Breaking Down the Goat Diet

Posted by Jennifer Sartell, Professional Homesteader & Blogger, Tue, Aug 2, 2016

Feeding a herd of goats can be tricky. Goats have a complex digestive system that requires different types and amounts of food to run smoothly. When you enter the goat world, it seems that everyone has an opinion on what is the “best” way to feed. As a result, it can be confusing to know what is right for your animals. In this post, I break down the different options for meeting a goat’s nutritional needs so that you can decide for yourself what is the best method for your herd. I also share a bit about what has worked for us and what we’d like to improve on when it comes to goat nutrition.

Feed Components for Our Herd 

These ratios change when winter arrives and pasture is not available.

  • Grass Hay: 50%
  • Pasture: 25%
  • Grain: 20%
  • Treats: 5% or less


When keeping domestic goats, hay is essential for two reasons: It provides both nutrition and dry roughage to balance the moisture and fiber content in the rumen.

Hay vs. Straw

I often hear the terms “hay” and “straw” used interchangeably, and I cringe. Thankfully, it’s usually from people who don’t keep animals. But just in case, or if you’re new to raising goats, it’s important to know the difference as well as why you should include them in your goat’s diet.

  • Hay is grass that has been cut and dried, then baled or collected to use as animal feed. Much of the nutrition in the grass is preserved in the hay, and it makes great feed for goats. Think of it as dehydrated pasture. It’s usually grayish green and dull in color.
  • Straw is the collection of stalks left over after grain kernels have been harvested for food. Straw is a by-product of the grain harvest (like wheat, for example). It has little to no nutritional value and is used for bedding.

Straw makes for great bedding because it is nice and fluffy as well as insulating because each straw is hollow, trapping warm air pockets in the tubes. Straw is also slightly slippery in texture, so manure and wetness fall through the straw and away from the animals. It also doesn’t rot or mold as quickly as hay. Straw is golden and shiny. You do not want to feed it to your animals. They may nibble a piece now and then, but it should not be a source of nutrition.

Brown Hay

Some browning of the hay is normal, but excess or very brown hay is low in nutrition and you may be wasting your money. Brown hay means that the elements were not ideal while the farmer was baling. Either it was sun-bleached, or it was rained on during the drying process. Rain will actually “wash” away nutrition and color from the grass blades.

Brown hay can also be the result of old hay that has been stored too long or in improper conditions.

Never feed moldy hay to goats! It can cause digestive and respiratory problems, among other things.

Grass Hay vs. Alfalfa

Grass hay may contain a blend of different grasses. You may hear of types such as timothy hay, orchard grass, canary grass, fescue, etc. Each of these grasses may be found in your hay bale. They hold different nutritional values as far as protein, fiber and minerals are concerned. Ask your hay supplier what is in the bales you are buying.

We hay our own field with a mix of grasses including orchard grass, timothy hay, some swamp grass and goldenrod, plus an under-layer of red clover. Each year we work to improve our field. This year, we plan to plow up sections and plant a hay mix seed so that we will have a better understanding of our hay’s nutritional content.

Our goats always have access to grass hay.

Alfalfa is a very rich fodder made of the dehydrated legume alfalfa. Its protein content is about double that of grass hay.

Most grass hay protein falls around 7–8%

Alfalfa protein is around 16%, which is similar to that of most manufactured grain blends.

In this way, some goat owners can eliminate the need for grain with alfalfa and good pasture. Alfalfa should not be fed on a free-choice basis, but portioned into flakes depending on the goat’s size and nutritional needs.


Goats can thrive in a variety of living situations, but they do best when they are exposed to adequate pasture.

In the wild, goats are grazers, which means that the herd moves throughout the day nibbling on tree branches, weeds, brambles, etc.

For most of us, pasture means grass.

Goats do well on grass, but remember to introduce lush pasture slowly to allow their system to regulate the fresh wet green. Provide plenty of hay to help balance out the system.

In the spring, we allow our goats out for an hour at a time until they have adjusted to the new food after the lack thereof during the winter. Wet, lush pasture can be particularly hard on the system and may cause scours. Pasture rotation helps keep the plant cycle healthy and reduce worm problems.


In reality, goats were never meant to eat much grain. Goats are natural grazers; their systems are meant to digest shrubs, weeds, small tree branches, bark, leaves and some grasses. In nature, goats would have a hard time finding a mix of oats, corn, soybeans and sweet molasses.

But, in the same respect, dogs were never really meant to eat kibble. Dogs in the wild hunt deer and rabbits for food. They consume raw meat and chew bones for healthy marrow. But when you domesticate an animal, things change. It would be difficult to hunt for my dog every day and bring home freshly killed meat for his dinner. So, we improvise. Grain is a version of that adaptation.

Feeding grain ensures that a goat is getting enough nutrition. Most formulas provide around 16% protein. Feed amounts should be labeled on the bag according to the animal’s weight. Or you can discuss portions with your vet.

Does in milk, pregnant does, and fiber goats require more grain than bucks and wethers, though some bucks need additional nutrition because of the toll that hormone production takes on their bodies.

An increase in the amount of grain fed should be done gradually so as to prevent overwhelming the bacteria in the rumen.

Sweet Feed vs. Not

Sweet feed is a mix of whole grains or pelleted food tossed with molasses. The molasses makes the grain very palatable to goats; in fact, they can become obsessed with it! The molasses adds iron and sugars, and in some feed mill blends helps supplements, such as minerals or medications, to stick to the feed. 

Our goats will turn their noses up at feed that isn’t coated in molasses. They also prefer a mix of whole oats and pellets rather than just pellet feed. Because goats love sweet feed, it can be used as a training tool. It helps them stay still on the stanchion during milking, shearing, hoof trimming and health checkups. It also encourages them to come when they are called. If the goats get into the garden, grab a bucket of sweet feed and shake it. They’ll be on your tail faster than you can say “tomato!”

Grain can also be useful for administering supplements. We sometimes add pelleted wormers to the goats’ grain ratio, or sprinkle probiotics to help with their immune systems.

Our fiber goats get the addition of 5% black oil sunflower seeds to provide healthy fats for lanolin production. Lanolin is a waxy oil that helps protect the wool.

Sweet Feed and Urinary Calculi

Sweet Feed and grain can sometimes cause urinary calculi in goats, particularly wethers. Urinary calculi is when calculi or stones, usually comprised of phosphate salts, lodge in the urinary tract and prevent normal urination. The primary cause of urinary calculi is feeding a concentrated diets that is excessive in phosphorus and magnesium. (University of Kentucky)  

Ways to Prevent Urinary Calculi

  • Wait until male goats are older to wether. This allows the urinary tract to develop completely
  • Make sure the goat’s diet is made up mostly of hay and roughage, and only supplemented with grain
  • Check to see if ammonium chloride is one of the ingredients in their feed. If it’s not, ask your vet whether a supplement would be a good choice
  • Provide plenty of fresh clean water at all times to help flush out the goat’s system. Also provide salt on a free-choice basis. Consumption of salt encourages consumption of water


Treats make up a variety of foods that your goats don’t consume on a daily basis. Treats are given to our herd because we simply love our goats and love to spoil them. They are particularly fond of the new apple-flavored Manna Pro® Goat Treats.

Sometimes we use kitchen scraps or things we pick from the garden as goat treats. Some of our goats’ favorites are pumpkin and raspberry plants.

Some fruits and vegetables are not a good choice for goats. Consult your veterinarian for a list of safe treat choices.

Treats should be given in small amounts. Any time you introduce a new food, do so gradually so that it doesn’t upset their tummies.

Once your goat’s diet is balanced, feeding is quite easy and becomes routine. With a basic outline about goat nutrition, you will soon learn what works for your goats and what doesn’t.


Jennifer Sartell, Professional Homesteader and Blogger

Jennifer Sartell is the primary care taker of all animals on her and her husband’s farm in Fenton, MI. With a passion for living a simple life, Jennifer enjoys creating art, taking in nature, raising animals and has developed a deep appreciation for homesteading. Jennifer and her husband, Zach, currently raise goats and poultry. Her vast amount of experience on the farm includes, but is not limited to: milking, shearing, hoof trimming, vaccine administration, assisting in animal births, dehorning, egg collecting, chick and turkey hatching, feeding, watering, etc. She can also cook a mean farm-to-table meal and when the day is done has documented and photographed their day on the farm.


Mike 09/09/2020, 6:30:19 AM

My wife and I love goat products, milk, yogurt, cheese. LECTIN is in alfalfa and grain. We assumed IF the goats are being fed alfalfa hay and or grain, lectins are also in the milk and cheese and yogurt.zSome of our joint pains are a lot less watching out for LECTINS. OUR SUPPLIER SAID THAT THE LECTINS DON'T GO INTO THE MILK! IS THIS TRUE? THANKS FOR YOUR KNOWLEDGE.

NoahBryant 09/24/2020, 3:55:13 PM

The term roughage denotes the cell wall components of plants, of which cellulose constitutes the largest part. Older plants have stronger stalks and leaves, and so contain higher levels of fibre. This means that the nutrients in such plants will not be immediately available to the goat. First, the cellulose of the plant cell walls must be broken down by the microorganisms in the rumen of the goat. This results in fatty acids which can be used for energy production. Since the fat in goats milk is synthesised from the fatty acids produced by the breakdown of cellulose in the rumen, an increase of roughage in the diet increases the fat content of the milk. Roughage in the diet is very necessary for healthy digestion, and so is an extremely important part of a goat s diet. Good quality dust-free hay should be used to provide at least 40% (by weight) of your goat s total feed and should be available for them at all times, summer and winter.

John 01/02/2021, 1:01:16 PM

Thanks for your very valuable advise. Am also looking for a simple goat milker like udderly EZ from USA but am far away in Africa , kenya at Nairobi city. Guide if possible.

Ray 04/14/2021, 4:44:36 AM

I got a small goat about 1 year old . Thanks for all the info.
I noticed the goat has a small coughing issue every so often. What should I Do? Or is this normal.

Susan Ehrhardt 07/13/2021, 11:13:49 AM

Can I offer a correction to your article? Goats are browsers, like deer, not grazers. While out in pasture you'll see them take a bite and move on. They usually start at eye level. Sheep and cows are grazers, that's why they mow grass so well....goats clear brush so well.

Jeanette Belbeck 09/23/2021, 1:35:22 PM

My understanding is goat should not get much straw
I am wondering if the straw has molasses on it and mixed could you feed it for roughage. The molasses would increase the protein valve would it not ,and milking goats and pregnant goats need more protein. A person may be able to run it through a tub grinder to break it down into shorter lengths if need be. I am just new at all this with goats. We did similar to this for with our cattle on years of when there was shortage of hay for the livestock

thank you

Tuesday Brant 11/16/2021, 5:04:02 PM

Great info on the different types of food for goats, but I think its important to point out that urinary calculi isn't only from grains. The alfalfa in hay that you mention can also be a contributing factor. You make it sound like it's a great hay addition for all goats, when in fact the high protein in alfalfa makes it not so great for wethers. I've been having a hard time finding hay without too much protein from clover and alfalfa. The grain pellets aling with their hay, also help to keep goats warm on those cold winter nights. Oh and... goats are not grazers, rather they are browsers

Donna 11/16/2021, 6:12:07 PM

I have a 16 year old whether who has only a couple of teeth. How can I keep weight on him. I currently feed him beet bulb and senior horse feed with mana pro balancer if he will eat it!

Cheryl Register 02/08/2022, 8:31:16 AM

I have 4 dwarf Pygmy goats , and am very new at this process! I want to do the very best I can for them! They’re my pets! I read and hear so many things from so many people. Ant it’s very confusing! I read your article and it’s very interesting, that you mentioned that you put your goats on pastured green grass for one hour! I’m interested to know, does that mean that you put them on it for one hour each day for their lifetime or just in the beginning and how can I tell if my babies tummies are used to being on green grass? Also can ghe eat coastal Bermuda grasses until I broadcast rye in August, because I live in Sampson county North Carolina! Thank you!

Frances 02/15/2022, 12:42:12 PM

Hi idk if I'll get an answer. But after reading your intro, you seem wholesome. Why do you dehorn them? And do they get along well with other animals....?

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