Don’t Fear the Fats
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As goats are herbivores, fats aren’t the first nutrient that comes to mind when thinking about healthful goat diets. On the contrary, fats — specifically fatty acids — are essential in ruminant diets. Not only are they a vital source of energy, but dietary fats can also enhance milkfat and other components in dairy does. Understanding them, and increasing them, when necessary, takes a bit of nutritional know-how.
While they have similar digestion systems to cattle, goats ruminate on forages for a shorter time. This means they don’t break down the tough cell walls of plants quite as well. Goats have an advantage, though — as browsers, they will naturally select for more nutritionally dense plants. But sufficiently high-quality pastures are seldom a guarantee or even an available source of feed all year long. Because of this, the concentrate, or grain-derived, portion for domestic goats needs to be sufficient in fats.
Consider the rumen
Remember: a ruminant does not have four stomachs but rather a digestive system comprised of four different compartments. The rumen itself is a fermentation vat where the “bugs,” or symbiotic microorganisms, break down feedstuffs. The resulting components include sugar, starch, carbohydrates, and fat which convert into the volatile fatty acids that the animal will absorb and use as an energy source.
The tricky thing about fats, in particular, is that, while they are an excellent energy source, they are limited in the diet. According to North Carolina State University, added dietary fat should never take up more than 5% of the ration for goats. Too much of it can decrease rumen fermentation by killing off large parts of the microbiome. This is why you should never add oils directly to grain as a supplement. Even high-fat feed ingredients and oil-containing seeds need to be fed strategically.
How much energy a goat is receiving can be the limiting factor in how the bodily systems perform. How much you should include high-fat and high-energy ingredients varies considerably based on where your goats are at in their lifecycle.
For example, needs of lactating goats and growing kids, especially market kids, will be significantly higher than pet wethers. Some research has even found that feeding extra fats can enhance the milk components. But to prevent harm to the rumen — and wasted expensive feed which could end up being stored as fat — providing extra fats should be done based on need and come from sufficient forages, cereals, and oilseeds.
The role of fat
In general, fats are very high in energy and provide more than twice the amount of energy compared to carbohydrates on a weight basis. The fat content of ruminant diets is generally low because many plants have a lower fat content — mostly from the plant waxes. The fats found in grains are not only more abundant, but they’re also notably more digestible.
As previously stated, feeding oils and other direct forms of fat directly to goats is a bad idea. However, some feed additives are high in digestible fat and specifically treated as “inactivated” while in the rumen. These are sometimes referred to as “bypass” fats and are sometimes used in dairy cattle diets.
Besides milk, the demand for extra fat can increase late in digestion as demands for fetal development increase. Early in lactation, whether a doe is being milked or actively nursing, the need for fats is also quite high because fatty acids are metabolized to support milk synthesis.
Many nutritionists recommend looking at adjusting the ration in the last six to eight weeks of gestation. In this time frame, grain can be slowly increased or readjusted to provide additional nutrients and prepare the doe more naturally for the higher energy diet she will need throughout her lactation.
Before adding more fat to your goats’ diet, be sure to have the ration professionally evaluated to ensure that you stay within the 5% parameters for added fats. Again, if you have animals that are not in a demanding state in their life, chances are adding fats will not be worth the time nor expense.
But when you are looking at a way to add that in, consider looking at high-energy feedstuffs like corn and corn gluten feed, wheat middlings, soybean hulls and meal, and whole cottonseed. You can feed some specialty additives made for cattle as bypass fats without putting extra strain on the rumen. These are not yet explicitly made for goats, but depending on what other feed ingredients are available, they may be incorporated while working with a nutritionist.
- Savoini, Giovanni, et al. “Effects of Fat Supplementation in Dairy Goats on Lipid Metabolism and Health Status.” Animals: an Open Access Journal from MDPI, MDPI, 4 Nov. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6912558/.
- Luginbuhl, JM. “Nutritional Feeding Management of Meat Goats: NC State EXTENSION PUBLICATIONS.” Nutritional Feeding Management of Meat Goats | NC State Extension Publications, content.ces.ncsu.edu/nutritional-feeding-management-of-meat-goats.
- “Goat Nutrition.” Goats, 14 Aug. 2019, goats.extension.org/goat-nutrition/.
Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.