You may already be familiar with the amazing health benefits of grass-fed dairy and meats, and if you are you’ve probably wondered how to implement that kind of system for your own livestock. That’s why I’m sharing some tips how to implement a pasture-based system for your own dairy goats!
While most sources will say that 100% grass fed is the way to go, it’s not a feasible system for most small livestock growers and my own animals are not 100% grass fed. However, it is extremely possible to have grass be the basis of your dairy goat’s diet while allowing good quality grain to make up only a percentage instead of being the primary component.
Most dairy animals will need grain in their diet to support lactation, and that is okay. Even wildlife will happily jump on the chance to munch on grains when they find them — wild occurring or cultivated. Grain is not the enemy, but it also shouldn’t be the primary source of feed for livestock. Too much grain in a goat’s diet is bad for the rumen, causes urinary calculi, and can cause metabolic issues and excess weight gain. Grain must be given only when needed and in appropriate amounts — the remainder of the time, goats should have a diet based on good old green plant matter in the form of browse or hay.
Here are 5 tips for transitioning your goats to a pasture-based system:
Find good quality hay.
Outside of the growing season, hay will be the main ingredient of your goats’ diets. Your hay will essentially be the pasture for your goats during times when fresh browse is not available, so it is important to find a good source of hay. Hay should be available free-choice year round, even during spring and summer, as a source of roughage and fiber. (They will eat very little when browse is plentiful.) For bucks and wethers, hay or browse is the only food source they will need to maintain healthy body condition under normal circumstances. Feeding grain to male goats who do not need it can result in a deadly condition called urinary calculi.
Your hay producer should be able to consistently provide you with hay that is not overly dry (and therefore nutritionally dead) or too wet (wet hay will mold or even catch fire). It should also not contain many unpalatable, stalky pieces or undesirable weeds and should be free from toxic plants or leaves. Your best bet is to build a rapport with a reputable hay provider and purchase from the same person year after year. Many of the best producers, particularly during dry years, will have a waiting list or sell out quickly, so stay on top of this and reserve your hay early in the season. I have YouTube video all about identifying good quality hay which you can watch HERE.
Rotate your pastures.
A rotational grazing system is the best way to make optimal use of your land and to keep your goats healthy. The ideal system will actually employ two unrelated livestock species, one of which will graze after the other. Regardless of whether your system is multi-species, you will need enough pasture areas to allow the land to lay fallow between uses. Allowing the land to rest in between periods of grazing allows the grass to grow back to its ideal height — above 4″ — before its next use. This also prevents your land from becoming bare and washing away into gullies, and it helps prevent your livestock from becoming reinfected with internal parasites.
As your goats browse, they shed parasite eggs and larvae onto the ground. The majority of these little nasties stay below 4″ (which is as high as the barber pole/haemonchus/HC larvae — the most common and deadly internal parasite in adult goats — can climb). By rotating your goats off of pasture that has been mostly consumed to or below 4″, you help minimize their ingestion of parasites. It also helps to graze a different family of livestock species behind your goats, such as pigs or horses. These species do not share many parasites with goats and will be able to “clean” the field. They will also eat down the grass that your goats likely ignored in favor of juicy weeds. Goats love to eat weeds, trees, and shrubs — they are browsers and not grazers like sheep. They like to eat UP.
How long you are able to graze your goats in each field and let your other field(s) rest depends on the number of goats you are grazing. A low stocking number will be able to stay on one field longer, while a higher stocking rate will mean rotating them through faster (and may also require more fields through which to rotate them). A good beginning rule of thumb is to allow at least a month for fields to rest in between use. Small Scale Livestock Farming by Carol Ekarius is an excellent resource for learning more about rotational grazing practices.
Provide proper mineral supplementation.
Mineral deficiencies can cause a vast array of problems for goats. Goats should always have free choice access to a high quality loose mineral formulated specifically for goats. Do not buy sheep/goat mineral, as sheep cannot have additional copper without suffering from toxicity, while goats absolutely need copper to have a healthy reproductive system, parasite resistance, healthy hair coat, and overall good health and immunity. Goats have soft tongues and no upper teeth, so a loose mineral, not a mineral block, is necessary for them to consume enough. The mineral should be the only source of salt or minerals available.
Choose your feed wisely.
Lactating does also need some amount of grain. Grain will be a small portion of the diet, because while the does will only receive grain once or twice a day on the milk stand, they will be eating browse or hay all day long. Supplementing an animal with grain when it makes sense and is necessary is not going to be detrimental to the animal or to you; in fact, it will be beneficial because it will keep the animal in good condition and support a higher level of production. This is not the same as sticking your goats on dry lot and feeding them nothing but grain, which will definitely impact the health of the animal and the quality of the milk.
You should still choose good sources of grain. I prefer to stay away from soy, and so I have transitioned my girls from a premade goat pellet to a hand made mix. I am loosely following the recipe #3 on the Land of Havilah website. I recommend staying away from soy for a number of reasons, but if mixing your own is out of the question for you, you can look for soy-free brands. If this is also impossible for you, avoid sweet feeds with high molasses contents and provide a pellet formulated for goats.
A good rule of thumb for feeding grain is to feed 1 lb of grain for every 3 lbs of milk your doe is producing. This should be adjusted to how well your doe is maintaining her body condition. If she is dropping weight (and is not suffering from a parasite overload or illness), she needs more; if she is getting fat, she needs less. Be very careful not to start giving grain too early or too much in pregnancy as this can lead to over-sized kids, ketosis/toxemia and/or hypocalcemia. Does typically do not need grain until the last week or two, and then only in small amounts to allow their rumen to adjust. There are exceptions to this rule if a doe becomes compromised due to high parasite loads, illness, or weight loss during pregnancy. If that occurs you should work with a trusted veterinarian to develop a supportive diet.
I personally start giving very small amounts of grain in the last week or two of pregnancy and then gradually increase after the doe gives birth. While milking, I allow my does to eat as much alfalfa pellets as they want on the stand (unless they’re really going overboard or gaining too much weight) alongside the appropriate amount of grain.
Make changes slowly.
All dietary changes should be made slowly. Goats have a delicate digestive system and can suffer from dangerous and potentially deadly bloat is they are transitioned from one diet to another too quickly. If your goats have not previously been on pasture, introduce them gradually by allowing them to be out for 30 minutes or so the first day and increasing that time by 30 minutes each day until they are spending the entire day on pasture. At that point you can continue to lock them in the barn at night for increased safety or you can allow them to remain out 24/7 as long as they have appropriate shelter available. If the browse is extremely rich, you may want to adjust them even more slowly.
Always provide your goats with free choice baking soda to settle their rumen if it becomes upset. They will eat baking soda instinctively if they need to alter their rumen ph. Know the signs of bloat and be prepared to treat it. If your goats seem a little off after a change in feed but aren’t showing signs of bloat yet, massage their left side (the location of the rumen) until they begin to burp and pass gas. Some softer stool after the introduction to new, rich forage is not something to be alarmed about unless it is excessive or does not go away. Restricting their diet to hay only should clear it up if it is based on the feed change.
Bonus! Check your pastures for toxic plants.
The toxicity of many plants for goats is debated. Many, including myself, believe that the level of exposure greatly impacts whether or not some types of plants thought to be toxic will harm your goats. However, you should be aware of toxic plants in your area and know that some — like Yew or the leaves of stone fruit trees (cherry, peach, plum) — are deadly even in small amounts. Watch out for these plants and do not graze goats in areas that contain them. Also beware of leaving your goats on pasture too long, because the plants they might have avoided eating at first — which may or may not be toxic to them — will become more appetizing as the other options diminish. Fiasco Farms website has a good article on toxic plants. You can check with your extension office to find what toxic plants are native to your particular area. Do not allow people to feed your goats clippings (and avoid doing so yourself) unless you are absolutely sure that the plant is safe.