Dairy goats, like meat and fibre goats, need good feed.  If they are pregnant or lactating or both, they need up to three times their basic maintenance ration.  Yet they are fussy eaters and if they are to be healthy, happy and productive, it's important to know what to feed them and how much.

Pasture is the main source of feed for goats in New Zealand, and the general principles of grazing management for livestock apply:

  • Make efficient use of pasture by reducing wastage.
  • Improve pasture quality by managing pasture growth properly.

Some farmers use controlled grazing systems such as break feeding and rotational grazing so that they can ration pasture to allow all goats to get their daily feed requirement.  Where the available pasture isn't enough, appropriate supplementary feed must be provided.

The belief that goats will eat anything is totally wrong.  They like a wide variety of plants and are good at eating down young thistles and dock weeds in pasture (and also expensive plants and trees!), but they won't eat food that isn't clean and fresh.

Feed requirements

The "maintenance ration" is the amount of feed needed by a non-productive goat to keep it in stable body condition.  Goats that are growing, lactating or pregnant, thin goats and all goats in cold conditions need more than maintenance rations as follows:
 

  • Pregnant does need up to three times their maintenance ration in late pregnancy and when they are producing milk.
  • Growing goats need up to twice maintenance.
  • When it's wet, cold and windy, goats' feed requirements increase markedly so that they can produce more heat to maintain their body temperature.
  • If thin goats are to put on weight they need up to twice maintenance rations.

The energy content of feed is often used as a measure of its quality.  It is expressed as megajoules of metabolisable energy (MJME) per kg feed.  In drought conditions or when pasture is sparse, pasture might provide only about 8 MJME/day and 110 g protein.    A 50 kg pregnant doe needs about 13 MJME/day of energy and 100 g of protein per day. Three times this amount is needed when she is lactating, and this can only be achieved by giving supplementary feed such as concentrate pellets.  A doe might need about 0.5 kg pellets each day during pregnancy and up to 1.5 kg when lactating.  It's important also to provide plenty of good quality hay.

Supplementary feed

In winter, goats need supplementary feed particularly if they are producing milk, and this means hay, silage or concentrates.  Any supplementary feed must be introduced gradually over a period of 7 to 10 days, taking care that individuals don't gorge on carbohydrate-rich food such as grain or sheep nuts.  Good supervision is needed to make sure no goats are being bullied and kept away from the feed.

It's important to ensure that goats have water available at all times, particularly if they are on dry supplementary feed and or producing milk.

Beware of poisonous garden plants such as rhododendron, yew, laurel and privet, poisonous native plants such as tutu and ngaio.  While goats can handle small amounts of ragwort, too much will cause damage to the liver.

Selenium supplementation is usually wise for goats, and there are various ways of adding it to the diet, for example in prills on pasture, added to the worming drench or in mineral supplement added to the food.  Many of the treatments available for sheep and cattle are not licensed for use in goats so it's important to consult a vet to get it right.  Selenium is toxic if too much is given.

Goats have a relatively high requirement for iodine, and in some areas iodine supplementation is needed to prevent goitre in kids.  Iodised salt licks may be sufficient in marginal areas, but where soils are deficient your vet can give does iodine injections to prevent deficiency diseases.

Body condition scoring

Rather than simply following a regime of feeding pre-determined levels of feed, feeding levels can be adjusted according to body condition score (BCS) or liveweight.  Condition scoring is generally a more useful measure because it takes into account variations in size and build.  It involves using the fingers to feel the amount of fat and muscle over the ribs, spine, pelvis and rump, and allocating a score to indicate how much tissue there is over the bones at these sites.

A common scoring system used for goats ranges from 1 (emaciated) to 5 (obese).  Here is my version of it:

  • Score 1  Emaciated
    • No fat and minimal muscle cover
    • Pelvis and spine prominent and sharp
    • Ribs outlines visible
  • Score 2 - Minimal fat cover
    • Pelvis and spine prominent but some tissue over them so they feel rounded rather than sharp
    • Ribs outlines easily felt
  • Score 3 Ideal
    • Pelvis and spine covered by tissue and bone surfaces not easily felt
    • Ribs covered by tissue
    • Rump area almost flat
  • Score 4 Fat
    • Rump flat
    • Pelvis, ribs and spine well covered by tissue
  • Score 5 Over-fat
    • Pelvis, ribs and spine covered by tissue, hard to feel
    • Rump convex (gutter over spine)

Lactating does of the dairy breeds, like lactating dairy cows, tend to be lean, but they shouldn't be allowed to fall below score 2.  It is rare to see fat dairy goats but dairy goats that are too thin are all too common.  Any goat that is too thin should be given better feed, better husbandry or veterinary attention as appropriate.

Water

Goats must have water available at all times, especially if they are pregnant or lactating, if it's very hot or if they are on dry feed.

The water supply should allow for 4 litres a goat each day, and the supply system should be able to provide up to 9 litres a head daily.  When shade is provided, goats drink less water than sheep, but when shade is absent, goats drink more than sheep.

Young goats and kids will often play on the rims of troughs and they can slip in and drown. It's a good idea to cover deep troughs or to place concrete blocks or bricks in them so that any animal that falls in can escape.

Troughs should be checked sufficiently often to ensure that daily water supplies are not contaminated, and they should be cleaned regularly.

Hand rearing kids

It's important that newborn kids receive colostrum.  This is the first milk produced by the doe after kidding and it contains special nutrients and antibodies that are essential to protect the kid from disease.  This is the first milk produced by the doe after kidding and it contains special nutrients and antibodies that are essential to protect the kid from disease.  The newborn kid can absorb antibodies from the colostrum, but it begins to lose this ability from about 6 hours after birth.  The concentration of antibodies in the colostrum diminishes rapidly after the doe has kidded and is reduced markedly after two milkings.  For this reason, it's best to leave kids with their mothers for at least 4 days, even if they are to be hand-reared.

If newborn kids are to be hand-fed, give them doe colostrum for at least 4 days.  If doe colostrum is not available, cow or ewe colostrum can be used instead.   Dried whole colostrum is commercially available and can be used if needed - it contains antibodies to help prevent many infectious diseases.

If you are handing over a goat kid for hand-rearing, you should point out to prospective new owners that it will cost $50 or more for the bag of milk powder needed to rear it!

Colostrum, milk or milk replacer should be fed at the rate of 10 to 12% of bodyweight a day preferably divided into not less than two feeds a day.  The milk should be fed warm, but not above the kid's normal body temperature (39oC).

Don't overfeed or change the type of milk or powder suddenly.  This can cause digestive upsets,

To help prevent infectious scours, the feeding equipment must be cleaned and disinfected after each feed and the bedding area must be kept clean and dry.

The recommended feeding schedule on bags of commercial milk replacer is usually as follows:

 

Birth to 18 hours: Colostrum 5 times a day - 120ml per feed
Day 1-3 Whole milk 4 times a day - 225ml per feed
Day 4-7 Whole milk 4 times a day - 225ml increasing to 280mls

 

Day 7-21  Whole milk 3 times a day - 280ml increasing to 450ml per feed
Week 3-8 Whole milk 3 times a day - 450ml per feed
Month 2 to 4 Whole milk, twice a day - 675ml per feed
Over 4 months Growing ration - up to 500 gm a day

               

In practice, after 3 weeks of age the amount of milk kids should get increase rapidly up to 2 litres a day.  Buck kids may take even more, but doe kids should get no more than this.

From a week of age, supplements of 'starter meal' or 'moosli' should be offered and also, very important, good quality hay or straw.  This encourages the development of the healthy efficient rumen that is vital for high producing dairy animals.

Fresh drinking water must be available at all times.
 

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