UGA Forage Extension Team

More than a tin can – Forage systems for goats

By Adam Speir

Madison County CEC

Goats have the perception of being able to survive on just about anything, including the occasional tin can. While goats do have a unique capability of grazing plant species that other livestock may not prefer, good management and planning are critical for a successful and efficiently productive goat herd. Like almost every livestock operation, the greatest expense in goat operations is related to feeding costs – which can be reduced with good grazing management. This article will discuss how goats are different in their grazing preferences, their forage quality needs, and how good grazing can help prevent health issues.

The main differences in livestock grazing habits are 1) how selective they are of forages and 2) what types of forages they prefer. Cattle, horses, sheep, and goats are all a little different – cattle are less selective while goats are more highly selective, meaning they can use their lips to pick the highest quality parts of plants. While cattle may not actively graze plants such as blackberry, pigweed, sweetgum, thistle, or stinging nettle, goats are able to pick the nutritious leaves of these plants (many of which are as nutritious as our high quality grass and legume options) and can be effective controllers of these plants if they are a weed problem in pastures. Preferences for forage types will vary among livestock species – cattle predominantly favor grasses (65-75% of their diet) while goats will only prefer 20-30% of their diet be grasses and at least 30-50% browse or brush (This number could be as high as 60-90%). Table 1 shows a list of most and least desirable grazing preferences for goats. You can see that the least desirable plants are mostly annual and perennial grasses that make up the bulk of our livestock grazing pastures. These differences in goat preferences and grazing capability are important points of consideration when designing a grazing system for goats and adapting existing pastures for goat production.

Goats prefer grazing above the shoulder, which explains their preference of selecting browse species such as privet, persimmon, or other tree and shrub species. While it’s important to incorporate these plants into a goat grazing system, it’s also important you allow for a grazing rest period, just like it is recommended for grazing of grasses and other forages. If goats are continuously allowed to browse on these plants, they may not survive for long due to continuous defoliation. Developing a rotational plan for grazing will not only allow goats a diversity of grazing options, but will allow grasses and other plants to be more sustainable.

While goats will select a variety of different forage types, forage quality requirements remain the same as with other livestock. As mentioned, many of the browse species that goats prefer can have crude protein (CP) and total digestible nutrient (TDN) levels comparable to alfalfa hay. Nutritional requirements will range from 7% CP and 54% TDN for mature bucks and dry does to 15% CP and 66% TDN for yearlings and late gestation/early lactation does. Grouping animals and feeding based on stage of production and nutritional needs is an easier and more cost effective way to manage grazing and feeding. You should plan to graze goats with higher nutritional requirements on higher quality forage and browse ahead of less demanding classes such as dry or early pregnant does. Plan your grazing to have forage with 20-32 days of growth to maximize nutritional quality for more demanding animals without requiring additional supplementation. A goat operation is capable of being profitable if it is maximizing its pasture and forage quality and reducing its supplemental feed requirements.

One of the most difficult issues managing goats in the southeast is internal parasite control. In the spring, 2018 issue of the forage team newsletter (See Managing Internal Parasites through Better Grazing on the UGA Forage Team blog), I discussed how grazing management can reduce internal parasite pressure for livestock. Because of the increasing difficulty of using chemical means of controlling internal parasites, utilizing grazing management to reduce parasite pressure is a critically important tool for a successful goat operation in Georgia.

For goats, keeping them from ingesting the larvae of parasites like the barberpole worm will reduce animal production losses. These parasites tend to be present on forage, especially in growth 2-4 inches from the ground, or in areas where manure accumulates or in overstocked pastures. These parasites are especially prevalent in moist, warm conditions. Manage grazing to keep plant height at 5” or higher when moving goats off of pastures. Utilizing browse species, especially during summer months when conditions are more favorable for parasites, can help reduce contamination. Utilizing high quality summer annual grasses such as sorghum-sudan grass, which can grow several feet tall, is also a good option for summer grazing. If you also graze cattle or horses, rotate these animals onto contaminated pastures following or preceding goats as they will help remove parasites that are host-specific to goats.

Another grazing option for goats to reduce internal parasite pressure is utilizing Sericea lespedeza, which is a legume species with a higher tannin concentration which naturally helps reduce internal parasite numbers. Lespedeza, once established, can be a good forage option, but similar to other plants that goats graze, prolonged exposure can lead to overgrazing and death of the plant. Rotationally grazing goats into a paddock of lespedeza for a few days can provide natural de-worming benefits without risk of overgrazing.

To have meat or dairy goats in a highly efficient production system – you must do more than leave them in the briar patch or throw them the occasional tin can. A goat’s diet and grazing habit is more similar to that of a deer than a cow, so realizing the unique differences and needs of goats will help you develop a more suitable grazing system. Communicate with your local county Extension agent to determine forage needs and how to maximize the potential of your goat herd.

Table 1. Potential forage options for goats based on desirability or preference.

Goat Forage Options      
Most Desirable   Less Desirable
Multiflora Rose   Novel Endophyte Tall Fescue
Briars     Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue
Ragweed     Bermudagrass  
Sorghum-Sudan Grass   Crabgrass    
Pigweed     Orchardgrass  
Chicory     Annual Lespedeza  
Turnip          
Privet          
Kudzu          
Curly Dock        
Sericea Lespedeza        
;