Properly feeding Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats is a major factor in successfully keeping them. And since goats digest foods differently than humans, learning a bit about how they process food helps in understanding how best to feed them.
Goats are ruminants and as such have four different chambers to process food rather than one stomach like humans. The four chambers are designed to extract nutrients from bulky plant material and are called the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. Tiny microorganisms progressively break down the plant material a goat eats as it passes through the first three chambers.
These microbes are living creatures and as such must be kept healthy in order for the goat to be healthy. Upsetting these microbes by suddenly changing a goat’s diet can cause the goat’s rumen to stop functioning and is one of the easiest ways to make a goat sick or to kill a goat.
When you observe a goat eating, you will notice that sometimes they barely chew their food and instead almost seem to inhale it. They store this rapidly consumed food in the first and largest of the four chambers (the rumen) and later regurgitate it and chew it (“ruminating” or “chewing their cud”). This assists the microorganisms in breaking down the fibrous material and extracting nutrients. When the goat’s food reaches the final chamber (the abomasum) it’s then processed the same as in a single-stomached animal.
Feeding Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats – What Gets Fed
Because goats are designed for processing fibrous plant material, the most important feature of their diet is free choice, good quality hay or hay and forage. Next, they need access to free choice goat mineral with a balanced ratio of calcium to phosphorus. Finally, they need a continuous source of clean, fresh water. Pregnant or lactating does and growing kids also benefit from a grain (concentrate) ration.
There is no single “correct” way to feed goats; the best feeding practice for your situation will depend on the age and gender of your goats and what’s available plus affordable in your region. But since so much of their diet is based on hay or forage, it makes sense to spend the time to find a dependable source of high quality hay or forage that is also reasonably priced. The information below can be used as a basic starting point but it’s a good idea to ask local goat owners their feeding practices to find out what works in your area.
When you first bring your goat’s home, the best practice is to feed exactly what they were getting prior to coming home with you (assuming they are in good health). This ensures that there’s no sudden change in their diet that could upset their stomach microorganisms and cause them to get sick. You can gradually change their diet later as their growth and your knowledge dictates.
There are two main types of hay, leguminous (nitrogen fixing) and grass hay. Alfalfa and clover are examples of leguminous hay while timothy and orchard grass are examples of grass hay. Leguminous hay typically has much higher protein levels than grass hay and will also contain more calcium. Good quality, properly harvested alfalfa might contain 15% protein whereas similarly processed timothy grass might contain 7% protein.
A good quality, mixed legume/grass hay is a good starting point for feeding Nigerian Dwarf goats. Lactating does and young kids benefit from eating alfalfa hay with higher protein levels, but a mixed legume/grass hay should provide a good diet for bucks, wethers, non-lactating does and goat kids older than six to eight months.
There are regions where it’s difficult to find good quality leguminous hay to feed lactating does and growing kids so chaffhaye or alfalfa cubes are alternatives that are sometimes used in addition to other forage. Chaffhaye or alfalfa cubes are typically freshly chopped, processed, and bagged alalfa that specifies a guaranteed level of nutrition and can be shipped to regions that don’t produce high protein legume hay.
A 75-pound adult Nigerian Dwarf goat (the size of a typical adult female) will consume from three to five pounds of roughage per day, depending on the quality (nutrient level) of the forage. Goats are notorious for wasting hay, or pulling out the tastiest pieces and throwing the rest on the ground. It’s therefore economical to use feeders designed to help prevent this behavior.
Feeders with bars spaced 4 – 5” apart and a slant angle of about 60 degrees are often used to help minimize hay wastage. This allows the goats to reach the hay but not stick their head in and pull it all out. Hay bags are another option often used, but we no longer use them except in situations where the goats are being continuously monitored. We have heard of too many instances when a goat has become entangled in the hay bag and strangled itself.
Only high quality hay that’s not dusty or moldy should be fed to goats. Moldy hay can make a goat sick and is also a fire hazard. Storing hay that’s been rained on or baled before being thoroughly dried causes most barn fires.
Access to outside vegetation can reduce the amount of hay that it’s necessary to feed goats and the exercise is good for them. Goats prefer to reach up to browse (rather that down to graze like sheep or cattle) so areas with woody underbrush make excellent goat pastures. And, goats are happy to eat things we consider weeds like poison ivy and multiflora rose. In springtime, goats should be introduced to lush growing vegetation slowly to avoid negatively impacting their rumens or developing enterotoxemia (over-eating disease).
There are plants that are extremely toxic to goats and these plants should be removed from pasture areas before allowing goats to browse in them. Rhododendron, azalea, mountain laurel, wilted cherry, rhubarb, and hemlock are all plants that are highly toxic and should be removed. Cornell University maintains a reference of plants that are toxic to goats (the link is here) but it would be impractical to remove every plant on the Cornell list from pastures. Fortunately, if goats have access to sufficient quantities of non-toxic plants, they will usually avoid or only nibble those that are mildly toxic to them.
If access to a pasture is not available, forage can still be cut and brought to goats. Forage plants that are good for goats include chicory, dandelion, multiflora rose, nettle, plantain, poison ivy, and thistle. Also, garden produce and spent vegetable plants can be used in small amounts as a supplement. Sunflowers (the entire plant), beets, mangel beets, pea vines, Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, carrots, kale, turnips, squash, and sweet corn (husks and stalks) can all be added to their diet. Just remember to introduce any new plants slowly and observe carefully to make sure that the new food is not adversely affecting the rumen microorganisms.
Goats need minerals and vitamins but the amount that they get from their hay ration can vary tremendously depending upon where the hay was grown. Hay alone typically won’t supply all the vitamins and minerals a goat needs; therefore, most goat owners feed a free choice goat mineral to help prevent any deficiencies.
The goat mineral should contain calcium and phosphorous because these two minerals are necessary for goats to build bones and make milk. The ratio of calcium to phosphorous is also very important and it’s typically recommended that it be 2:1 in the mineral mix. A ratio of 16% calcium to 8% phosphorous is common.
In addition to the calcium and phosphorous, the mineral mix should contain salt and most contain small amounts of potassium, magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc, and selenium. Vitamins A, D, and E are often included and the addition of ammonium chloride helps to prevent urinary calculi in bucks and wethers.
Access to a continuous source of clean, fresh water is very important for goats. They’re actually rather particular about their water. I’ve seen goats refuse to drink because the water tastes different from their normal water or it has a goat dropping in it. But it’s very important that they consume lots of it to keep their rumens working. And, milk is made mostly from water so it’s even more important for lactating does.
One thing that goats do seem to enjoy is warm drinking water. I’ve been quite shocked by how much they prefer warm water, how big a drink they’ll take, and how warm they actually like it. For those keeping bucks and wethers, it’s important to remember that keeping lots of water moving through their systems helps prevent urinary calculi – so providing them with warm water is a good idea not just because they like it, but because it also keeps them healthy.
Growing goat kids, lactating does, and does late in pregnancy all need more protein, minerals, and vitamins than that provided by a hay ration, even legume hay. It takes protein to grow goat kids and make milk, so a grain supplement containing 14 – 18% protein is typically added to their diet.
Large dairy operations may mix their own grain concentrate or have a ration mixed for them, but today pre-mixed grain rations that have been expertly formulated to meet the needs of goats are readily available and are convenient for small herd owners. Developing a grain ration for goats can be time consuming, complex, and confusing so the commercially available pre-mixed feeds are a great option.
In some regions, it’s difficult to find alfalfa or legume hay with good protein content and only hay or forage with lower protein content is available. In these areas, the higher (18%) protein rations are often used whereas a lower protein ration might be used in areas where good quality alfalfa is readily available. Grain rations are typically the most expensive part of the feed bill for goats and higher protein rations are generally more expensive. Therefore, it’s a good idea to experiment to find a balance that provides sufficient protein for growing kids and lactating does, but doesn’t provide an excess of protein because of the cost involved.
Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is another item that many goat owner’s offer free choice to their goats. Baking soda helps to maintain a neutral Ph in the rumen and goats will self-regulate consumption to keep their rumens functioning properly.
There are many other “supplements” that are fed in small amounts to Nigerian Dwarf goats such as beet pulp, kelp, roasted soy meal, and black oil sunflower seeds. These feeds are typically added to increase milk production, increase milk butterfat content, or result in some other condition or product enhancement.
Many owners regularly offer their goats a “treat” of some type. Once goats have become accustomed to getting a treat, it can be used to encourage them to learn new things or behave. We know of owners who offer carrots or peanuts, but we use animal crackers. Our goats will do just about anything to get an animal cracker and that is very helpful behavior when trying to train them to walk on a leash, get on a milk stand, or do other new activities.
Feeding Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goats – Who Gets What
Although all goats basically need the same foods, each goat requires differing amounts of hay, mineral, water, and grain depending upon their age, gender, and energy requirements. It’s therefore important to monitor goats individually to make sure they are not getting too fat or too thin. The amounts suggested below are starting points only and should be adjusted for each individual goat as their condition suggests. Neither goats that are too fat or those that are too thin are in optimal health.
Lactating does need higher protein levels and benefit from legume hays and a higher protein (14 – 18%) goat feed. As the percentage of legume in the hay is increased, the need for protein in the grain mix can be reduced. How much to feed lactating does depends on their condition, production level, and lactation timeline.
A general rule of thumb is to feed lactating does free choice quality hay and one pound of grain ration for every two quarts (4 pounds) of milk they produce. However thin, heavily producing does in early lactations might need one pound of grain ration for every two pounds (1 quart) of milk they are producing. Does in mid-lactation that have regained some flesh should still get free choice hay but one pound of grain for every four pounds (2 quarts) of milk produced might be appropriate. Does in late lactation may need only half a pound of grain for every four pounds (2 quarts) produced and hay may be limited depending on condition.
Dry does typically don’t need grain and can be maintained on a lower protein legume/grass mix hay. Does in their last six weeks of pregnancy benefit when their hay is slowly switched to legume and they are introduced to increasing amounts of a higher protein ration.
All does benefit from free choice access to a good goat mineral, water, and baking soda. It’s very important for pregnant and lactating does to have access to these items since their ability to make milk and grow goat kids depends upon additional vitamins, minerals, and water.
Bucks and Wethers
To maintain condition and avoid issues with urinary calculi, bucks and wethers should be fed a diet low in protein and calcium with a specific ratio of calcium to phosphorus.
As with all goats, the most important feature of their diet should be free choice good quality hay or forage. However, they don’t need the higher protein or calcium levels found in alfalfa or legume hay so should be fed quality grass hay instead. The higher levels of protein and calcium found in alfalfa can actually contribute to the development of urinary calculi. In addition, they need goat mineral and water. Drinking plenty of water can help to flush excess minerals from their systems and discourage the formation of any stones that could cause blockage.
During mating season, mature bucks tend to lose condition and become very thin. Therefore, it’s sometimes necessary to add a grain ration to their diet to maintain condition. In this case, it’s best to choose a high energy (carbohydrate), low protein grain ration that also contains ammonium chloride. The ammonium chloride acidifies their urine and helps to prevent urinary calculi.
Goat kids should receive goat milk for the first eight to ten weeks until they are weaned. They will start consuming hay within a few days and should have free choice access to a good quality hay. After they are weaned, a higher protein starter ration is appropriate for growing kids until they’re about six to eight months old. Their grain ration needs to increase as their body weight increases and should be between one to three percent of their weight depending on their rate of weight gain and body condition.
The calcium to phosphorus ratio in goat kid rations should be two to one and a grain medicated with a coccidiostat is helpful for preventing coccidia in young goats. Grain rations containing coccidiostat should NEVER be fed to lactating does unless the milk won’t be consumed by humans. It’s highly recommended that the grain ration fed to young wethers contain ammonium chloride to help prevent urinary calculi. Goat kids should have access to free choice goat mineral, baking soda, and water at a very young age.