Of Mangers and Feed Pans
Maxine Kinne

Nutrition overshadows all other facets of management because it directly affects health, production and reproduction. If your animals perform to your satisfaction, you probably have a handle on nutrition; if not, a diet change may be in order. 

In addition to an efficient digestive system designed to extract nutrients from every shred of forage, its propensity for selecting the most palatable, nutritious forage enables the goat to succeed in environments where other species fail. In the wild, the goat gains weight in the spring and summer, breeds in the fall when forage quality declines, and over-winters on poor forage and fat reserves. When it is time to give birth in the spring, body condition is at a low ebb, but nutrient values in forage are high.

Nutritional needs vary according to growth and production status. Kids, weanlings, yearlings, pregnant does, lactating does, and bucks each have different needs. Animals prioritize the use of nutrients in the following descending order: 1) maintenance, 2) growth, 3) pregnancy, 4) milk production, and 5) reproduction, and they lose these abilities in the reverse order when the diet is inadequate. Fertility and milk production are diminished in overweight does.

Production demands on pygmies are few. Pets don't have to work for their keep like dairy breeds, although constant productivity is in the pygmy nature, owing to their tropical origin. Pygmy owners are under no pressure to learn to feed appropriately for economic (milk or meat) reasons. If the critters seem to thrive with a manger stuffed with alfalfa and a pan full of grain, the owner may finally realize that the goats aren't performing very well when kidding problems and/or metabolic diseases during late gestation and early lactation develop, or when wethers and bucks on unbalanced diets develop urinary calculi.

Ruminants can not digest food by themselves. Many different kinds of bacteria and protozoa populate the rumen, and it is their job to process forage into nutrients the animal can digest and absorb throughout the digestive tract. After a 20-minute lifespan, rumen microbes are also digested. Essentially, we feed the microbes who change the food into a usable form.


Water is a frequently overlooked dietary component. Goats need free access to fresh water at all times. Over 60% of the soft tissues are water, and when body water loss approaches 20% the animal dies. Milk contains 87% water, so the needs of lactating does are great.

Some factors affecting water intake are moisture content of the forage, lactation, environmental temperature, and salt and mineral consumption. You can encourage animals to drink more by giving warm water in cold weather, cool water in hot weather, changing the water frequently, and giving free access to salt. Plenty of water also helps keep the boys' plumbing flushed out.


Most pygmy goats are penned in relatively small areas with little or no access to pasture and are fed hay each day. Free choice quality hay provides energy, protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins. These essential nutrients change slightly in proportion to each other for goats at various ages and stages of production. Furnish good hay even if pasture and browse are available.

Unless it is well-managed, young, growing pasture contains too much moisture and too little protein and energy to meet the animals' needs. Managed pasture should be limed, fertilized, clipped routinely to keep the plants growing, and irrigated if you want to to extend the grazing season. Overgrown pasture and late summer browse are too fibrous to have much food value.

There are two basic kinds hay. Legumes (alfalfa, clover and pea) are generally higher in protein and minerals than grasses. Grasses have more fiber. Goats find a combination of legume/grass hay very palatable.

Hay quality is determined by the plant variety, its bloom stage at harvest, leafiness, green color, sweet odor and softness. These factors are affected by growing conditions, harvesting methods, curing and storage. You pay more for higher protein hay, so feed the best you can afford, and make your goats clean it up before adding more.

Leaves contain most of the plant protein and energy, and animals always eat them first. When given too much hay, they often refuse to eat the fibrous stems, and fiber is essential for good rumen function. Obesity and heat stress are is one of the first signs of protein/energy/fiber imbalance. To balance them, make your goats finish the hay before you refill the manger.


Growing kids, does in late gestation, nursing does, and working bucks need grain. The rest of the herd can get along fine without it. WHAT? Why, that's sacrilege! The poor darlings want it! They love it! Sure, they do. (And you like hot fudge sundaes, too, don't you? But could you handle them as a regular diet?) Aside from growing and working animals who need it, grain has been the secret ingredient in the "show goat".

Unfortunately, "blending" usually means fat deposits. Dairy goat breeders who know how to maximize milk production don't put fat on yearlings because they know that fat cells in the udder diminish milk production. (Maybe this is an underlying reason why so many pygmy kids need to be bottle-supplemented - their dams' milking potential was permanently damaged through poor feeding practice when they were young).

You can feed according to need by adopting one of the feeding strategies found later in this article.

Minerals and Vitamins

Calcium and phosphorus are called major minerals because ruminants need them in the greatest amounts. Trace minerals are needed in small amounts and include sodium, magnesium, potassium, sulfur, iron, iodine, copper, molybdenum, zinc, manganese, cobalt, fluorine and selenium. With the exception of selenium deficiency in some areas of the country, most forages contain enough micro-minerals to satisfy the goats' requirements.

Minerals are interrelated and depend on one or more of the other minerals for proper utilization. Excesses of one or more can inhibit others. Your veterinarian and county extension service can suggest balancing supplements if your area has either a surplus or a shortage of specific minerals.

In general, loose trace mineral salt is provided free choice. Some people also supplement with free choice loose minerals, sodium bicarbonate and kelp meal. All of these contain sodium which is the limiting factor in consumption. Loose minerals can balance calcium or phosphorus in your hay. There are some rather expensive goat minerals available, but cattle and sheep minerals usually work just fine for pygmy goats. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian for a recommendations for supplements.

Goats usually get enough vitamins if they have a balanced diet. Vitamins A, D and E are stored in the body. Poor quality hay, and that which has been stored for very long, is low in these vitamins. Commercial concentrate mixes usually contain these, but a good diet and and exposure to sunlight is usually all the goat needs to fulfill its A, D and E requirements. Vitamins C and K are synthesized in the body and deficiencies are rare.

B vitamins are synthesized by rumen microbes and are not usually given supplementally. When rumen function is depressed during illness or indigestion, B vitamins may stimulate the appetite and can be given in addition to a probiotic. (Probiotic products like Probios™ and Fast Track™  repopulate the rumen bacteria). Thiamine deficiency, as in the disease polioencephalomalacia, is treated with high levels of injectable thiamine.

Feeding Strategies

Pygmy goats are often fed inappropriately due to the ease of feeding the whole herd at once, limited time for chores, or space constraints. However, their ability to breed all year often results in differing needs staggered throughout the year. There are a variety of ways to meet the needs of individual herd members.

The goats can be fed separately on stanchions or in stalls. Our does and kids live together in loose housing, and I feed grain individually on stanchions in the milk parlor. Kids are gently stanchion-trained at about a month old. It takes about twenty minutes to feed twenty goats this way, and they eagerly anticipate their stanchion time. This method makes competition a thing of the past, and hoof trimming and other individual routine management is easy at mealtime because they aren't afraid of the stanchions.

Another feeding method involves housing groups with similar needs together. Pregnant does, lactating does, weanling kids, yearlings, young bucks and adult bucks can each be fed according to their needs. Aggression within these groups during meals can be easily monitored.

Kids can be fed in a separate area, called a creep feeder, where they can escape feeding competition. Weaning should not begin before ten weeks old at which time kids are nutritionally self-reliant. Hay or good pasture provides bulk to develop the rumen and should be the main component in the growing kid's diet with grain fed sparingly. (My doelings start at one teaspoon of grain at two weeks old and gradually build up to one-fourth cup by three months old. They don't receive over one-fourth cup per day until they freshen.)

Some Parting Thoughts

Appetite is influenced by palatability, digestibility, and the amount of protein.and energy in the feed. Palatability means the same thing to the goats as it does to you -- the food tastes good because it's fresh and clean.

Freedom from fecal contamination of feed, water and supplements is essential in controlling internal parasites. Hooves in mangers and feed pans lead to increased worm loads. Ranging poultry also cause higher rates of reinfection.

It's a shame feed the best stuff you can get while your goat is infested with internal parasites that will keep them from using it.. Regular fecal exams identify internal parasites which can render your animals unable to utilize nutrients. Kept relatively free of internal parasites, healthy goats are usually easy keepers. Your veterinarian can recommend deworming drugs and dosage levels appropriate for your area.

Management and Diseases of Dairy Goats, Samuel B. Guss, DVM (1977), Dairy Goat Journal Publishing Corporation, Arizona

Merck Veterinary Manual, 7th Edition (1991), Merck & Co., Inc., Rahway, NJ

Nutrient Requirement of Goats: Angora, Dairy and Meant Goats in Temperate and Tropical Countries, National Academy Press (1981)

Related Reading
Nutrient Requirement of Goats (online)


Home      Articles      Links



Copyright 1994
Updated 2002
All rights reserved