Deception Pass
Since we began our goatherding journey, we have learned a few things about what they like and what they love. Keep in mind that I am not a veterinarian. My blog posts are purely anecdotal and what I have learned from doing research, joining groups designed to educate goatherders, and observing my own herd. If you have concerns about your goat's diet or its health, I always recommended seeking the advice of a licensed Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). In general, you should always have at least two names and numbers for DVM that make farm calls in the event of an emergency and you are unable to transport your goat. Your first DVM is your go-to vet who knows you and your herd, and your second DVM should be your back-up in the event that your first DVM is already attending a call or is unresponsive (as some are during nights and weekends; DVMs have lives too).

First, I have to caution anyone caring for another living thing to be cautious and patient. As with humans, you always want to start slowly and carefully when introducing a new food into the diet of a goat. Always do your research first. This is particularly important because goats have what is known as ruminant digestive system. Like other members of the Caprinae subfamily (part of the Bovidae family), goats rely on four distinct chambers in the stomach to digest their food.

The first and largest chamber is known as the rumen. This chamber is visible from the goat's left side. Knowing your goat's rumen is essential to monitoring for potentially life-threatening conditions, particularly bloat. The rumen contains many micro-organisms that break down plant and liquid matter in a process known as fermentation. When the rumen has difficulty breaking down a mass of food, the goat will regurgitate (a simplified way of describing the process) the mass and chew on it. This is known as cud. An interesting tidbit suited for #themindfulgoat community is that this process of chewing cud is called ruminating. Goats will ruminate for hours when they are relaxed and happy, and so they are often referred to as ruminants. Similarly, when we human beings regurgitate painful thoughts and memories and chew on them for hours or days, this is also known as ruminating. It seems goats can provide insights into a number of things that human beings do after all.

The other three parts of a goat's digestive system include the reticulum, which pushes food back and forth between the mouth and the rumen; the omasum, which removes moisture from food to keep the goat hydrated; and the abomasum, which breaks down the remaining liquid and plant matters into protein for the goat's nutritional and other health needs. The abomasum is very similar to the human stomach, and it is the last chamber of the goat's digestive system. Because goats are browsers of roughage (which is distinct from horses, which are considered grazers), they need a wide variety of plants, hay, weeds, trees, and other dietary fiber to meet their nutritional needs (another post on this coming soon).

Myth : Goats can eat anything. 

While it is true that goats will sample just about everything, they are also very curious, picky, intelligent, and short-sighted. Seems like a contradictory mash, right? Well, goats are in many ways. Goats will nibble, sniff, and even chew on many things they are not supposed to, which is why it is so important to keep a watchful eye on your pastures or farmland for plants that range anywhere from irritating to lethally toxic. Because they are intelligent, they are not likely to return to plants that make them uncomfortable or sick right away, and many goats will even turn away from plants they suspect might make them ill. On the other hand, if a goats find a plant or flower it believes to be edible, it won't stop to ponder the future while it munches away. Having medication on hand to help with goat ailments and maladies like bloat, shock, and toxicity can be helpful, but always make sure to confirm the right medicine, dosage, and schedule with your veterinarian before administering. 

You may have also heard stories of goats eating tin cans. While my husband has seen this happen (though not with our goats), and I have seen goats eat clothing, dental floss, hay twine, and a variety of other things. Like other animal species, not all goats are brilliant and some even learn this behavior from their herd mates. My recommendation is to always scan your land for litter, especially when you have goat kids. You are ultimately responsible for what is accessible to your goat. While they can eat everything (and may even try it), is less important than what you make or allow to be available to your goats. 

Myth : Goats are lawn-mowers. 

Like I mentioned above, goats are browsers. Unlike grazers, they will take a mouthful of grass or weeds and move on to a new spot within seconds. They also will not generally eat down to the root the way a horse would. If you are relying on your goats for lawn-trimming, you may end up with a spotty yard or be stuck with some weeds they just don't like or know better than to eat (see above). 

Another thing we learned after starting our herd is that goats, particularly pygmy goats, don't much care for tall grasses. They are prey animals, and depending on where you live, you may have a variety of predators to protect your herd from, including coyotes, wolves, feral or loose dogs, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, hyenas, and even other humans. Goats in general prefer areas with a unobstructed field of view to match their phenomenal field of vision, and tall grass may hide predators or other potentially hazardous obstacles. When we bought our property, we had to use a brush hog to level the land because the previous owners had not tended to it through a full season cycle, which in Washington State means a lot of rain and sunshine. Additionally, because goats are prey animals, we never recommend chasing them for fun or trying to scare them on purpose.

Whenever we introduce new foods to our goats, we always verify it against Fiasco Farm's list of edible and poisonous plants first. You can visit their website here. Another great source of information is our local goat rescue, New Moon Farm. They provide a Goats 101 course which we are planning to attend soon. You can also visit their webpage here for more information. 

Over time, we have developed a list of tried and true favorites for the adult members of our herd. Among the list of natural treats home-grown in the PNW are: 

  • Evergreen blackberry bush fruit and leaves
  • Himalayan blackberry bush fruit and leaves
  • Jeffrey Pine needles and twigs 
  • Shore Pine needles and twigs 
  • Rose petals and leaves
We have also added a few treat-based tricks to our metaphorical sleeves. This list currently includes:
  • Organic peeled "baby" carrots from Costco
  • Garlic cloves
  • Manna Pro Licorice Treats 
  • Grain-based feed
  • Dried roses

Pine trees are kind of a sticky subject for goats. While they are high in vitamin C and act as natural de-wormers, they also contain substances that can be toxic to goats in high concentration, particularly pregnant does. Allowing dairy goats to eat pine bark and branches may also add an unpleasant flavor to their milk. We currently are not milking our doe, Dove, while she is lactating because our kids have not yet been weaned, so we have no personal experience with this yet. 

A Quick Word About Grain

One of the goatherding lessons we learned early on is that grain, while a beneficial part of a goat's diet (note: not necessary), should be given in moderation. This is because too much grain can upset the pH balance of goat's rumen (which is very precariously maintained in order to keep all those micro-organisms alive and thriving), leading to acidosis. Acidosis can and does kill goats, and one of its symptoms early on is bloat. Another effect of feeding too much grain to your goat is loose or clumpy stool, especially if you're not providing grain consistently. Changes in diet and/or parasites are typically the causes of loose or clumpy stool. 

I mentioned before that you should become familiar with your goat's rumen. Rumens are consistent - except for when they are not.  You should be able to hear and/or feel contractions. Other positive signs include belching and cud-chewing. If your goat has not been munching away on cud or their belching is unproductive and the rumen feels firm or doughy to the touch, it may signal a build-up of pressure that the goat is having difficulty releasing gas and requires intervention or a DVM consult. When in doubt, we always recommend contacting your DVM. This is another instance when it's good to have a DVM on hand who is willing to make farm-calls or field telephone consults, especially when you are an inexperienced or unseasoned goatherder. 

As time goes on, we will add to this list. If it becomes long enough, we may even create an additional page for those goatherders that reside in the Pacific Northwest to consult. This will take some time, as we introduce new foods rarely so that we can monitor rumination, stool production, and verify the plant species through a number of databases. If you have additional recommendations, please leave us a comment down below or contact us.