A Guide to What Goats Can Eat

A Guide to What Goats Can Eat

A Guide to What Goats Can Eat

Table of Contents:

Questions, From Kat’s Caprine Corner:
~ Are oak tree leaves poisonous to goats?
~ Can goats eat bamboo?
~ How do I feed my bucks during rut?
~ How do I plant a goat garden?
~ Can we feed rice flour and wheat flour to our goats?
~ Are goats fed corn?
~ How do I know if I am feeding my goats enough hay?
~ What can I do with hay that my goats waste?
~ Can goats eat water or poison hemlock?
~ What other poisonous plants should I watch for?
~ What kind of alfalfa hay should I get for my dairy or pregnant goats?
~ Can alfalfa cause urinary calculi?
~ Are poison ivy and sticker plants harmful if goats eat them?

Are you feeding straw or hay for goats?



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Katherine Drovdahl MH CR CA CEIT DipHIr QTP answers reader questions about goat health in Kat’s Caprine Corner, in each issue of Goat Journal.

Are oak tree leaves poisonous to goats?

There are approximately 80 species of oak trees. We will focus on general groupings: Quercus alba or white oak; Quercus velutina, which is black oak; Quercus kelloggii, which is California black oak; and red oak which is Quercus rubra in the northern states and Q. falcata in the southern states.

The red and black oaks can be identified by very sharp pointed tips on their leaves. The white oaks have rounded tips. White oak leaves will turn bronze, yellow, and brown in the fall. Red oak leaves will turn red, and black oak leaves can be red, yellow, or brown with dark grey to black bark. Areas can have a mix of several types of oaks. I found two locations in my yard and orchard where I have seedlings of both types (whites and California blacks) growing within 10 feet of each other.

Black and red oaks can cause overdose issues at lower amounts than white oaks. It is the tannins that cause overdose and green leaves, external or un-aged inner bark, young twigs, oak galls, and green acorns have higher amounts of tannins.

Livestock, including goats, can overeat leaves, twigs, and acorns. Leaves may blow into their pasture or a branch may break and give sudden access. It’s also common for leaves to find their way into water buckets and tanks, which will make an astringent tea and reduce water palatability, which reduces water intake and thus milk production. Tannins also reduce milk production so you can have a double whammy going on here. Too much tea, too strong of tea, or consuming too many of the green or young tree/young growth parts can result in GI tract problems including irregular bowels and colic (pain and/or bloating), no milk production, lethargy, and enterotoxemia. High amounts of tannins can also be tough on the renal (kidney) system. Although the fall leaves or ripe acorns cause fewer issues, eating large quantities can still cause problems. Also consider that oak trees seem to be a haven for ticks and make it difficult for pasture grasses to grow well, due to the tannins that oak trees put in the soil around their roots. This in itself is a good reason to decrease the number of oaks or even eliminate them in your goat area.

At our farm, our neighbors have a few mature white oak trees that hang over part over our fences. My husband and I sawed off some overhanging branches so there aren’t any within reach of the goats. We also make sure our goats have about an hour to eat alfalfa hay before we turn them out to the larger pasture, to ensure they eat what I want them to eat for good milk production and are less likely to overeat oak treats as they move around with hay-filled rumens. Since only five trees have branches overhanging our fence, we don’t get a large leaf and acorn drop per day and we have about 15 goats to share in those goodies. I also make sure that they are back into their paddock at least four hours before milking so that we don’t get oak-flavored milk. Because our wind usually comes through our neighbor’s oak area before it gets to our place, we check our water tanks and buckets for oak leaves and replace water accordingly.

So … oaks are not poisonous, but they can cause toxicity in moderate to large amounts of white oaks, and in lesser amounts with black or red oaks, so it is best to limit your goats and other livestock’s exposure to them if possible. Also, remember that moderate amounts usually will have a negative impact on milk quantity and flavor.

I have a lot of uncontrollable bamboo. Will a couple of goats eat this stuff and/or would it harm them?

I recommend putting up a cattle panel fence and penning the goats with the bamboo, which they can have. Take at least 10 days to get your goats used to eating the bamboo to give their rumens and intestinal microbes time to adjust to the new food or you risk harming or killing them with enterotoxemia. You can do this by first feeding them what they are used to, then controlling their turnout time in the bamboo — starting with only 10 minutes of eating, two times per day, before gradually increasing that time. Keep the foods they are used to in the pen and remember to provide adequate water and shade.

How do I feed my bucks while in rut?

Prepare them for the rut by slowly increasing their hay, grain, and nutrient intake well before breeding season. For me, that is about mid-July to start late September breeding. Because of all the pacing they do while does are in heat, I want them to hold weight longer into the season. I also add olive oil mixed with their grain for an increase in calorie intake at one tablespoon per senior standard-sized buck and one teaspoon for Nigerians, one-year-old or older, or standard-sized bucklings. Nigerian bucklings can start at a heaping ¼ teaspoon. This can be increased by one more dose every week for three weeks until you have yearling or older Nigerians up to one tablespoon per day and senior standards up to three tablespoons per day. If your buck is over 250 pounds, he can be worked up to four tablespoons. My standard sized bucks and bucklings get worked up to one or two large flakes of grass hay and two large flakes of alfalfa hay each day.

Goat Garden

I would like information on planting a goat garden.

There are many beneficial plants and herbs that can be grown in a goat garden. Raspberry (leaves), comfrey, and carrots immediately come to mind. For a very lengthy list of herbs and foods you want to plant in your goat garden, there is a whole chapter dedicated to that and why you may want to grow those plants in The Accessible Pet, Equine, and Livestock Garden. As to garden size, anything you can do is more than you were doing and a step forward into providing fresh nutrients at a lower cost for your herd. Have fun!

Can we feed rice flour or wheat flour to our goats as we’ve heard plain rice or wheat are harmful to them?

My preference would be not to feed the flour for several reasons. The flour, if fed in any larger amount, has the potential to gum up in their rumens. Watch that they don’t breathe particulate into their lungs while eating. Also, the flour would not be any healthier than the whole grain and, if it is purchased or stored as flour, the soluble nutrients will oxidize/become rancid, which is problematic for the liver as well as being laden with free radicals. I personally like non-GMO or organic wheat berries (seeds) when I can get it, and sprout it, rinse it, and feed it that way. In that form, it is very nutritious.

Goats and Corn

Are goats fed corn?

Yes, goats are fed corn. However, corn should be a very small part of the diet (less than 10 percent of concentrates fed). Watch for mold in corn, which is not always very visible. A few years ago, the FDA raised the level of allowable mold in corn for livestock feed so farmers wouldn’t lose as much of their crops during drought, and those levels allow amounts that can be very toxic to goats. I personally avoid corn whenever possible. Another approach is to grow corn yourself and feed a bit of it fresh along with the stalks, leaves, etc.

How do I know if I am feeding my goats enough hay?

My general rule of thumb is to have a little bit of hay left in their feeders when we feed them again, assuming that what is left is clean and good quality. We generally feed hay about every 12 hours. If they are consuming all of it, then it’s likely the goats lower on the pecking order are not getting enough. If they are leaving a lot of it, first check for quality and cleanliness. They also will leave most heavy, unconditioned (uncrushed) alfalfa stems.

My goats waste so much hay. What can I do with it?

Consider a few things when you find your goats wasting hay. Are you feeding too much? Your goats should just about clean up their hay before the next feeding, assuming it is clean and good quality. Make them eat some of their stems! In the winter especially, heat generates as their rumens break down those valuable stems. Also check your hay quality. Is there “dust” which really may be a mold or fungus? Are there moldy areas, discolorations, musty, or unusual smells? Rat, mouse, possum, or cat manure or yellowing from urine? Plants that you don’t recognize? If in doubt, take it back to your reputable hay dealer who will exchange it for clean hay as long as you stored your hay properly and kept pests away. So you’ve checked all of that and your hay is nice and you are feeding the appropriate amount for your herd. Leftover hay stems can be used to feed pigs, horses, camelids, and cows. If it’s not too pokey it can be used for bedding. It can also be used to edge gardens or flowerbeds and as mulch around fruit trees or composted for your garden.

I’ve seen conflicting information on if a goat can eat water or poison hemlock. Can they?

We are talking about two of the most toxic plants in North America. While a healthy goat may be able to ingest a little of either of these plants and not have an outwardly visible effect, we need to be careful. My very well-fed, alternative-raised and cleansed, healthy goats would occasionally sample these plants when we lived in Oregon. My goats had rumens and GI tracts that were operating at high efficiency and were already full on their morning’s hay before they went out grazing. If a goat is not metabolizing well, is ill or stressed, aged, a kid with an undeveloped rumen, has GI deficiencies, or is hungry and eats more than a little, I would expect some problems or worse. This plant will start paralyzing the body internally by shutting down the nervous system. If I noticed any goat at any level of shutdown, I would get a cayenne tincture down them immediately to try to wake up the nervous system. Then I’d put them on a cleansing herb blend to help their body break down and move toxins out of their organs, tissues, and bloodstream.

Poisonous Plants

What are other poisonous plants I need to watch out for?

There is a very long list of plants that are poisonous to goats, as well as other livestock, available online. Some are common in landscaping: oleander, mountain laurel, rhododendrum, azaelia, lily of the valley, larkspur, delphinium, foxglove, some lupines (blue bonnet), braken or brake fern, many mushrooms, groundsel, tansy, and yew. Yew is so toxic that usually the victim is found dead with the first or second mouthful still in their mouth. Prunus species trees and shrubs are cyanogenic when leaves are in any stage of wilt. Fresh leaves and leaves completely dead do not have the free-forming cyanogenic compounds flowing through them which are responsible for suffocating their victim as oxygen in the bloodstream is tied up. Prunus species include all of the tree/shrub fruits containing pits such as cherry (fruiting, ornamental, choke), plums/prunes, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and the like; including wild versions of the above. The largest chance of exposure often is in the fall when leaves start blowing off trees and into pens of greedy goats, who readily consume them.

What kind of alfalfa hay should I get for my dairy or pregnant goats?

I purchase alfalfa hay to minerally enrich my goats for bone, nerve, and muscle development and to provide much-needed minerals, protein, and vitamins for growing kids, pregnant and/or milking does, and working bucks. I look for high leaf content, low moisture content (18 to 22 percent is great), good green color (not unicolor, which may have been dyed or food-colored), and fine stems. It is okay if there is some sun bleaching on the outside bales as long as they have not been exposed to rain. I also don’t want leaves to shatter off the stems when we open a bale or move hay around. A small handful falling off is normal but much more than that means a bale is too dry and will often fall apart before you can get it to the feeder. I also look for cleanliness. If there are mold smells or colors, or a mold dust, then avoid that hay, as it will toxify the liver of your stock (yes, even cattle) making them more susceptible to reduced productivity and increased health issues. It also can cause birth defects in does that are pregnant when ingesting it or contribute to listeriosis issues. I generally look for third or fourth cutting hay, but will take an earlier cutting if it meets my specs. Young alfalfa fields will have a fine stem even at first cutting.

I’ve heard alfalfa causes urinary calculi. Is that true?

I will answer from the Master of Herbology perspective, since alfalfa is a time-honored herb for millennia. In short, the answer is no. A plant combines the nutrients it obtains from soil with a carbon atom during photosynthesis. This carbon atom allows every nutrient, including calcium, to be fully absorbable and fully eliminable by the body system. This is not true of rock- or dirt-sourced nutrients (including limestone, which is added to most livestock products as calcium.) This nonliving source of calcium does not have the carbon atom attached and is not fully eliminable. Thus, over time, the body will stash some that it hasn’t been able to eliminate into strange areas. Liver and gallstones, kidney stones (UC when it gets into the ureter), bone spurs, hardened areas of placentas or brains, and even a calcified throat area can be the results of these rock mineral collections. In goats, the most common sources come from well or city water, pelleted or processed feeds, and mineral mixes. This is why I stick to whole herbs to provide minerals for my goats, other than sea salt, which is also fully eliminable.

Are poison ivy and sticker plants harmful to goats that are eating them?

Yes and no. The vast majority of goats and other livestock can eat poison ivy without any harmful effects to them. However, if a person touches their hair with the ivy oils on, they may get a reaction from it. Never burn these as the oils then become airborne and will cause a rash in the lungs and serious respiratory issues. Goats also can successfully eat some plants with stickers. How they consume plants like star thistle and blackberry is still a mystery to me, but they can and do, much to the delight of their owners trying to eliminate such plants from pastures. Watch for mechanical damage from such plants, such as damage to the udder, eyes, skin, or mouth, though most of that happens from plants that have dried out. Remove these before goats gain access to live growing plants.

Our personal experience has shown us that foxtails (barbed seed heads in some grasses) cause much more grief. We’ve removed many from goat eye area tissues over the years.


Katherine and her beloved husband Jerry are owned by their LaManchas, horses, alpacas, and gardens on a small piece of Washington State paradise. Her varied international alternative degrees and certifications, including Master of Herbology and lifelong experience with creatures of many kinds, give her unique insight into guiding others through human or creature wellness problems. Her wellness products and consultations are available at www.firmeadowllc.com.


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Are You Feeding Straw or Hay for Goats?

By Karen Kopf

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.

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.

Karen and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Moscow, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or www.kikogoats.org.


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