Goats eat everything! Right? Well, my herd of Dwarf Nigerian cross Boer goats doesn’t. Offer them organic lettuce fresh from the garden, and they’ll turn their collective noses up at it.
Offer them fresh oat hay, and they won’t even sniff it! Even some bales of alfalfa may prove too stalky for their delicate dispositions.
Admittedly, not all goats are as particular as mine, and while some may happily munch their way through a bale of straw, they won’t thrive on it.
There are almost as many different hay varieties as there are goat breeds – that’s why finding the best hay is something of a challenge.
The best hay for a lactating dairy goat won’t be the same as the best hay for mature bucks.
What Is the Best Hay for Goats?
Goats need good-quality grass hay that’s free from debris and mold. The actual type of grass doesn’t matter too much as long as it’s not too coarse for their tiny mouths. Many homesteaders buy Timothy hay for the main herd and alfalfa for their lactating does, who benefit from its higher protein and calcium content.
With hay prices soaring, it’s tempting to look for cheaper alternatives. You may even find yourself wondering, is straw or hay better for goats? Good-quality straw looks like hay and smells strangely appealing to humans, but goats know better. (They have more hay wisdom than us. For sure!)
Hay is harvested and baled with the leaves and grains still attached, whereas straw is merely the collection of stalks left over after the grain harvesting.
As a result, it has almost no nutritional benefits, which is why goats generally prefer sleeping on it rather than eating it.
However, there are different types of hay! That is probably where the confusion about straw comes from – the mix between hay and straw throws off even skillful farmers.
Not all hay is grass, after all, and you do get some types of cereal grain straw, as well as grass and legume hay.
Cereal grain straw is more nutritious than the straw we use for bedding because, during harvest, the farmers leave the grain seeds still intact.
My goats aren’t that keen, and while they’ll nibble away at the oats, they’ll leave the stalks untouched.
These are ideal for a pregnant and lactating doe and to give an under-nourished goat an energy boost, but they contain too much calcium and protein for the average adult goat.
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Timothy, brome, orchard grass, and bluegrass are all types of grass hay. Good-quality grass hay is both nutritional and digestible.
As long as it’s free of dust and mold and harvests early, it makes an excellent fodder. Harvested too late, it will be too stalky for a goat’s tiny mouth and more troublesome to digest.
Combining elements of both the above will keep your goats in excellent health.
Although we were feeding our lactating does some alfalfa, we found it was too dusty and fell apart too readily.
More bale got trodden into the ground than consumed, making it expensive and futile. Pellet form would make a lot more sense, but are alfalfa pellets bad for goats?
Are Alfalfa Pellets Bad for Goats?
If fed exclusively, alfalfa in any form can be bad for goats. Bucks, for example, are prone to developing urinary calculi, or stones in the urinary tract, if kept on an alfalfa-only diet for too long.
A better approach is to provide your entire herd with grass hay ad-lib and then mix some alfalfa pellets plus grain for your lactating does and anyone else that needs a bit extra.
The calcium in alfalfa will increase milk production and, when fed alongside the phosphorus-rich grain, delivers the right balance of calcium and phosphorus.
What to Look for In a Bale of Hay
You expect to find hay in any bale you buy, but I’ve found it’s often mixed up with a variety of other things.
I’ve found mud, stones, weeds, plastic bags, and mold in my bales recently, all of which detract from its usefulness and nutritional value. These foreign bodies can also cause problems for your goats, despite their robust digestive systems.
To establish which hay is the best for your goats, look for the following:
Leaf to Stalk Ratio in Your Hay
The higher the leaf content, the more nutritious the hay.
Smell of the Hay
A bale that smells sour or musty is probably moldy and therefore unappetizing – even for goats!
Moldy hay can also cause listeriosis or Silage Sickness. Listeriosis is a potentially fatal infectious disease that causes encephalitis, blood poisoning, and abortion. (Yikes!)
Color of the Hay
When we see a bale of bright green hay, we get excited! It looks so good we might even consider eating it ourselves. Green bales indicate that it is still fresh. Fresh hay bales usually contain healthy levels of vitamins A and E.
Hay that sits around for six months or more, or if it dwells in poor conditions, will usually have a yellow or brown hue. It will also lack the vitamin A and E levels of fresh hay.
Touch the Hay
Good-quality hay should be soft to the touch and flake easily. Not only will goats be reluctant to eat very stalky hay, but it’s also less nutritious.
Debris in the Hay
Dirt, sticks, and stones add to the weight of a bale of hay, meaning you get less hay for your money. A hale with lots of dirt in it will inevitably become dusty, potentially causing respiratory issues for your goats.
Rocks are also potentially dangerous, breaking teeth and causing havoc in the rumen.
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Best Hay for Goats FAQ
We have boatloads of experience feeding hay to goats and researching about goats!
That’s why we want to share a list of the top questions for any farmer with hungry goats to feed.
We hope you enjoy reading the answers!
Grass hays are the best for goats. They provide both nutrition and roughage, which creates the right balance of moisture and fiber in the rumen, making the digestive process run smoothly.
Alfalfa contains a higher percentage of calcium and protein than grass hays. In bucks, this can result in a build-up of calcium and the development of urinary calculi.
For many years, we resisted feeding our goats any grain at all, firmly believing that they were getting all the nutrition they needed from the pasture. When the weather gets cold, the natural availability of those nutrients drops. The nutrient loss makes it hard for pregnant and lactating deers (does) to maintain their weight and get the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.
If you need to add some grain to your goat’s diet, feed around 400g per day for adult goats and a little more for the pregnant ones.
If your goats have no opportunity to forage for themselves, they need to eat around 3-4% of their body weight in hay every day. That’s usually between two and four pounds. The amount of hay a bale contains varies – so pay more attention to how many pounds of hay your goats need!
Many experts and homesteaders recommend Timothy hay for goats on a maintenance diet and alfalfa for those who are underweight, recovering from an injury, or pregnant.
Any type of grass hay, including Timothy, Bermuda, and Teff, is ideal for the average adult goat, provided it’s of good quality and free from any mold and debris.
Young kids that have weaned do better on a mixture of grass and legume hay, such as alfalfa or clover.
The best hay for goats isn’t a type – it’s a quality. Fresh, green hay is more nutritious, palatable, and easier to digest than hay that sat around for six months or more. That means your goats get more bangs for your buck!
What about you – and your goats?
Which hay do they prefer?
We’d love to hear about your experience!
Thanks for reading – and have a great day!