Best Hay for Goats: Selecting Good Quality Hay

goat eating hay on green background

The nursery rhyme tells us, “Hay is for horses, better for cows. Pigs don’t eat it because they don’t know how!” But what about hay for goats? 

You might think, of course, goats eat hay- goats eat everything, right? But once you start keeping goats, you quickly learn that goats will not eat everything. In fact, goats can be rather picky and have distinct digestive needs.

Luckily, goats do eat hay, and we’re here to teach you everything you need to know about selecting good quality hay for your herd. We’ll even teach why that hay ride you take in the fall isn’t really a hay ride. 

Curious? Let’s learn more.

Hay! What’s That?

If you are new to farming, you might not really know what hay is. It’s ok — don’t be embarrassed. We all have to learn sometime. Hay is made up of plants that have been cut and dried specifically for animal feed. 

Hay comes from many different types of plants, like legumes, grass, and cereal grains. Each type of hay has specific qualities that we’ll talk about in a bit. But first, I want clear up the distinction between hay and straw.

Hay versus Straw

hay bales in the farm

In general conversation, we tend to use the words hay and straw interchangeably. But when it comes to feeding our animals, we need to be more exact with our language. Otherwise, we could end up with the wrong type of feed.

As we mentioned, hay is grown and cut specifically for animal feed. When it is cut, it contains the stem, leaves, and seeds of the plant. This helps make it a well round source of nutrition for your animals.

Goats eat hay and sleep on straw.

Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of growing grain. All that remains after processing the plants are the stems. All the good healthy bits have been removed already.

It is easy to be confused because we commonly use the wrong word. Here’s an example — if you have even been on a hay ride, chances are you were really on a “straw” ride. Those bales you sit on are made of just the stalks. Think about it — they are awfully pokey. And while they may smell sweet to us, your animals won’t eat them.

So now that we know what’s straw and what’s hay let’s look more closely at different types of hay. 

Legume Hay

Legume hay includes plants such as clover, alfalfa, soybean, and peanut (1). These plants are higher in protein, vitamins, and minerals than grasses. Protein is a key component of a healthy diet for your goats, which we’ll talk about more later. 

Depending on where you live, different leguminous plants will be available for your goats to eat. Alfalfa is a popular choice for pregnant and lactating does. Even if it doesn’t grow by you, it is available in a pellet form. 

While high protein legume hay is important for your female goats, you do want to be careful not to overfeed it. Overfeeding can lead to health problems like urinary calculi and bloat. 

Grass Hay

wheat grass hay background

Grass hay can include Bermuda grass, sorghum, orchard grass, fescue, and timothy (1). While grass doesn’t have the same protein content as legume hay, it is still a beneficial ingredient in your goats’ diet. In fact, grass hay is better for some goats than legume hay.

Grass hay instead has more roughage which is also essential to healthy digestion for goats. But beyond that, dry does, bucks, and wethers don’t need the same amount of protein that your pregnant and lactating does do. 

Cereal Grain Hay

This includes grains like oats and barley. If you are feeding your goats cereal grain, it should be green before the seed heads mature. You also need to make sure any cereal grains you provide your goats have been properly harvested to prevent nitrate poisoning.

Mixed Legume and Grass

Mixed legume and grass hay has a combination of both types of hay together. As we mentioned, it is unwise to feed a diet exclusively of legume hay. If you have mostly pregnant and lactating does, it can be easier to buy your hay pre-mixed rather than mix it yourself.

What To Look For In a Bale

It is important to know not all hay is equal. There are many different factors that determine which hay is best for your goats. When buying hay, you always want to make sure you are getting fresh quality hay. But beyond that, you want to consider the dietary needs of your goats. 

We’ll explain not only how to select quality bales but also how to decide which kind of hay is best for your goats. 

First Vs. Second Cut Hay

grain

Did you know that hay is different depending on when it is cut? It’s true. Hay cut earlier in the season (aka first cut hay) is generally coarser and less nutritious than the second harvest. First cut hay is generally harvested in July or August. This hay typically has more weeds, tougher stems, and fewer leaves than hay harvested later in the season.

Second cut hay starts growing later in the season, so the stems are finer. Also, because this type of hay was produced during ideal conditions, it is higher in protein and has more leaves. You can find third or even fourth cut hay in some climates with longer growing seasons! 

The more leaves and protein your hay has, the better it is for your goats. While some livestock like cows and sheep will happily eat first cut hay, you should feed goats from the second cut. You generally have to pay a little more per bale for this, but your goats will thank you for it.

Fresh, Sweet Smelling Hay

You don’t want to eat moldy food, and neither do your goats! Mold is the result of moisture in your hay. Mold can happen if your hay is improperly harvested and dried. 

But be careful because even good bales of hay can get moldy if they aren’t stored properly. Make sure your hay is stored in a dry place and protected from humidity. If you plan on feeding your goats lots of hay, it might even be worth building a DIY goat shelter with a proper space for hay storage. 

You should always check your bales to make sure they are not moldy before you feed them to your goats. An easy way to do that is to smell them. Moldy hay will smell must rather than fresh.

Good Color and Leaf to Stem Ratio

white goats eating hay

But beyond just the smell test, you should break open a bale and do a visual inspection. This allows you to inspect the quality of the bale thoroughly. There are a few things you should be looking at during your visual inspection.

Check the color of your hay. When it’s fresh, it should be a bright green color. As it sits over time, the color will fade to yellowish brown. You can tell a bale that has been sitting for over six months by the tell tale pale color. Older hay has less nutritional value and is at greater risk for mold and bugs.

But color isn’t the only thing to look for. Keep an eye on the leaf to stem ratio. The leaves provide nutrition, and the stems roughage. Both are essential for good nutrition. You don’t want too many stems — then you are leaning more towards straw.

The last thing to watch out for is foreign objects in your hay. Depending on where it was harvested from, you could find anything from weeds to plastic bags in your bales. Obviously, a few weeds are ok, but trash isn’t.

Protein Content

While people say goats can eat anything, if you own goats, you know that is not true. While you may have the best goats for clearing brush, the truth is goats have fairly specific nutritional needs. One critical factor for healthy goats is the crude protein content in their feed (2).

“The minimum crude protein content of a goat s diet is thought to be 7-8%. Below that, rumen bacteria suffer and so does performance of the goat.”

Pregnant and lactating goats require even more protein, up to 11 and 12%. To make sure your does stay healthy without forage, you need to feed them hay with a high enough protein content. As we mentioned, legume hay has a higher protein content than grass hay. 

The best way to know the exact protein content in your hay is to have it professionally tested in a laboratory. But you can get a general idea of the protein content by comparing different types of hay. Check out these numbers provided by the University of Florida from Dairy One, Feed Composition Laboratory (3):

Variety of hayCrude Protein %
Alfafa15 to 22
Perennial peanut10 to 15 
Orchardgrass7 to 11 
Timothy 6 to 11 
Bermudagrass 6 to 11

As you can see the protein content varies significantly between grass and legume hay. 

You can also watch this video, which tells a great story about the types of hay:

Final Thoughts

While it’s always best to let your goats forage, hay is essential in winter and when foraging is impossible. You want to make sure your goats are being fed a balanced diet with sufficient nutrients to meet their individual needs. Since does and bucks have different needs, you may need to buy more than one type of hay.

But there are some factors that are the same for all goats. Male or female, they want fresh, sweet smelling hay. Avoid bales that are old. They could be moldy — which can get your goats sick. And even if they don’t have mold, hay loses nutritional value as it sits. 

If you can, purchase second cut hay. Not only does it start out more nutritious than first cut hay, but it is also harvested later in the year. This means it won’t have been sitting around as long when winter comes and your goats need all those extra calories.

And just remember to try and keep their feed balanced. Too much of a good thing can be just as bad as not enough!

  1. What About Hay? Retrieved from: https://animalscience.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2012/04/nutrition-what-about-hay.pdf
  2. Goat Nutrition – Protein. Retrieved from- https://agrilifecdn.tamu.edu/animalscience/files/2012/04/nutrition-goat-nutrition-protein.pdf
  3. Selecting Hay for Your Horse. Retrieved from- https://extadmin.ifas.ufl.edu/media/extadminifasufledu/cflag/image/docs/fl-equine-institute/2006/SelectingHay.pdf

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