Can Goats Eat Christmas Trees?
Can goats eat pine trees? Yes, but that Christmas tree might be another story.
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Can goats eat Christmas trees? The simple answer is yes, they can. The real question is whether goats should.
What are the benefits and what are the risks of feeding your goats Christmas trees?
Cherrie Nolden has been raising goats since 2008 and has a herd of 200 goats and growing in Wisconsin. She is particularly interested in using immune system approaches to control parasites in grazing animals. Cherrie has compiled numerous studies on the topic to dispel the notion that pine trees cause abortions in goats and confirm the belief that certain pine compounds, also found in spruce and fir, have an anthelmintic — or deworming — effect.
Despite all of the research demonstrating the benefits of tannins found in conifers, Cherrie cautions, “Serious consideration should be given when feeding Christmas trees to goats. Even though the literature says trees pose little risk, it does not consider the chemicals used in commercial production. Different species of trees and combinations of chemicals could have adverse effects on pregnancy and general health.”
If you want to feed Christmas trees to your goats, it is important to know the tree’s origin. It can be challenging to research which chemicals were used on trees, as producers are not required to disclose this on labels. Retail trees can ship from anywhere, and growing practices vary from farm to farm and state to state. Sourcing trees from local or identified growers allow you to inquire about their growing practices to determine if they are safe for your goats. Note that producers can even treat “organic” trees with toxic compounds. Trees harvested naturally are safest.
Commercial trees are raised as ornamental decorations — not as food — and are not subject to the same restrictions as to food crops. By the time they are harvested as Christmas decorations, most trees are between seven and 12 years old. They can be treated with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, growth regulators, color enhancers, and flame retardants during their lifespan. Residue can accumulate in all parts of the tree, depending on how the chemical was applied. Some producers apply substances to the soil, spray others directly on the tree, and inject others into the trunk.
In an interview with organicconsumers.org, Dr. Thomas Arcury, Ph.D., professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, stated that “Many pesticides will have been removed by rain and ultraviolet light by the time they are harvested. However, some will remain, and in particular, one, the systemic pesticide DiSyston 15-G, may be present in the tree.” DiSyston was the most popular insecticide in 2000 among North Carolina Christmas tree growers, according to their annual producer survey. In 2018 it was Sniper. A quick search for Sniper on the epa.gov website returns the chemical label stating that livestock should not be allowed to graze areas treated with Sniper, nor should hay or fodder be harvested from treated crops.
While you can search chemical labels on the EPA website, full disclosure is generally unavailable, as labeled products can contain three different categories of ingredients: active, inert, and contaminants. They do not need to disclose inert ingredients and contaminants, which can be harmless fillers, enhance the potency of the active ingredient, or be toxic themselves.
WBZ-TV, Bolton, Massachussetts, ran a story by Paula Ebben in December 2017. Christmas trees, sourced at a local big box store, were given to goats with adverse health effects later attributed to a color enhancer used on the “natural” trees.
Dinocide, chlorpyrifos, and lindane are examples of insecticides/pesticides used in Christmas trees. The Dinocide label states: “Not to be used on trees that produce a food crop within one year of application, and that any fruit yield must be discarded.” In August of 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule revoking all “tolerances” for chlorpyrifos residue in food. Lindane has been called the most benign of the pesticides in use, but it is known to “bio-concentrate” and “bio-accumulate.” According to the EPA, “When people are exposed to lindane through food, water, or the atmosphere, they will accumulate lindane residues in their fatty tissues, and these lindane residues will remain there for an undetermined amount of time. Infants will be exposed if they are fed breast milk containing residues of lindane. Although the Agency cannot quantify risks at this time or determine whether current exposures to lindane result in any harm, we recognize the potential for adverse effects.” Lindane is banned in 52 countries, restricted or severely restricted in 33 countries, not registered in 10 countries, and registered in 17 countries. The biggest challenge to evaluating risk is that there are no studies on the effects of ingesting chemical residues in Christmas trees. Many chemicals that were once considered safe are now officially classified as unsafe.
Chemicals are not the only risk when feeding Christmas trees to goats.
Given the opportunity, goats eat naturally growing trees. For some goats, trees are a regular part of their diet; for others, they are novel. Novel feedstuffs in a ruminant’s diet can present problems. Introduce any new feed to a ruminant in moderation. Evergreen trees are high in tannins and resin, which can disrupt the rumen microbes.
Farms begin cutting in mid-November, so trees discarded after Christmas can already be up to six weeks old. How long they last depends on the species and if they use chemical preservatives. Some water additives to preserve the tree contain chemicals unfit for consumption. Dry trees are not necessarily brown; they can remain green. Dry needles are a bit more challenging to digest than fresh needles.
Wendy, in southeast Ohio, shared the story of her wether, Dash, who suffered a dry needle impaction. “I often gave small boughs of fresh pine to the growing goat kids. After the holidays, I lugged the tree outdoors, and it lay in place until February. I had heard of folks tossing their trees into the goat pen, so I carefully gleaned through the tree for ornament hooks, knowing they could be deadly … but I never once thought a dry pine might also prove deadly. I mean … the goats enjoyed dry hay. They loved fresh pine, so why not the dry tree? I noticed my little wether, the most assertive, was not himself, so I took him to the vet. He was diagnosed with polio, likely caused by pine needle impaction. I assume he ate most of the tree, forgoing his hay. With his brain swelling misery, I opted to have my dear sweet goat — that I, in ignorance, had misfed — put down. I learned a very painful lesson that cold winter day.”
Can goats eat Christmas trees? Yes, if you pay attention to the details. The goal for all is a happy, not heartbreaking, holiday. Without a doubt, goats love Christmas trees almost as much — if not more — than people do. It is incredibly entertaining to watch goats eat Christmas trees. If you anticipate sharing the joy of the season with your goats, source your tree with your goats in mind, ensuring that it is not only fit for your celebration but safe for your goat to eat. Also, remember that moderation is key for all of us, including goats, when consuming seasonal treats!
Karen Kopf and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Troy, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or kikogoats.org
Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.