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Nutrition For Goats And Sheep

Robert Spencer

Urban Regional Extension Specialist
Alabama Cooperation Extension System

Whether you raise small ruminants on small tracts of land or large acreage their nutritional needs must be met to produce vigorous animals that will achieve their full potential. Animals raised only on forage or pasturage year around could be lacking in essential nutrients, or adequate browse and forage may not be available, necessitating supplemental feeding during crucial times, and/or, year around supplemental feeding. Each farm circumstance will determine how a producer must manage their nutritional program.

Basic nutrition is fairly simple, it includes water, protein, energy, minerals, and vitamins. Overall animal health, reproductive capabilities, and newborn vigor can be compromised if levels are marginal to deficient. Even small amounts of minerals such as copper, zinc, manganese, thiamine, and selenium lacking in an animals diet can be traumatic!

All livestock needs unlimited access to fresh, clean water. Factors affecting water intake include lactation, body temperature, respiration, mobility, salt, and mineral availability. External factors such as temperature and humidity also affect water consumption. Water is a carrier that moves nutrients throughout the body. Animals are just like humans and the earth in that they are made up of mostly water. So as you can see, abundant fresh water is essential to the overall health of your animals!

Energy is another component of nutrition. Energy requirements are affected by age, body size, growth, pregnancy, and lactation. Energy requirements may affect relationship with other nutrients in the diet. Deficiencies may result from inadequate feed intake or from a low quality diet. Energy is derived from sugars in plant material. When it comes to feed rations both corn and molasses are also used to provide energy in a diet.

Protein is required for most normal functions of the body, including maintenance, growth, reproduction, lactation, and hair production. Protein deficiencies in the diet deplete protein stored in the blood, liver, and muscles; and predispose animals to a variety of serious and even fatal ailments. Proteins are derived from legumes (i.e. soybeans and alfalfa). If you look at an ingredient label for livestock feed you should notice some form of soybean (meal, pellets, or hulls) or alfalfa listed. Cotton seed is sometimes added but is a poor resource for protein.

From time to time I have visited farms whose owner focused on providing energy and protein in their goat’s diet, but failed to include minerals and vitamins. The consequences were obvious. When it comes to minerals, there are macro and micro minerals. Macro minerals are needed in considerable quantities. The major function of these minerals is to provide for the structural or skeletal growth. Micro minerals (trace minerals) are needed in very small quantities. They relate to basic metabolism in animals. Proper amounts of minerals are necessary in the diet to ‘free up’ essential nutrients and vitamins which keep an animal healthy and productive. Insufficient or over abundant amounts of minerals in a diet can bind up available nutrients and vitamins causing poor health and reproduction capabilities.

Here is a brief list of some minerals and their role. Calcium is necessary to prevent parturient paresis (milk fever). Phosphorus inadequacies result in slowed growth, unthrifty appearance, and occasionally a suppressed appetite. Magnesium deficiency is associated with grass tetany. Salt (NaCl) is used as carriers for trace minerals; goats have a clear drive for sodium intake. Potassium plays an important role in metabolism.

Vitamins are also essential in an animal’s diet. A brief list of these include: Vitamin A which contributes to health of the eyes, reproductive tract, and skin. If deficiencies exist diarrhea and respiratory diseases can be present as well as blindness. Vitamin B Complex is needed for overall good health. Low magnesium in the diet usually contributes to a deficiency of this vitamin. Vitamin B1 is destroyed by thiaminase which is found in molds and can cause serious problems including lethargy, staggering, followed by blindness and even death. Vitamin E plays a large role in ability to heal, fertility and general good health. It is destroyed by excess iron and is closely bound up with selenium. White Muscle Disease is linked to the absence of both Vitamin E and Selenium. Vitamin H has sunburn preventative properties and helps the gut utilize folic acid. Vitamin K is for the coagulation of blood; found in most green stuffs.

There is a cause/effect relationship when and animal does not receive a well-rounded diet. The results of deficiencies may not be immediate, but with time become obvious. Symptoms of vitamin & mineral deficiencies may include: blindness, diarrhea, respiratory diseases, lethargy, staggering, viral attacks, slow growth, White Muscle Disease. Most recent studies by NRCS show soils in most of the Southeast to be deficient in selenium, which affects selenium availability in forages! Hence White Muscle Disease (weak legs at birth). Sound familiar?

Animals need a mixed diet of forages, browse, grains and water. Diet with a variety provides essential amounts of nutrition (energy, protein, minerals, & vitamins) animals need. Forages and browse keep an animal’s digestive system working, allowing proper access to available nutrition.

As a manager of the nutritional program on your farm it is important to understand quality forage, browse, and grains are essential to herd health management, will enhance reproductive capabilities, and allow for healthy offspring.



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