

Grain can cause urinary stones in male goats, and it offers zero benefit to them. If you have a male goat that has lost a lot of weight due to parasites or a similar stressor, you can temporarily feed him the 16% goat feed because he needs protein to rebuild lost muscle mass.

What should goats not eat?

Please don’t feed your goats things that they would never eat in nature, such as dog biscuits or human cookies. Dog biscuits have meat in them, and goats are vegetarians with a rumen. The last thing they should be consuming is meat.

You also don’t want to feed them any of our processed human food like white bread, pastries, and cookies that are totally lacking fiber. Concentrated sugar found in cookies can cause a goat’s blood sugar to go unnaturally high.

An occasional tortilla chip that is just corn, corn oil, and salt won’t hurt them, but it should definitely be an occasional treat.

 


 

goats eating leaves from small branches

34 thoughts on “What do goats eat? It depends!”

  1. I have gradually increased the grain and alfalfa pellets (we do not have alfalfa hay) to our does who kidded a few weeks ago. One of them seems to always want more though. I know there is not a one size fits all but can you give at least a range of what a healthy Nigerian Dwarf doe who is nursing babies and soon to be milking should be consuming in grain and alfalfa pellets a day? What is the most you have ever fed to a doe who is nursing 3 babies? I just don’t want to give too much. I’m pretty sure you have said in the past that they can have as much alfalfa as they want, so I am especially interested in what you might say about grain amounts. ( The doe in question is our best milker. she has three babies right now and when we milk her once a day will give about a quart and a half. She currently has access to grass hay and a mostly grass pasture.) Thanks!

    Reply
    • Yes, she can have as much alfalfa as she wants, as long as she is also getting some long-stemmed forage in the pasture. You did not say how long ago she kidded, but since you are milking her, I hope the kids are at least 2 months old. There is no way she can produce enough to feed triplets AND you at the same time if the kids are less than 2 months. If the kids are older, and you are separating her overnight and get a quart and a half after 12 hours, then she is producing about 3 quarts a day, which is at the top end of production for a ND, which makes me worry that her kids are less than 2 months. (Assuming these are Nigerian dwarf since they’re triplets, they need almost a quart a day per kid for optimal growth and health.) “They” say 1 pound of grain for every 3 pounds of milk, so 12 pounds of milk would be 4 pounds of grain (goat feed). Most goat feeds have recommended feeding amounts on the label, so you can also see what that says.

      Reply
      • We are currently not milking her because her kids are only 4 weeks right now, but in the past at the top of her production, she would give a quart and a half – usually leveling off to about a quart a day. Thanks!

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        • Hopefully she is producing more than a quart and a half a day because triplets won’t really thrive on that little milk. They will grow, but it will be slow, and they’ll be likely to have problems with coccidiosis and worms. Based on your first post, it sounds like that’s what you get when milking once a day, so that would be good.

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  2. I have been feeding my young goats grain. I have Pygmy’s and Nigerian Dwarfs. They are all just about 6 months old now. I will tapper off their corn and oats. Can I still feed them 12% sweet feed pellets, Purina goat ration and sunflower seeds? If so, how much should they get? They have lots of forage and brome hay, as well. Thank you!

    Reply
    • They should not be getting any corn or oats at all (unless it is part of a commercial goat grain). That is just carbs and fat. If you are talking about an all-stock sweet feed, that is basically like candy, and it should also be eliminated. Dumor has a “goat sweet feed” that is well balanced nutritionally, and you can feed that. OR just continue to feed the Purina. Purina goat feeds are good, and that is all that kids need. If you are feeding the medicated version, you should switch to non-medicated. It is only for use at times when coccidiosis is a high risk, such as weaning. Kids also do not need sunflower seeds. That is only for milkers, as it has been shown to increase butterfat. They can have all of the forage and hay that they can eat.

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  3. Any suggestions for mixing your own feed ration (grain) while avoiding transgenic grains? We’ve been avoiding commercial goat feed for this reason. Are we seriously shortchanging our milkers by doing so?

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    • We tried doing this many years ago with terrible results. I haven’t found anyone who has been really successful doing this. In fact, I’ve been contacted by several people who are having all sorts of problems with their goats (infertility, birthing, c-sections, mineral deficiencies) because they refuse to feed them anything other than organic grain, but they can’t get any specific mineral mixes for goats, so they are just giving them organic corn, oats, etc. Most grains other than soy are just carbs and fat, which goats don’t need, so if you don’t want your goats to have any GMO grains, then you’d be better of just trying to transition to no grains at all. Milkers need a lot of protein.

      The only person I know who has successfully created a no-grain herd feeds a lot of alfalfa, and she said that she has never been able to take a goat off of grain entirely if they’ve eaten it in the past, but if they get no grain from birth, they will do great. She is also in Oregon, so her goats get quite a bit of browse.

      If it makes you feel better, we have been feeding commercial feed (non-organic) for about 15 years, and the only goat to ever get cancer was a white goat with pink skin that got skin cancer under her tail, which is not uncommon in white goats with pink skin. Most of our goats live long, healthy lives and die in their sleep. We just lost our oldest doe at 16 1/2 years, so I worry a lot less now than I used to about the fact that they are not eating a diet that is totally organic. Our pastures are totally organic though, so there is that.

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  4. How would you handle a mixed population of goats. I have a nursing mom, her non nursing sister and a doeling and a buckling. They all eat together and I have no way to feed them separately.

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    • It sounds like you only have one goat that needs grain? If you are planning to milk the mama, it’s a great idea to start feeding her on the milk stand as early as possible, even if you are not milking her yet. That provides a great training opportunity. Step #1 is getting her to jump up on the milk stand, which she will happily do once she realizes there is grain up there. Here is more on learning to milk a goat —
      https://thriftyhomesteader.com/learning-to-milk-goa/

      Reply
  5. As we are drying off our does we are backing way off on the grain (a 16% dairy goat blend) and going with alfalfa pellets as well as a grass mix hay. We typically feed the pellets once per day. Should we eliminate the grain 100%? I also heard you should give them the added protein just prior to birth. They have hay access 24/7

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  6. i have a momma with 3 weak old male i feed sweet mix alfa hey and grass hey with a salt block on the side sweet mix is a coffee can full a day both hey all time salt and water all time whats your thoughts oh they are mini nubians mom is 2 yrs

    Reply
    • If you mean you feed her an all-stock sweet feed, that’s the equivalent of candy. They have no added minerals, just molassses with high carb grains, so also very low protein. She needs a good goat grain with about 16% protein like Purina Goat Chow. Dumor has a goat grain they call sweet feed for goats, and that is a good one because it does have added minerals. Check the tag to be sure it has at least 35 ppm copper.

      Goats do NOT need a salt block. They should have a free choice, loose “goat mineral,” NOT a “sheep and goat” mineral because it won’t have enough copper. It should be loose, NOT a block because goats have a small, soft tongue and have trouble getting enough of the mineral off a block. The mixed mineral has plenty of salt in it. If she just had one kid, she may already be deficient in selenium and/or copper, which are important for fertility because goats usually have twins.

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  7. This may seem like a silly question, but how long a goat considered a baby? We are picking up twin Pygmy mixes this week. They are brother/sister and are 3 months old, newly weaned from their momma. They are getting one flake of brome hay in the morning and evening. Should we follow the guidelines for the adults or babies? If babies, for how long? Thank you! I gave found your podcast incredibly helpful as we’ve prepared to launch into the world of keeping goats!

    Reply
    • If all you are giving them is a grass hay, you will just continue to do that forever. Unless you have really tiny flakes, I can’t imagine they will finish two flakes a day. But whenever they do eat all of it, you will just give them more hay. Hopefully they also have access to pasture and perhaps some browse.

      If you were giving them alfalfa or grain, you would stop that when they are somewhere between 6-9 months old, whenever you run out of your supply of alfalfa or grain. They do most of their really fast growing by 6 months, assuming they are healthy and have been growing normally, so they don’t really need a lot of calories and calcium after that.

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  8. Just found your site and all of the info is so very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing! We are picking up (4) Nigerians this week. Ages 3, 3, 4, and 5 years. Their current owner is feeding alfalfa/grass hay mix. 2x/day. And goat grain at night. She didn’t mention minerals, I’ll have to ask about that. They won’t have access to pasture, and will only be able to browse if we are able to take them out on a harness/leash (until we are able to fence more of our property). Can you tell me what I should be looking for in grains and minerals to supplement that alfalfa/grass hay? We are in Oregon if that helps. Thank you ☺️

    Reply
    • The answer depends on whether they are dry does, pregnant does, does in milk, bucks, or wethers. I explain the difference in the diet of all these in the article above. It doesn’t sound like any of these goats actually need grain because you didn’t mention milking any of them. Feeding grain to dry does will just make them fat, and feeding grain to bucks and wethers can can urinary stones.

      Here is more info about minerals:
      https://thriftyhomesteader.com/goat-minerals/

      Reply
  9. Hello! I am 2 Nigerian goat bucks as pets (no breeding). They are 9 months old now and everything I’ve researched on what they eat is so conflicting and I feel like I’m doing everything wrong. We’ve been giving them about 1/2c of grain twice a day (a mixture of Dumor goat sweet formula and Dumor goat pelleted formula) since we first got them and they seem to be doing fine! Of course we give them hay also, and an occasional cheerio or animal cracker. What has been consistent from what I’ve read is giving loose goat minerals which I will start doing. I only have 2 so their grazing area isn’t ridiculously big but we do let them out to roam in the yard often. Any help would be greatly appreciated. They are my babies and I wanna make sure they are healthy and happy! Thank you!!

    Reply
    • The reason you see so much conflicting info is because … it depends! You didn’t mention if they are male or female, pets or breeding animals, etc. The post above explains how all of that matters.

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  10. With bottle babies, how do you introduce feed? They are in an outdoor nursery. The floor is hay. I’ve put down dog bowls of alfalfa hay. Should I mix grain in it? What age do I give them minerals? They are currently getting momma’s milk in a bottle. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    Beth

    Reply
    • You do NOT want them eating hay off the ground. That’s how they get worms and coccidia. You should use something that is not tasty, such as wood shavings or straw for bedding. You also do not want to put hay in a bowl because they will poop and pee on it. You need a hay feeder so that it is above them. There is an old saying that goats should never eat below their knees. Goats learn best by example, so dam-raised kids learn from their mom and start nibbling at hay when they are only a few days old. If they don’t have any examples, it can take a month or longer for the to figure it out.

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  11. Wow. I do not currently have goats but they are on the list. This was a perfect article for no-nonsense information. Thank you.
    New fan.

    Reply
  12. I have two 5 month old wethers. I got them at two months of age and they were on the bottle. I see in some of your discussions that you recommend they be milked up to five months of age which I have continued they’re down to about 8 ounces a day each. I also give them goat feed about a half cup each twice a day. They don’t seem to show much interest in hay even though it is constantly available to them. I only see them nibbling occasionally. They always seem to be hungry. They don’t always finish their grain though. I have made baking soda and loose minerals available which they occasionally eat. They seem healthy and they run around and they are active but I think their bellies look particularly large. Would that be any indication of worms and how often should they be wormed. Their poop seems to be normal beads – No diarrhea

    Reply
    • The worm that causes the most trouble for goats is barber pole, which causes anemia, so if you pull down their eyelid, you can get an idea of their status. It should be dark pink or red. White is definitely bad, but a light pink is also not great.

      This does not sound like a parasite problem though. When goats are parasitized, they eat, eat, eat because they are starving because they are either (1) anemic from barber pole, or (2) they have a different type of worm in their intestines, which is consuming the contents of intestines, so the goat can’t absorb the nutrients. Goats with worms have a big belly because they are eating all the time and stuffing themselves. I wonder if you are just expecting them to eat more than what’s normal?

      I wish I could see a picture of them, but in lieu of that, could you tell me how much they weigh? What breed are they?

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  13. We are getting our first 3 goats this coming weekend (all females over 6 months old). The current owner has hay readily available but also feeds them a mix of goat feed pellets and sweet feed twice a day. We have our separate feeding bowls with mineral and baking soda ready and are picking up hay on Friday. We don’t want to discontinue the feed if that is what the goats are used to, so we also purchased a bag of each feed. However, we would like to minimize how much feed they are receiving since I’m reading that hay should be their primary food source. Is it ok to cut down on a food source they are used to receiving? Or should we just continue their same feeding schedule? Thank you for any advice to a new goat owner! I am learning a lot from your blog!

    Reply
    • It is absolutely safe AND desirable to remove grain from their diets, especially an all-stock sweet feed, which is just candy. The only grain goats should receive is in the form of a goat feed, which includes added minerals specific to goats. There is a “Dumor Sweet Goat Feed” that is a goat feed, and it’s irritating that they put the phrase “sweet feed” in the name because it’s confusing for people who are new to goats and/or don’t read the nutritional analysis and don’t know what it means. And not all goat feeds are created equal, so I can’t really say that any of this is okay without knowing the exact brands and varieties.

      If the goats are over six months and in good body condition, and you are not planning to breed them anytime soon, they could wind up overweight or even obese if you continue to feed them goat feed and/or sweet feed. Does that are not bred tend to have problems with being overweight, even if they are on a salad bar diet (pasture and hay only). What breed are these goats? How much do they weigh? Are you planning to breed them?

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  14. I just got a male and female baby goat and was told they are about 3 1/2 weeks old. The male is a little smaller then the female. I was told to bottle feed them whole milk. This is my second day with them and I believe they have never had a bottle before now. The female will drink a few ounces and then she is done. The male goat is having a harder time and doesn’t seem to be interested so I am having to try over and over again to get him to eat. I am a little worried about him and hope he starts to take the bottle. I was told I should try powdered goats milk mixed with water which might be easier for them to digest. I have water and hay in the area I keep them but I have never seen them drink water. I am a bit nervous and want them healthy.

    Reply
    • I’m so sorry this happened to you. This is a really unfortunate situation because it can be quite challenging to get kids that age to start taking a bottle, especially for someone who has never done it before. Using a Pritchard teat and bottle (available at Tractor Supply) is easier because you can squeeze the bottle to get a few drops out, which helps the kids get the idea that this is a way to get food. And even if they aren’t trying, you can eventually get the milk into them as they swallow every time you squeeze. And then after a few days they “get it.”

      They need 20% of their body weight in milk daily. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s whole cow milk or goat milk replacer. Just do NOT use an all-species milk replacer or a sheep milk replacer because that won’t have the nutrients that baby goats need to thrive. Here is an article about bottle feeding baby goats — https://thriftyhomesteader.com/bottle-feeding-goat-kids/

      Milk is 85% water so as long as they are getting 20% of their body weight in milk every day, they are getting plenty of water. Just keep the water available for them, and they’ll start drinking it eventually.

      Reply
  15. Triplets Nigerian Dwarf… 7 weeks old… 1 doeling and 2 bucklings… bucklings will become wethers in a few weeks if not sold as herd sires.
    They’re nursing and growing well.
    When I feed my adult does twice /day, I give the babies about 1/2 c broken down (in the blender) Timothy pellets, about 1/4 c of Goat text, and a little ground pumpkin seed.  They eat it all. They have access to grass hay 24/7, to alfalfa hay morning and night, loose minerals, loos salt and baking soda 24/7, and kelp every 3 days or so. 
    I’m not concerned about how to feed my does or doeling (I also have an adult buck and wether, and I’m ok with them), but I wonder about the bucklings and possibly wethers one day.  Am I correct in concluding from your article that those boys could have grain and alfalfa hay until they are about 6 months old even if they get wethered?  If that is correct, how much grain to give them as they grow?
    Thanks for sharing all that you share!

    Reply
    • Yes, they can have grain and alfalfa until they are about 50% of their adult weight, which usually happens somewhere between 6 and 12 months. I used to say 6 months based upon my experience, but the more people I help, the more I realize that a lot of kids didn’t get a great start in life and are underweight. So, it’s really about their size more than their age.

      I personally don’t feed kids separately. They get whatever they can eat while mom is finishing her grain, which is really not much. If you are going to feed them separately, I would not give them more than 1% of their body weight.

      It is NOT recommended to have a separate source of salt if your mixed mineral has salt in it. The salt in a mixed mineral is what drives consumption, and if the goats are consuming salt elsewhere, they will eat less of the minerals. Most minerals even include on their labels that there should be no other sources of salt available.

      Reply
      • Thanks Deborah,
        it’s useful to know how much and what to feed the boys. I feed the kids separately otherwise they are all over the adult does and that bothered them. The adults are tethered at their feeding station, and I’m busy milking, so I didn’t want to have kids get in trouble. They were nibbling out of the grown up buckets at first, but as they got bigger, I started separating them. It’s actually quite endearing to see them run to the stall. I’ll see if I can post a pic of the minerals label. I had checked that out with you over a year ago. I can’t see that there’s sodium in there… am I missing something? In addition to free feed minerals, I always put some in their individual feeders… somewhat less than what is the daily recommendation. Thanks for your feedback!

        Reply

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