What Is the Best Hay for Goats?

Can goats eat alfalfa, and is it the best feed for them?

What Is the Best Hay for Goats?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

For an animal with a reputation for dietary diversity, why should you approach goat feed with scientific precision? The answer is simple: To maximize the health of the animal. But what is the best hay for goats? 

As browsers (as opposed to grazers), goats eat a wide variety of plants from weeds to woody shrubs. Goats instinctively choose the most nutritious plants available. This means they stubbornly refuse to mow your lawn and instead will eat the weeds, bushes, leaves, and even barks of trees. (Think of them as “living weedwhackers” rather than “living lawnmowers.”) 

But during times when goats can’t browse, they must be fed. Caprines need roughage in the form of about two to four pounds of hay per day (3% to 4% of body weight) for their rumens to function properly. This can be fed free-choice or twice a day. 

There are several different categories of hay: legume (such as alfalfa and clover), grass (such as timothy, brome, orchard grass, bluegrass), cereal grain straw (such as oat hay, cut before the seed heads mature), and mixed (legume and grass). Hay also has regional variations. Timothy is common in northern areas, whereas brome, orchardgrass, and Bermuda grass are more common in the south. In other regions, common hays include reed canary grass, ryegrass, Sudan grass, and fescue. 

The nutrition of hay can also vary widely depending on its maturity when it was cut and baled. A hay’s protein content and Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) should be below 35% for goats. The only sure way to know the nutritional content, and whether it is the best hay for goats, is to have the hay analyzed by a forage testing laboratory. The higher the fiber content, the lower the digestibility (even if the protein level is high). As a rule of thumb, leafy hays have higher nutritional value than stemmier hays. Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) must also be factored in, which is the sum of the digestible fiber, protein, lipid, and carbohydrate components of a feedstuff or diet. (TDN is directly related to digestible energy and is often calculated based on ADF.) 

Sample Hay Analyses 

On average, different types of common hays have the following nutritional analyses: 

Alfalfa 

  • Crude protein: 19% 
  • Crude fiber: 26% 
  • TDN: 61% 


Timothy 

  • Crude protein: 8% 
  • Crude fiber: 34% 
  • TDN: 57% 


Meadow grass 

  • Crude protein: 7% 
  • Crude fiber: 33% 
  • TDN: 50% 


Fescue 

  • Crude protein: 11% 
  • Crude fiber: 30% 
  • TDN: 52% 


Clover 

  • Crude protein: 15% 
  • Crude fiber: 30% 
  • TDN: 55% 


Brome 

  • Crude protein: 10% 
  • Crude fiber: 35% 
  • TDN: 55% 


Orchardgrass 

  • Crude protein: 10% 
  • Crude fiber: 34% 
  • TDN: 59% 


Bluegrass 

  • Crude protein: 6% 
  • Crude fiber: 40% 
  • TDN: 45% 


Oat hay 

  • Crude protein: 10% 
  • Crude fiber: 31% 
  • TDN: 54% 


Bermuda grass 

  • Crude protein: 10% 
  • Crude fiber: 29% 
  • TDN: 53% 


What Goats Need 

The bare minimum protein requirement for maintaining mature, healthy animals is 7% crude protein, though 8% is better. Anything below 6% reflects reduced feed intake and dietary digestibility. 

Dietary crude protein requirements are higher during growth, gestation, and lactation. A pregnant doe (late gestation) requires 12% crude protein (66% TDN), then between 9% and 11% as she lactates (60-65% TDN). A weanling requires 14% crude protein (70% TDN), a yearling 12% crude protein (65% TDN). Bucks can get by with 8% crude protein (60% TDN).

A pregnant goat needs an “ascending plane of nutrition.”  A doe’s nutritional level should be increased about six weeks ahead of kidding, by which point she will have sufficient nutrients for lactation. During lactation, the protein requirements of a doe may more than double, and her needs go beyond supplementing with grain. Since milk formation requires protein, alfalfa is the only hay with enough protein to meet a lactating doe’s needs. However, this protein intake must be increased gradually during pregnancy, not suddenly. 

Some people avoid feeding bucks alfalfa due to the possibility of urinary calculi. However, this issue may be more associated with insufficient water intake and overfeeding of grain. Goats won’t drink as much water if it’s foul, so make sure the animals have access to plenty of clean water. 

Problems with Hay 

Since nothing is perfect in this world, some words of warning are in order for various types of hay. 

Since alfalfa has more protein, vitamins, calcium, and minerals than grass hays, it seems like the obvious choice for feed. However, a diet of nothing but alfalfa diet is “too much of a good thing.” By itself, alfalfa is too high in calcium and protein for healthy goats and should be limited to sick, pregnant, or debilitated animals. Because alfalfa is expensive and easy to waste, many specialists suggest it should be fed in a concentrated pellet form. 

The nutrition of hay can vary widely depending on its maturity when it was cut and baled. The only sure way to know the nutritional content is to have the hay analyzed by a forage testing laboratory.

Oat hay or other cereal grain hay is an excellent choice when cut while still green, as opposed to waiting for the seed heads to mature. Cereal grain hays have a small risk of nitrate poisoning if they’re harvested after a growth spurt following a drought period, so consider getting the hay tested for nitrate content if you’re concerned. 

Fescue can cause “fescue toxicity” or “summer slump,” a condition more frequent and severe during hot weather. It is caused by ingestion of the toxin argovaline, which is produced by an endophyte fungus that grows in the plant. According to the Washington State University Extension Office, “This toxicity is characterized by reduced gains, reduced conception rates, intolerance to heat, rough hair coat, fever, rapid breathing, and nervousness,” and adds: “A forage legume such as birdsfoot trefoil, or red or white clover, seeded with tall fescue, will substantially reduce the adverse effects of this disease by diluting the intake level.” 

Don’t Forget the Minerals 

A critical component of caprine health is minerals. Mineral requirements can be classified as macro (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfur, chlorides) and micro (iron, cobalt, copper, manganese, zinc, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, etc.). Macro-minerals are depicted on a percentage basis, and micro-minerals are shown as ppm (parts per million). 

Mineral deficiencies can wreak havoc on caprine health. A lack of boron can create arthritis and joint problems. Sodium deficiency drive goats to eat dirt or lick the ground. Anemia and weakness often result from iron deficiency. A shortage of sufficient iodine can cause goiters, just like with humans. Rickets and milk fever may reflect phosphorus and calcium deficiencies (they’re usually found together). Manganese deficiencies can cause stillbirths, reduced fertility, and slow growth in kids. A zinc shortage causes stiff joints, low interest in breeding, skin problems, excessive salivating, and deformed hooves. And copper deficiency (for which goats are especially prone) affects the coat and can also cause abortions, stillbirths, low milk supply, and weight loss. 

Fortunately, hays and forages provide a partial supply of the necessary minerals. Alfalfa, for example, contains an impressive list of nutrients. Caprine owners may view their animals as severely deficient in many critical minerals, when in fact they may lack only a few core elements. Their daily feed will determine how much you’ll need to supplement them. 

When choosing a mineral supplement, be sure to choose something specifically formulated for goats (not sheep, cattle, horses, etc.). 

Balance is Key, Even with the Best Hay for Goats 

As with all things, balance is key when it comes to caprine nutrition. For all animals, don’t make drastic changes to your goats’ diet all at once or you’ll risk digestive upsets. Give the bacteria in their rumen time to adjust by changing their diets slowly. 

Alfalfa should not be fed free-choice. Instead, portion it out in flakes. A combination of alfalfa and grass hays, as well as a proper grain mix, will provide caprines with the necessary protein and roughage to stimulate the digestive action of the rumen. In late pregnancy, make sure a doe has ample hay or forage along with her higher grain levels, to prevent such issues as pregnancy toxemia or acidosis (carbohydrate fermentation disorder of the rumen). 

Pellets are convenient if you have a limited space for hay storage or if you want to mix it with grain. Pellets have about the same protein as hay, but less fiber.

Repeating the obvious, goats need constant access to fresh (not dirty) water at all times for proper digestion to take place. 

What About Concentrates? 

Hay can come in concentrate form, i.e. pellets. Alfalfa pellets are commonly available, as are timothy pellets, orchard grass pellets, etc. 

Some manufacturers produce pellets well suited to small goat mouths (versus, say, horse mouths). Pellets are convenient if you have limited space for hay storage or if you want to mix it with grain. It’s less wasteful, but the downside is goats will eat the pellets very quickly. If fed dry, pellets will add volume in the rumen as soon as they get in contact with the stomach fluids. Pellets have about the same protein as hay, but less fiber. Caprines still need enough fiber for their rumens to operate smoothly, and large amounts of pellets that sit in the rumen without being brought up as cud may cause long-term health issues. 

Again, balance is key. A diet of nothing but hay pellets is no healthier than a diet of pure alfalfa. 

What have you found to be the best hay for goats? Let us know in the comments below!

For more information on goat nutrition, see: http://agecon.okstate.edu/meatgoat/files/Chapter%205.pdf 

Originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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