If you’re a first-timer to goat keeping, an understanding of their digestive systems and other idiosyncrasies helps make sense of best feeding practice.
Like sheep, cattle and horses, goats are herbivores but unlike these other species, they are browsers (like deer) rather than grazers, which means they tend to search upwards for food rather than downwards, going for shrubs, hedges, low branches, tree bark etc, as well as grass. They are also very selective feeders and will spend time searching out their favourite morsels at the expense of less tasty, but possibly more nutritious, food and can also be quite wasteful.
Again, like sheep and cattle, goats are ruminants and have a four-chambered “stomach” which is a “fibre-fermentation vat”, where a resident population of microbes act on the food to release nutrients which the goat’s system can then absorb. Food is initially lightly chewed and swallowed into the rumen and reticulum where the bacteria start their fermentation work before the food is regurgitated and chewed again (chewing the cud) to further break down the fibrous content.
Chewing mixes slightly alkaline saliva with the cud and this buffers the acids produced in the rumen to keep the overall pH level at around 6.8; just slightly acidic. Should the goat have insufficient long fibre in its diet, and therefore have less cud to chew, the acidity level in the rumen can rise, killing off the helpful bacteria and leading, at best, to inefficient digestion and, at worst, to upsets, like bloat. The mainstay of your goat’s diet must therefore be forage, like grass, hay or haylage, plus other “browsings”, where available, to provide essential long fibre.
Ad-Lib Forage
Forage should preferably be provided “ad lib” all year round so your goats have constant access and should ideally be fed in a raised rack to satisfy their physiological need to browse upwards. Suitable additional greenstuff, like leafy branches, nettles, thistles and brambles, are also welcomed and, where they are not naturally accessible, can also be hung from a rack or fence to encourage browsing behaviour. Their digestive sensitivity means that there are many plants which are poisonous to goats so check these treats are safe to feed first.
Much modern pasture and, therefore, forage, is deficient in minerals so some form of supplementation should be considered necessary. For “pet” goats, a multi-mineral lick will probably be sufficient during the summer months, when energy requirements are being fully met by grass and forage. During the winter, however, energy requirements will be higher as the temperature drops and the goat uses more of his or her feed intake to maintain body temperature. Forage plays a further important role at this time of year as its fermentation produces heat, warming the goat from within.
Supplementary Feeding
When a goat’s energy (calorie) requirements can no longer be met by forage alone, especially during pregnancy or lactation, a fully balanced cereal-based coarse mix is ideal, alongside forage, as this will provide additional readily available calories as well as protein, vitamins and minerals which will be lacking in preserved forage. Forage should always make up no less than 40 or 50% of the total ration which for an adult goat can equate to 1 to 2kg per day, with recommended feeding rates for coarse mixes varying from less than 0.5kg per day for a small or pygmy goat up to 2kg for a large one. Most feed manufacturers will give guidelines on their packaging and web sites but much will depend on the quality of the forage fed and the body condition of the goat in question. 
Gradual Change
Having the essential fibre-digesting bacteria at the front of the digestive process, means that goats can be very sensitive to dietary changes so any new feeds and even a switch to fresh pasture, must be introduced gradually so that the microbes can adapt. It is also a good idea to ensure your goats have fresh forage first thing in the morning, before you feed their mix, so that they have fibre, and all-important “buffering” saliva, in their stomachs before the arrival of the cereal feed. The total daily coarse mix ration should also be divided into as many small meals per day as possible to avoid overloading the digestive system and to encourage efficient digestion. When more than one goat are being fed, it may also be necessary to “supervise” feeding times so that one doesn’t take feed from the others.
Cooking and Quality
When choosing a goat mix, look for one in which the cereal content has been cooked to improve digestibility. This minimises the risks of upsetting the fibre-fermenting bacteria and helps ensure your goat gets the most from every mouthful. The quality of the protein content is also important, especially for growing or lactating goats, and should supply “essential” amino acids (the building blocks of protein) which cannot be “manufactured” within the body. Mixes will contain a balance of vitamins and minerals and reputable manufacturers will also use more “bioavailable” forms of minerals, known as “chelates”, which are more easily absorbed and utilised by the body.
Clean Water
One of the most important elements of a goat’s daily diet is water which should be constantly available and kept as clean as possible as goats are quite fussy and will go without rather than drink dirty water. They are also not particularly fond of very cold water so, in the winter, rather than just breaking the ice on the trough or bucket, you may need to remove the ice and add some hot water to take the chill off! So, with a little attention to detail and an understanding of their basic needs, keeping your goats well-fed and happy should seem fairly straight forward. If you have any doubts, never be afraid to make use of feed manufacturers’ nutritional helplines or ask for advice from a local expert, who can be tracked down through The British Goat Society and the various breed associations.
For information and advice on feeding your goat, contact The Fancy Feed Company on 01371 850247 or fill in our 'Get In Touch' page.