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.

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.

Alfalfa is too rich for male goats after about six to twelve months when their growth rate slows down, and it can lead to a zinc deficiency because of the high calcium content. 

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 six months old and have done most of their really fast growing. They don’t usually need goat feed after about six months, 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 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 a Rolaids with every meal.) If they never touch the baking soda, that’s great. 

Milkers need about 16% protein, which means that in addition to goat feed, they 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.

Some people who are familiar with cattle will warn you against this because 100 percent alfalfa diet for pregnant cows has been linked to hypocalcemia, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in goats. Hypocalcemia happens most often in does that are extremely high milk producers, and cattle have been bred for decades to produce far more than what nature ever intended, which is why I think they see so much more of it in cows that we do in goats.

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. 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. 

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. 

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

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25 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!

        Reply
        • 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.

          Reply
  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.

      Reply
  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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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

    Reply
  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.

      Reply
  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.

      Reply
  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.

      Reply
  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

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