Good hay is the cornerstone to a happy, healthy goat. Hay for goats is incredibly important for keeping the rumen working, especially in the winter when it’s digestion provides a lot of warmth.
There are three main types of hay
- Grass -These are typically timothy, orchard, brome and bluegrass
- Legume – These are typically alfalfa, clover, vetch, soybean, and lespedeza
- Cereal Grain – These include oat and barley
Hay is very regional, so what you find will be determined by what grows best in your region. Most available hay in the northeast is grass hay, or a blend of grass and alfalfa. Legume hay is great for growing or milking goats, but can often be cost prohibitive and hard to find here. Most people who keep goats feed a good quality grass hay, and will supplement with a legume hay, typically alfalfa, when they can.
Legume hay is high in protein, calcium, minerals and vitamins and is a good choice to offer to dairy animals in milk. Due to a lack of consistently available legume hay in many areas, a lot of farmers choose to give their milking does Chaffhaye, a chopped, fermented, non GMO, bagged alfalfa that is readily available at feed stores. Alfalfa pellets are another alternative that some people will add to their gain mix.
Most people advise against feeding straight alfalfa hay to boys due to the high calcium content leading to an increased risk of urinary calculi. However, many large producers report feed their male goats alfalfa with no reported issues, sighting lack of clean readily available water and grain as the main culprit for urinary calculi. Feed alfalfa hay to male goats at your own discretion.
Cereal grain hay is not often available, and is rarely fed out to goats due to the potential high levels of nitrate, which can lead to nitrate poisoning.
First Cut vs. Second Cut
Second cut hay is recommended for goats, especially for dairy goats, as it has a higher nutritional content, more legumes, less weeds, and better overall digestibility. First cut tends to have a lot of overwintered weeds and grasses, and is just less desirable all around. Second cut usually receives the benefit of fertilization, and the best part of the growing season, clear of stemmy weeds competing for nutrition.
Second cut hay can be hard to come by, especially if the weather is not conducive to a good hay season. Try to find a good hay producer who constantly has a second cut, and be sure to budget to stock up on second cut when it’s available. In the northeast, we find that our local hay producers typically run out of second cut well before winter is over.
The maturity of the growth at the time of harvest is also important as it has a big bearing on the protein percentages. Once again, this will also vary from region to region.
Know your Hay
When looking for a hay supplier, make sure you know how to spot good quality hay. Examine bales carefully to ensure there is no mold or off-putting scents of mustiness. When you open up a bale, it should be nice and green and have an appealing aroma. If it’s yellowed and sun bleached on the outside, that’s fine, as long as it’s still nice and green when you open it up. Look for a good balance of stems and leaves. Make sure the bale flakes well, and doesn’t seem especially heavy or damp. Also check for plants known to be toxic to goats, such as milkweed (very prevalent in our area and often found in our hay).
Know Your Hay Farmer
When you buy hay 3rd party from the feed store, you can never be sure what you’re getting, as it’s often taken in from a variety of farms. Find a local farmer who specializes in growing hay. Ask what type of hay they grow, how many bales they typically do per year, if they spray pesticides on their fields, if they typically run out of hay over the winter, etc. See if they deliver and what the fees are, as this can save you a lot of time and effort with one big delivery vs. running to get hay every weekend. When you commit to a hay farmer, they will commit to you in return and make sure you’re getting the best quality hay you can get for your goats.
When you’ve settled on a consistent hay supplier, you can have a hay sample sent off for analysis to get a fantastic reading on mineral content, protein content etc. If you talk to your local county extension office, they can usually direct you to where you can get your hay sampled at no charge. They can also talk to you about the hay in your area and direct you to local hay farmers. Many larger haying operations can offer you an analysis of their hay, as they often have it done themselves.
Listen to Your Goats
In the end, it’s your goats that have to eat the hay. Know that your goats are going to toss a good amount of hay on the ground no matter how amazing your hay is. However, if the hay waste seems excessive, and you don’t see them eating it often and enthusiastically, you may want to sample hay from another farm and see if your goats find it more palatable.
- Make sure the hay you buy is clean of mold and mustiness, has good coloring, and flakes well
- Keep your hay supplier consistent to ensure a level of quality in your hay, and to avoid feed upsets in your goats
- A mix of grass hay and alfalfa is ideal for goats, but a good alfalfa hay is preferred for lactating goats.
- Second cut hay is always better for your goats than first cut
- Hay types and quality vary from region to region – check with your county extension office to learn more about the hay available in your area