Forage Utilization: As previously indicated, meat goats must depend almost solely on forage to meet their nutritional needs. Forages commonly utilized are grasses, browse, weeds, forbes, and, seasonally, small grains, hays, and, occasionally, silages. With rare exception, all these plants contain usable protein, energy, minerals and vitamins in some measure. It should be emphasized that goats actually prefer to browse on brush rather than on grass commonly taking about 60% browse and 40% grass in mixed plant populations. Since goats are particularly adept at selecting the most nutritious plants (and within plants, the most nutritious portions), they may do reasonably well on grazing areas considered poor to fair by man and cow alike if, of course, the amount of herbage is adequate. Like other animals, however, goats respond quite favorably to increased quality/quantity of feedstuffs. Public perceptions to the contrary, goats can not in fact economically turn only very low quality vegetative matter into meat and milk. Successful managers know this; novices may not last long enough to learn it.
The composition of feedstuffs commonly eaten by goats varies widely. For information on composition of specific feedstuffs, see Pinkerton (1991a). In practical grazing situations, goats consume an everchanging combination of these feedstuffs with selection reflecting seasonal availabilities and relative palatabilities. The daily dry matter intakes of maturing goats range between 3 - 5% of body weight, occasionally higher. The actual quantity of feedstuffs eaten per day will be influenced by palatability, dry matter content, digestibility, and rate of passage from the rumen.
As one compares the protein, TDN and mineral values of feedstuffs, several points become apparent. First, legume roughages such as alfalfa, cowpea, lespedeza and vetch are higher in protein and calcium than are non- legumes such as Bermudagrass, Bluestems, Johnsongrass, Sudangrass and Lovegrass, either as grazing or as hay crops; their TDN values, however, are fairly comparable. Secondly, forage crops ordinarily are higher in protein and TDN in the form of pasture than in hay. Thirdly, protein and TDN levels of individual roughages are dependent on several variables, among them: variety, age of the plant, soil fertility, rainfall, harvesting procedures, and storage conditions. Fourthly, roughages are much higher in calcium than in phosphorus, while feed grains generally have more phosphorus than calcium. The mineral needs of meat goats are such that a need for phosphorus supplementation is much more likely than a need for extra calcium except perhaps during heavy lactation.
Note that the protein and TDN contents of most browse plants are quite comparable with those of more traditional Oklahoma forages. As noted before, goats are particularly adept at selecting the most palatable parts of browse plants; fortunately, palatability generally is generally associated with lower fiber, higher protein and increased digestibility. Spring growth is the most palatable and therefore has the highest nutrient value. Browse plants, particularly those grown in the more arid areas, may produce significantly less quantity of forage per acre than native or improved pastures, but initial quality of browse may be a compensating consideration. In eastern Oklahoma, pine and oak forest understory brush is a variable mixture of plants, many of which are good sources of protein and TDN for meat goats. For more information on grazing habits, see Lu (1985).
To evaluate the usefulness of pasture and browse plants for meat goat enterprises, it would be helpful to know their average annual yields per acre in addition to their protein and TDN. Unfortunately, such data are scarce and, in any case, yields can vary very widely across time and place. Thus, it is very difficult to answer basic management questions concerning grazing density (head/acre), optimum grazing pattern (frequency and duration), and needs for supplemental feeding (protein, energy and minerals). For novice goat owners, the experiences of goat-owning neighbors are likely to be the best guidelines available.
Several rules of thumb for grazing can be typically applied, e.g., 6 mature goats equal 1 cow on native or improved pastures or 10 goats equal 1 cow on browse or understory brushy areas. As a practical matter, Oklahoma Angora goat owners have routinely grazed 10-12 goats per acre of good wheat pasture and 12-15 (occasionally more) goats per acre on alfalfa pastures. Angora producers have also reported grazing densities of 2-3 head per acre on good native pastures in the south central area and 1-2 head per acre of brushy fields (go-back land) in the southeastern area; Texas rangelands typically require 4 acres per goat.
Concerning the composition of high energy feeds, experienced livestock owners know that there are only small differences between corn, milo, barley, and wheat. Choosing one over the other is mostly a question of relative costs per cwt. However, some goat producers feel that milo should be used only sparingly, if at all, as it can promote urinary calculi in males (Ca:P ratio lower than about 1.5:1 predisposes the formation of calculi). In the absence of definitive research, wheat should probably not constitute over 50% of a grain mixture. Price frequently may preclude the use of oats, even though it is an excellent goat feed. Costly grinding of the grains for goats is seldom necessary.
High protein feedstuffs, used only occasionally by meat goat owners, are cottonseed meal and soybean meal. Whole cottonseed, cull pea seed and cracked mungbeans have also been used when conveniently available and priced competitively. Other protein feeds, such as gluten feeds, mill feeds and urea (in range blocks), are used as sources of protein. Choosing between alternative high protein feedstuffs is largely an economic decision. Dividing the price of a cwt of feed by its protein content will yield the cost of 1 lb. of protein and thus facilitate comparisons.
Forage Supplementation: In those situations in which the available forage is insufficient in protein or energy or minerals to support desirable levels of goat performance, proper supplements should be offered in adequate quantities but, as always, with due respect to the likely cost-benefit exchange involved. In actual practice, most owners provide extra minerals to their goats year round. Typically these may be in the form of trace mineralized (loose or block) salt, individual sources of calcium and/or phosphorus (offered separately or in combination with salt), or commercial mineral mixtures. Phosphorus content of forages is usually much lower than calcium content. Adequate phosphorus being necessary for reproduction and milk production, supplementation is usually economical. Goats apparently have a much higher tolerance to copper than sheep so typical cattle mineral mixes are usually safe for goats.
In those grazing situations in which the plants are too low in protein (or in which forage quantity is much reduced), additional protein must be offered to maintain acceptable goat performance. Protein supplementation may take many forms and cost per unit of protein may vary widely. Experienced goat feeders compare protein costs, presence of other dietary components, palatability, feeding facilities required, labor cost/convenience, and likelihood of achieving fairly uniform intake per animal. Feeding a hay of sufficient protein level is frequently the optimum solution. In other cases, a lb. or so of 20% crude protein (CP) cubes or .5 lb. of 40% CP supplement or 0.5-1.0 lb. of whole cottonseed may be economically sound and nutritionally adequate. Protein blocks of about 37% CP are widely used during southwestern winters. Some owners have observed that grazing small grain pastures for only 1-2 hours per day will provide adequate supplemental protein (and energy) to their dry pastures or non-legume, lower quality hays. The continuous availability of roughage, even poor quality hay, is important during such protein supplementation; it allows the animals to economically use the protein.
When existing pastures and/or browse are unacceptably low in energy, experienced goat owners offer good quality hays to maintain performance; .5 to 1.0 lb. of shelled corn is also used, as is whole cottonseed. Cost per unit of energy is always a consideration but, without adequate energy, conception rates, milk flow, and kid growth rates will be compromised and gross income reduced. Some producers compensate in advance for expected declines in forage quality and availability by keeping protein blocks and hay available free choice, noting rises in consumption as pasture conditions worsen.
"Flushing" is the practice of feeding breeding age goats extra protein and/or energy for 30 days prior to and 30 days following the introduction of bucks to achieve a weight gain during this period. This weight gain is usually accompanied by improved fertility, increased conception and twinning. Flushing may or may not be necessary for meat goat production, depending on quantity and quality of available forage. If flushing were necessary, .5 lb. of corn and/or .5 lb. of protein supplement day/head would usually suffice.
When planning grazing and supplementation practices, it is prudent to always remember that a meat goat enterprise generates cash income from the sale of surplus kids and cull adults as well as non-cash, but real, benefits from brush control and pasture improvement -- perhaps $40-$70 per breeding female per year. Obviously, adequate year round grazing with only mineral supplementation is the optimum option; all other options increase costs but likely would be economically wise.