Goat breeders. I hate to say this, because I have no desire to paint all who raise goats with the same brush. However, I have had clients come to me with some of the most extraordinary notions about caring for their goats. When questioned, these same clients routinely swear up, down, and sideways that they are faithfully following the instructions of the breeder.
The Goat at the Center of the Labyrinth (and other lesser-known myths)
The Omnivorous Goat – Without a doubt, this is the mother of all insidious goat myths. This creature has several variants: the goat that won’t eat poisonous plants because of instinct, the goat that can eat anything including table scraps and tin cans, the goats that don’t need to be fed because they apparently draw nutrition from the aura of a dirt pasture.
I’m not sure whether the blame falls on Disney, Warner Bros., National Geographic, or the Brothers Grimm, but the damage has been done. Without fail, nearly every time I have opened my mouth to utter “Let’s talk about nutrition” to a goat owner, I have been greeted with the response, “But goats can eat anything, can’t they?”
Pardon me while I dig my forehead out of this wall.
No, they cannot “eat anything.” Goats are not trash compactors. In the broadest designation, goats are herbivores. Translation: they eat plant stuff: not tin cans, not animal products (yes, your adult goat is vegan), and not Twinkies. More specifically, goats are ruminants. Like cattle, they have a four-chambered stomach. The rumen, the largest compartment, contains microbes that ferment the plant material and break down the cellulose (plant fiber) into volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that are the beneficial nutrients. In essence, when you put food in front of your goat, you are not feeding the goat, you are feeding the bacteria. Even more specifically, unlike their ruminant colleagues cattle and sheep, goats are browsers not grazers. This means that they are adapted to eat leaves and brush rather than grasses. This last trait explains why your kid’s 4-H goat ignored the lush lawn and decimated your rose bushes the last time he got into your front yard.
Of these caprine dietary habits, possibly the one that most defines a goat’s menu options is its ruminant status. Remember, we are feeding the bacteria living in the goat’s rumen. Those bacteria like consistency. They are swimming about happily in their perfect rumen-juice (rumen liquor, really!) bath, and they do NOT like changes to that bathwater. Certain dietary changes unfortunately tend to drop the rumen pH (a measure of acidity and alkalinity) and making it more acidic, causing havoc among the bacteria who are now dying by the millions. These changes tend to be from the things that the goat likes and that humans think are nice: extra grain, feeding all grain or pellets when you run out of hay, dumping a load of grass clippings, old vegetables, or other landscaping remains into the goat pen, switching from “that nasty old grass hay” to a “nice, green alfalfa.”
While goat nutritional needs vary depending on breed, age, use, and breeding status, there are some general guidelines that apply across the board.
Maintain consistency. Those bacteria are set in their ways and respond poorly to sudden changes of any kind. If you need to switch forages or to add a concentrate (grain, etc.) to the diet, it is best to make the changes gradually over several weeks.
Forage.Healthy rumen function relies upon a certain fiber length; the fibers of hay or plant stems rub on the rumen’s lining and promote the contractions that maintain a healthy environment for the bacteria. While there are commercially available pelleted “complete” feeds formulated for goats, these feeds alone do not provide the adequate fiber length to stimulate rumen contraction. Generally speaking, about 90% of a goat’s diet should come from forage, such as hay, pasture, random non-toxic brush, your mother-in-law’s prize rose bushes, etc.
Avoid over-feeding. The nature films get the goat environment right. Think about it; when did you last see photos of wild goats roaming verdant fields? Goats can survive quite well on relatively low planes of nutrition.
Feed them. Previous statement notwithstanding, goats DO actually have to eat something. They cannot be “thrown out on the back 40 to fend for themselves.”
Keep them away from toxic plants. While goats are more resistant to some plant toxins (yellow star thistle, for example) than many other species, they are not poison-proof. Young or very hungry animals will eat toxic plants, and several of our common landscaping plants, such as oleander and azalea, can be deadly.
The Disease-Proof, Maintenance-free Goat
I don’t know who came up with the myth that goats are disease- and parasite-proof, but I’d like to beat that person with a stomach worm and then feed him a nice dose of Clostridium as a follow up. Goats are animals, not superheroes. They didn’t come from Krypton, and they haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders - at least not most of them.
Yes, goats are susceptible to various internal and external parasites and to bacterial and viral diseases. They require strategic vaccination and deworming programs, just like any other animal. Goats also require regular hoof care, and occasionally even dental care.
The Moral Goat
One of the weirder myths out there - and not specific to goats, by any means - is the “We don’t need to worry about castrating him because he won’t mate with his sister” myth.
I hate to be the one to burst the innocence bubble, but goats and other animals don’t have incest taboos. A male goat in rut will quite happily mount anything that doesn’t get out of his way. Whether he’s her brother or not, a doe in heat will stand quite happily for anything that smells good (I don’t get the sex appeal of rancid buttermilk, but there is no accounting for girl goats’ tastes in cologne).
If you have more than one goat of opposite genders, assume you will have small goats in about 5½ months. If you do not intend to become a goat breeder, your best option for population control is to separate the male goat from his testicles. (Side benefits: he will smell much better, be less inclined to destroy fences, and will generally be easier to handle. Downside: he will be more prone to urinary tract obstruction.) Do not count on the efficacy of abstinence-based sex-education for your animals.
Goat mythology, while entertaining, does not typically benefit the species. If you are contemplating goat acquisition, check with your local veterinarian if for no other reason than to verify that she will treat goats, as many don’t. Your goat’s veterinarian can give you recommendations for diet, vaccination, and parasite control for your area. Research the breed of goat you are acquiring. Learn whether it is susceptible to any particular diseases. If you are planning to breed goats, learn about the reproductive characteristics of that breed: Is it a good milker? Are there genetic conditions? Is there a high rate of difficult birthing? (This is very much a problem in “dwarf” breeds.)
Like anything else in life, raising goats takes information, work, and luck. If anyone tells you differently, it’s a myth.