Feeding Greens and Other Garden Materials to Dairy Goats

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter and Chert Hollow Farm
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Using damaged kale as a milking treat.

Most dairy goats demand a treat in return for allowing you to milk them, often a scoop of grain or other purchased, processed snack. Many years ago, we decided to cut back on grain as much as possible, to reduce both expense and health concerns for our ruminants. This partly involved replacing the daily dose of milking treat with another foodstuff that the goats would enjoy sufficiently to remain cooperative on the stand.

Plenty of goats feel that milking ends when the food runs out, not the milk. Grain is like candy to goats, and regular old hay just didn’t produce the same satisfaction and cooperation in our herd. Yet the solution was not only obvious, but efficient: using various leafy vegetables from elsewhere on our farm.

Brussells sprouts, sweet potatoes, and pole beans all produce abundant leafy waste material ideal for goat treats.

What to Feed Goats from the Garden

As a full-time vegetable farm for most of our goat-raising history, we generated a lot of “waste” material which couldn’t go to market or CSA shares, but was just fine for goats. This included:

1. Unwanted leaves left over from harvesting roots or stems, such as sweet potato, carrot, parsnip, turnip, & kohrabi.

2. Damaged or pest-ridden leaves, unsellable but goat-edible, such as cabbage, lettuce, & kale.

3. Plant material left after production, such as Brussells sprouts, broccoli, peas, beans, and cowpeas.

Goats can be picky in their own way, but in our experience they’re remarkably tolerant of damaged or pestiferous vegetable material. Wormy cabbage leaves? Yes, please, with a side of protein supplement. This makes goats a perfect alternative to the compost pile.

We’ve found that sweet potato vines, in particular, are beloved by goats. Sweet potatoes  have can their vines removed several days before digging, so during this period we gradually harvest vines each day and use them as milking treats and overnight food. Then we dig potatoes whenever we’re ready, with the vines already out of the way and turned into goat food.

Growing and Storing Crops for Goat Feed

Diversified vegetable production should have something available for the goats during much of the growing season. We’ve even experimented with overwintering hardy collards to provide fresh green snacks during late fall and spring. We’ve also stored certain greens, such as kohlrabi and cabbage: the latter’s outer leaves are usually damaged and need to be stripped before sale or consumption, so we filled large coolers with these and stored them in our walk-in cooler for weeks, slowly feeding them out to the goats.

Workers on our vegetable farm stripping kohlrabi leaves into coolers, to be chilled and stored for later-season goat food. 

If you don’t have a vegetable farm or large garden, you could still consider planting a simple “goat garden” for a small homestead herd, a block of simple and hardy greens like kale, collards, or chard that will thrive without much attention, and produce a handy source of daily treats on your way to the milking location. These greens will remain goat-edible far longer than human-edible.

What Goats Eat Can Flavor Their Milk

It’s possible some greens may add flavors to the milk. This is something we haven’t experienced ourselves, despite all the different things we’ve fed out over the years. In fairness, we rarely drink our milk straight, turning it all into cheese, yogurt, and other products, which seems to eliminate any flavors our feeding practices might introduce.

Those with sensitive taste buds may want to experiment before feeding large quantities of an item to a dairy goat. That said, we’ve made a point of never feeding any alliums to our goats, in spite of a goat named Garlic being our herd matriarch for years. We’ve also avoided feeding any plants from the solonaceous family (tomato, pepper, potato, etc.) due to potential toxicity of some members of that family, and a lack of definitive answers in that regard.

Feeding sweet potato vines to appreciative goats 

Beyond milking treats, a goat herd of any kind functions as a great destination for large-scale vegetable matter. There are times when we need to clear lots of produce vegetation at once, particularly in the fall as frost looms, and feeding out cartloads of vegetable greenery saves moving fences to new paddocks as frequently.

While bloat is theoretically a concern if you over-feed the animals, we’ve never experienced it from vegetable material. Introduce small quantities of new items first, and keep an eye on your animals. Also, because partially cured hay can cause bloat, we err on the side of caution with fresh greens and don’t feed wilted materials.

Our homestead farm doesn’t like spending money, or importing outside products onto our land, and making use of these greens helps with that. And since we compost manure and bedding, including uneaten plant matter, then use it as vegetable fertility, feeding out waste green helps complete an on-farm fertility cycle. We still have to buy hay for winter, and keep a bag of organic alfalfa pellets around as a replacement milking snack when greens aren’t available, but it’s remarkable how well garden/farm scraps work as goat treats to save money and recycle on-farm resources.

Photo 1 by Eric Reuter. Photos 2, 3 and 4 by Joanna Reuter 

Eric and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and currently works part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy.

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