What kind of hay is best for goats? The short answer is GOOD hay. Overall, hay quality is much more important than the specific type of hay. Goats, being ruminants, thrive on forages. The rumen houses microbes that ultimately feed on those forages. These microbes allow ruminants to make use of plant materials that are indigestible by monogastric (single-stomached) animals, such as humans. The average meat goat requires around 10–14% crude protein and 60–65% TDN (on a dry-matter basis) in the total diet (a combination of all of the hay, pasture and supplements eaten). There are many different species of grasses and legumes out there that are regularly harvested as hay.
While some goat-owners may have a personal preference as to the type of hay that their goats receive, there is no one type of “goat hay” out there that can, or even should, be used. Any type of hay that is of good to excellent quality and is properly harvested and stored can be successfully fed to goats with the correct management. This is not to say that different plant species do not each have their own specific advantages and disadvantages. As they say, there is no free lunch — even for goats!
Fescue is a widely grown cool-season forage grass in the Midwest and Southeast. There are roughly 100 different species of fescue, but the most cultivated species are tall fescue and meadow fescue. Both are high-yielding, broad-leafed perennial bunchgrasses. Some advantages of fescue are that it is relatively easy to establish and maintain and is well-suited to the wet-natured, organic soils and moderate environmental conditions found in much of the United States. Fescue has an adequate palatability and is a nutritious forage option that can be successfully used in goat operations. The average fescue hay typically contains 8–9% crude protein and 55–60% TDN on a dry-matter basis. As with all hay, the nutritional content varies widely according to management and harvesting conditions and can be higher or lower than these estimates.
Another advantage of fescue is its ability to retain quality after “stockpiling.” After frost, stockpiled fescue can be grazed as “standing hay.” Most species of fescue contain a symbiotic parasitic fungus called an endophyte. This fungus affords the fescue plant much of its resilience and adaptability — but endophytes can also wreak havoc on livestock. In cases of high levels of endophyte infestation, fescue toxicosis can result. The fescue endophyte is known to interfere with blood flow and heat regulation in the animal. As a result, toxicity symptoms can include reduced feed intake and milk production (since animals spend more time in the shade and water and less time grazing) and poor conception rates. In extreme cases, animals can experience necrosis on the tips of their ears, as well as lameness and hoof malformation. Fescue endophyte infection levels are variable from field to field. Pastures with lower infection levels will cause fewer problems than those with high infection levels. Fescue toxicity is more common in malnourished animals and those suffering from heavy parasitism.
There are several management options to minimize the negative effects of the fescue endophyte, including the use of low-endophyte fescue varieties; establishing other forages (most commonly, clover) in pastures and hay fields to dilute the amount of endophyte consumed; implementing adequate parasite control measures; and, finally, nutritional supplementation.
Bermudagrass is a fast growing, hearty species of warm-season perennial grass found extensively in the Southeast. Bermudagrass thrives on well-drained, sandy-type soils and temperatures above 70° F. Improved hybrid varieties of bermudagrass are well-suited for hay production. Some common varieties include coastal, Tifton 44, Tifton 85 and Tifton 78.
Many goats do quite well on bermudagrass pastures and hay. One advantage of bermudagrass is that it is relatively easy to establish and maintain; however, hybrid varieties of bermudagrass must be sprigged rather than seeded. Since sprigging is best accomplished by professionals, establishing hybrid bermudagrass fields can be relatively expensive. Another disadvantage is that bermudagrass has a high fertilization requirement. Hay fields or pastures that are not regularly fertilized and/or limed produce poor yields and contain a low nutrient content. Additionally, bermudagrass can grow so fast during the summer months that it can easily become over-mature without regular mowing or good pasture management. The desired canopy height for vegetative growth of bermudagrass pastures is fairly low (2 to 4 inches) and can aid in the spread of parasites. However, strategic rotational grazing can help alleviate this disadvantage.
The average coastal bermudagrass hay tests at roughly 10–12% crude protein and 55% TDN on a dry-matter basis. But once again, poorly fertilized or over-mature hay can contain much lower nutrient values, while well-fertilized hay that is properly harvested at the vegetative stage can deliver even higher nutritional values.
Alfalfa is a high-quality legume that is commonly grown in the Northwest, Northeast and Midwest. Alfalfa is extremely drought-resistant, with a substantial taproot. It requires well-drained soils with a low water table. Unless you live in an area where alfalfa is grown locally, this hay option can be quite expensive.
Some advantages of alfalfa are that it is an excellent source of protein and is highly palatable to livestock. Good-quality alfalfa hay delivers 15–20% crude protein and 55–60% TDN. Alfalfa is used extensively in dairy operations, as it helps deliver the high levels of protein and calcium needed for heavy milk production. The majority of meat, fiber and hobby goats, however, do not require these high levels of protein. Excess protein can be converted into energy to a certain extent, but this is a very expensive way to provide energy. Most excess protein is ultimately converted into urea and excreted in the urine. In cases of the extreme over-feeding of protein, kidney damage can occur. Also, very high-quality alfalfa hay can present a frothy bloat hazard. Another disadvantage of alfalfa hay is that its leaves — which offer the most nutritional value — can be easily lost if hay is too dry or improperly transported or stored. Since alfalfa is relatively high in calcium and low in phosphorus, producers must be more mindful of the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in the total diet. In most cases, a mineral supplement is essential to make sure that the proper balance is maintained in order to prevent urinary stones.
Orchardgrass is a popular cool-season perennial bunchgrass that is grown mainly in the Midwest, Northeast and Northwest. It is tolerant to shade, is fairly drought-resistant and has moderate winter hardiness; however, it will not tolerate wet-natured soils. Orchardgrass is well-adapted to inter-seeding with legumes such as alfalfa, clovers and lespedeza. Another advantage of orchardgrass is its potential for high yields when well-fertilized.
The average orchardgrass hay contains about 9–10% crude protein and 55% TDN on a dry-matter basis. The average orchardgrass-alfalfa-mix hay will contain roughly 14–17% crude protein and 53–56% TDN on a dry-matter basis. The palatability of orchardgrass is good, and goats readily consume it. A disadvantage of orchardgrass, however, is that is has relatively poor disease resistance. Also, if it is overgrazed (leaving less than 3–4 inches of stubble), root depletion is common, and kill-off can occur.
There are several different types of ryegrass. Annual (Italian) ryegrass is a popular variety in the Southeast. Even though it is called annual ryegrass, it is not a true annual and may come back for two or more years, depending on the environmental conditions. Annual ryegrass is used primarily for winter grazing. It is easy to establish and works well when overseeded onto dormant bermudagrass pastures.
Ryegrass is a high-quality forage with excellent palatability that works extremely well for goats in rotational grazing systems. Due to its high protein and moisture content, it is common for goats to experience loose stool when grazing lush ryegrass. This causes no medical concern, but it can be an aesthetic nuisance. One disadvantage of ryegrass is that growth occurs quickly in the spring, and it is easy for ryegrass to get over-mature. However, with strategic rotational grazing and/or hay harvest, ryegrass can be maintained in a high-quality vegetative state. The average ryegrass hay contains about 8–9% crude protein and around 60% TDN on a dry-matter basis. Obviously, one disadvantage of this forage is that it must be reseeded often, which can become expensive.
So, which one is the best?
Well, actually, any one of them can be. It all depends on your individual circumstances. As I emphasized earlier, the nutritional quality of the hay is more important that the actual type of hay. Excellent-quality bermudagrass hay is much better goat feed than poor-quality alfalfa hay. And the only way to accurately determine nutritional quality is through a forage analysis test. These tests can be performed by the state-run forage lab or through a privately owned lab. Contact your local cooperative extension agent or feed store representative for more information on your options.
While the only truly accurate way to determine hay quality is through a forage analysis, there are several visual indicators that can help identify bad hay. First of all, the presence of excessive stems and seed heads in the bales is often an indicator of lower nutritional quality, as is the presence of foreign objects and unpalatable or poisonous weeds. It also goes without saying that the presence of mold is an indicator of poor harvesting and/or storage practices and will result in lower-quality hay.
When choosing a forage species to plant, the first consideration needs to be whether the forage type you choose is compatible with your soil type, the local environmental conditions and your management style. Different forages are better suited for different areas. If you try to fight Mother Nature on this, you will lose the battle eventually. I suggest that you contact your local cooperative extension agent or National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) representative for more information on the forage species that are best-suited to your area. Once you establish the forage species and variety that performs best in your situation, it is important to test each and every lot of hay cut (a lot is defined as hay from the same field that has been managed and harvested under the same conditions within 48 hours). This will not only allow you to better match your hay to the nutritional needs of your goats (or those of your hay customers), but it will also provide invaluable feedback as to the effectiveness of your forage management and harvesting practices.
If you purchase hay, it is usually more economical to buy locally grown hay, when possible. Therefore, if bermudagrass is the prevalent hay type in your area, seek to find the best-quality bermudagrass hay that is available locally instead of importing expensive hay from other regions. Of course, in exceptional cases, it MAY be more economical to import hay. As always, keep your pencil sharp when calculating your total feed costs. You can contact your local cooperative extension, NRCS or Department of Agriculture representative or your local feed store for a list of local hay producers. There are also many hay network lists on the internet that are worth checking out.
Always ask for a forage test analysis on hay prior to purchase. Many reputable hay producers will gladly provide copies of their forage analysis reports, as doing so allows them to highlight the quality of their hay. If the hay producer you deal with has not forage-tested in the past, you can offer to split the cost of testing on the hay you are interested in purchasing. Many reputable hay producers will be willing to do this for you. In my opinion, it is much better to do business with a hay producer who is willing to work with you regarding forage testing; this shows that they care about the quality of their hay and your satisfaction. If your local hay source is unwilling to test the hay before you purchase it, be sure to have a forage analysis performed soon after purchase. Always remember that you often get what you pay for in terms of nutritional quality. Be prepared to pay a bit more for good- to excellent-quality hay as opposed to “take-it-as-is” hay. Also remember that the term “horse hay” is meaningless without a forage analysis report to back it up.
Do I need to supplement?
In every case, no matter how good your hay is, a supplement will be necessary. The exact type of supplement will depend on the quality of your hay and how its nutritional composition matches the specific needs of your goats. In some cases, protein and/or energy supplementation will be necessary in addition to mineral/vitamin supplementation. In others, only minerals and vitamin supplementation will be needed.
Nutritional supplements come in all shapes and sizes and range from natural feedstuffs known to be relatively high in protein or energy, such as soybean meal or corn, to commercially produced minerals, tubs, blocks or pellets. Choosing which type is best for your operation will vary according to your individual circumstances. In many cases, a variety of supplement products will best meet your goats’ needs.
In a perfect world, producers would take soil and/or forage samples to learn their mineral makeup and have a custom mineral manufactured that perfectly matches their goats’ needs. However, this isn’t feasible for the average goat owner. Luckily, these tests aren’t necessary to provide the proper nutrition to the average goat, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do them. However, if you don’t perform these tests, it is vitally important that you purchase a high-quality supplement that delivers 100% of the NRC daily trace mineral and vitamin requirements for goats. This way, you won’t have to worry about what is or isn’t in your feedstuffs, because the supplement will provide what is necessary. Think of mineral/vitamin supplementation as insurance; it’s there to fill in the gaps if you need it. However, as with other types of insurance, you get what you pay for. The most bioavailable forms of minerals are more costly than less-available forms, which means that the cheapest option isn’t always the best option.
In summary, the quality of the hay is much more important when determining its suitability for goats than the type of hay. Each type of hay has unique advantages and disadvantages, and each type can be successfully fed with the correct management practices in place. In each case, goats will need supplementation of some type to maintain their optimum productivity when hay is fed. The hay quality and the nutritional needs of your goats (i.e., a lactating doe vs. a mature buck) will determine the type of supplement needed. Feed supplements pay for themselves in improved health and added production when used properly.
Visit your local ULTRALYX dealer for more information on the available ULTRALYX products or call 1-888-718-3493 to speak to an ULTRALYX representative.