Are You Feeding Straw or Hay for Goats?

Are You Feeding Straw or Hay for Goats?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If you dread choosing hay for goats, you are not alone … there is much to know about what to feed goats.

The primary source of goat nutrition is hay or forage. The secondary is a loose mineral. Depending on the quality of these, a goat may need nothing more. When feeding hay as a primary feed, nutritional analysis is critical to the health of your herd.

Many people have unknowingly starved their animals by offering what appeared to be hay for goats but had the nutritional value of straw. Protein/energy malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies from poor quality feed lead to a host of disease states. Chemical analysis is the only way to determine straw vs. hay.

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What is Hay Made of?

There are three types of hay: legume, grass, and cereal.

Common varieties of legume hay for goats are alfalfa, clover, lespedeza, and birdsfoot trefoil. Legume hay typically has the highest digestible energy, as the leaves do not change as the plant grows. The stems become courser and more fibrous, so the values are highest when the plant is young. The leaf-to-stem ratio is the most important criteria. Legumes can have as much as twice the protein and three times the calcium of grass hays, so they are the preferred hay for goat kids and lactating does.

Grass hay, such as timothy, orchard, brome, and bluegrass, is a suitable maintenance hay for goats. The leaves of grasses change as the plant matures, making grass hays more digestible when the plant is fine-stemmed and immature.

Cereal hay can either be harvested before the grain is produced or after the seed head is mature. Use caution when feeding cereal hay. If not properly harvested, there is a risk of nitrate poisoning. Cereal hay with seed heads must be fed with care to avoid bloat and urinary calculi.

What does cutting mean?

Hay is sold as first, second, or third cutting. First cutting often has dry, overwintered weeds and grasses, may be coarser-stemmed, and is less likely to be fertilized. Second cutting is generally the preferred hay for goats. It has less weeds, is finer-stemmed, fertilized, and grown during the optimal growing season. In areas with longer growing seasons, a third cutting or even higher may be available. Late season cuttings have the highest leaf to stem ratio.

How can You be Sure That the Hay You Buy is a Quality Hay for Goats?

Often the exterior of bales will bleach from sun exposure, but the interior of the bale shows good color. Photo Credit Karen Kopf


There are two types of analysis — visual and chemical.

Visual analysis considers:

  • stage of maturity
  • leaf to stem ratio
  • color
  • touch
  • smell
  • debris

To visually analyze hay for goats, it is best to break a bale open.

Maturity can be determined by stage of flower or seed head development. Hay should have a high leaf to stem ratio.

While we look for bright green hay, color can be deceiving. In alfalfa fields, the use of molybdenum can alter the color, making the hay greener. Sun can also bleach the exterior of bales, turning them yellow. Always sample from the inside of the bale. If hay is rained on and redried or overcured, it will be yellow or brown throughout. Good hay should bend easily; if it snaps, it has high fiber and low digestibility. Bales should flake easily and not stick together. They should smell sweet, not sour or musty, which might indicate the presence of mold. Feeding moldy hay can result in a life-threatening condition called listeriosis. Bales should be free of debris. Dirt not only increases the weight of the bale, and your cost, but contributes to respiratory issues when breathed as dust. Rocks are hard on teeth and rumens.

Debris in a bale. Photo Credit Karen Kopf

Hay harvested from roadsides and ditches is often contaminated with litter that can cause obstruction when ingested by the goat. Look for toxic and nuisance weeds such as foxtail, which can cause mechanical injury. In alfalfa, avoid blister beetles which produce cantharidin, toxic to people and animals.

Beyond visual analysis is palatability. For this, your goats are the best judge. If they will not eat it, don’t buy it. Most farmers will allow you to purchase a sample bale before committing to tonnage. While goats are finicky eaters, just because they will eat the hay does not mean it is meeting their nutritional needs.

Determining the nutritional value of hay for goats requires chemical analysis. Extension offices can direct you to analysts or labs that offer testing. Farmers that test will mention test results in their ads.

Taking a core sample. Photo Credit Karen Kopf

How is Hay Tested?

Ideally, hay is tested by core samples taken from multiple bales in the stack or field. Testing only a handful, a flake, or bale is not representative of the hay crop. Soil quality and growing conditions can vary within the same field. The chips from the core sample represent a wider geographic area and give the average of the crop on the field.

Photo Credit Karen Kopf

If you do not have an analyst in your area, the tools required for sampling are a hay borer and a sealable plastic bag. Hay borers are available online for $150. Chips are put into the bag and sent to a lab. Lab fees depend on the extent of the analysis: a basic nutritional profile is usually around $50 and results take one week. It is a very simple process for the farmer or hay consumer.

If it is so Simple, Why Doesn’t Everyone Test?

Barriers to testing range from costs to lack of availability of analysts or labs. Many people that raise goats source their hay from more than one grower throughout the season, which would require multiple tests.

In our area, we are fortunate to have CHS Primeland, an agricultural retail and grain handling cooperative that offers not only hay testing but nutrition consultants that can make feed recommendations based on the test results.

For this article, we tested a stack of timothy hay, a common grass hay. The unaffiliated grower had a range of quality standards available — this stack was rated excellent and priced at a premium. The hay passed all elements of visual analysis and the goats were eager to eat it.

The test results revealed that the hay had a protein content of 3.4 percent. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, hay for goats should be 7 percent at a minimum for maintenance. Below that, the rumen is compromised as ruminal microbes require protein. Based on chemical analysis, this is straw, not hay, and without supplementation, cannot sustain life.


Beyond fiber level and protein, analysis gives mineral data. Calcium deficiency can lead to complications with kidding and lactation. The ratio of calcium to phosphorus is critical to urinary calculi prevention in bucks and wethers. Copper is an essential nutrient for goats. Sulfur, iron, and molybdenum bind copper: one part molybdenum ties up six parts of copper. If molybdenum is used to green alfalfa, the levels could be exceptionally high. In this analysis, all of the copper is bound, which indicates a need for supplementation. If the copper were available, over supplementation could result in toxicity.

Moisture content should be below 15 percent or there is a risk of mold or combustion.

The cost of chemical analysis in this case would be cost saving. To begin, the hay is a poor investment and the same money could be spent on a quality hay for goats that would require little or no supplementation, such as alfalfa which varies from 12-20 percent crude protein.

No hay is perfect, which is why nutritional analysis is critical. Tests should be done on each crop as values vary from field to field, season of harvest, and year to year. Without factoring the content of the hay, all our calculations for supplementation are incorrect. Nutritional needs are not determined by your region, they are determined by your feed. Just because your neighbor’s goats need supplementation does not mean yours do, unless you are feeding the same hay and have goats at similar life stages. Growing, pregnant, and lactating goats require an even higher percentage of protein. Most commercial feed for goats ranges between 11-18 percent protein. Hay for goats should be in a similar range. The cost savings from eliminating the need for supplementation would more than pay for the test and result in fewer health care costs and better performance of the herd. Hay analysis is a worthwhile investment.

Photo Credit Karen Kopf
2 thoughts on “Are You Feeding Straw or Hay for Goats?”
  1. Absolutely love your backyard goats sites. I found your hay comments very informative. Especially for new goat owners. I am extremely careful with the hay that I buy for my goats. As they aren’t able to forage, l have to make sure they get the best and freshest hay, possible. Making sure they have the correct vitamins and minerals that they need, daily.

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