Spring is an exciting time of year for all of us, including our goats. All of our spring greens start growing in. So, instead of eating lots of potatoes and sweet potatoes (humans) and hay and grain feed (goats), we can now start eating those nutritious fresh greens.
Greens are amazingly good for you and for your goats. But just like you can’t suddenly eat three cups of mustard greens without consequences, your goats can’t suddenly gorge on grass without a few digestive issues.
Gas, bloating, and even diarrhea are the natural consequences of eating too many leafy greens when you’ve been winter-deprived.
Instead, we have to start slowly and get our stomachs in condition for digesting spring greens. For us humans, we can simply control our portions. For goats though, unless you can somehow control what they eat in pasture, you’ll need to use these spring transition tips to ready their rumens.
Understanding Goat Digestion and Risks
Browsers vs. Grazers
The first thing to know is that goats aren’t grass eaters. I mean they eat it. They even love it. But goats are what we call “browsers” not grazers.
They were designed by nature to eat a little bit of grass and whole lots of other things too. They are built to eat brambles, legumes, tree leaves, bark, and more.
Goat pastures, though, often have lots of grass growing in them, especially in spring. If your goats have been living on dried food, those early spring grasses can wreak havoc on their digestive systems. Goats might even develop minor health problems that can become serious if not addressed.
For example, you might notice that as the early spring grasses start to come in, goats may have bouts of scours (goat diarrhea). This spring transition sign is typical whenever goats have a significant change to their diet.
If it only lasts a few days, it’s not usually a big deal. However, if it lingers longer then goats run the risk of becoming dehydrated. They may also not be getting all the nutrients they need from their food if their digestive system isn’t working properly.
Those two factors can lead to other problems.
Parasites during Spring Transition
Goats always have parasites, both internal and external. It’s just a fact of goat keeping that all of us goat lovers accept as normal. The important thing is to make sure our goats are completely healthy so their bodies can keep parasite loads in check.
If goats are dehydrated and undernourished, they aren’t healthy and can easily develop heavy parasite loads during the spring transition. Those parasites can lead to further malnutrition, anemia, and death.
Does are Exposed to Added Risks
Even if goats are still healthy, the fact that spring pastures are just starting to grow means that goats tend to eat lower to the ground. When they eat lower to the ground, they are more likely to re-ingest parasites they shed through their feces.
That’s not all! Most people plan to have goat kids in spring. So, does are dealing with digestive problems and greater parasite risks during pregnancies and this spring transition period. That means it’s not just the health of your goats at risk, but also their unborn kids.
Spring Transition Baseline Goat Care
This list of springtime problems sounds terrible and stressful. Sometimes it can be, but there are easy thing you can do to help keep your goats in great condition during their spring transition.
Each spring I make a few changes to my baseline goat care. By combining these changes, there is a dramatic improvement in the health of my goats during their dietary spring transition.
1. Add Molasses or Sorghum to Water
As a sweet (but healthy) treat, I add a little blackstrap molasses or sorghum to my goat water. This makes it extra tasty for goats. As a result, they drink more and stay hydrated.
Plus, for reasons I don’t fully understand, those forms of sugar are a great feedstock for increased beneficial bacteria. They aren’t exactly a probiotic or prebiotic, but they play a role in building up the population of good microbes that help with digestion.
2. Offer Baking Soda
In my mineral trays, I put out baking soda whenever goats are going through dietary changes. This is used to help balance a goat’s rumen acidity level so they can have better digestion.
Goats eat this when they need it and they leave it alone when they don’t. During spring transition, my herd will sometimes go through a few cups a week. But by late May, they barely touch it.
You can get 5-pound bags at many grocery stores. However, you can often find it at farm supply stores in 50-pound bags for much less per pound. It may not be called baking soda, but the ingredients shown on the bag will say that it’s sodium bicarbonate.
3. Offer Free Choice Minerals
Many goat keepers offer free-choice minerals year-round. But just in case you don’t, it’s extra important to offer these minerals in spring. Goats eat a less varied diet during the spring transition since fewer things are available in the pastures.
Giving goats access to their daily vitamins can save you lots of trouble with other health issues.
4. Set Out a Salt Block
Even though I give goats free-choice minerals, I also set out a salt block or two in their house in spring. When goats drink more because of the molasses and sours, they often need more salt to keep their electrolytes in balance.
This isn’t a primary source of minerals for my goats and it can take them years to go through a block. But my goats use those blocks a lot more often in spring. So, that tells me they need it.
5. Be Extra Clean
As soon as it’s a little warm in spring, I take goats off deep bedding. I switch them to a goat litter box. Then, I start sweeping up their house twice daily.
This way I can see when droppings don’t look normal. I can clean it up quickly. I can also make good judgments about when scours seem severe versus intermittent.
If you’ve got kids on the way, then you have likely stepped up your spring cleaning anyhow. So, this might already be on your spring agenda.
Homegrown Spring Treats to Feed Goats
In addition to those baseline care items, I also step up the homegrown treats for my goats to give them during the spring transition. Pretty much the only things that survive in goat pastures long-term are grass, deep-rooted weeds, and inedible plants that goats learn to avoid.
Since those aren’t a perfect diet for goats, I also grow and harvest things outside the goat pasture to give to my goats. Well, I say “grow”, but really what I mean is “encourage”. Most of these things are weeds that I just let self-seed and spread in certain places on my homestead.
6. Be Grateful for Brambles
Wild roses, blackberries, wineberries, and more all grow slightly more prolific than most of us would like. Personally though, rather than fighting them, I use them to feed my goats.
I keep old pairs of pruners in plastic boxes near bramble areas around my homestead. Whenever I have a few free minutes, I cut the brambles and carry them to my goats. By continuously cutting them back, I keep them from spreading too far and provide my goats one of their perfect, natural food sources for free.
7. Go Wild for Weeds
A weed is just a plant out of place unless it’s on my homestead. Here it’s not a weed at all – it’s goat food.
Dandelions are hard to pull. So, I don’t. Instead, I harvest the leaves to feed to my goats. They grow back pretty quickly, so then I harvest again.
As long as I keep cutting the leaves for the goats, they don’t flower and get out of control. Though, I do always let a few flower eventually so that I have plenty for later.
Deadnettle is one of the earliest weeds that grow on my homestead. It’s magnificently prolific and even works well as a cover crop. The goats don’t like it when it’s young. But when it starts to flower, they love it.
That’s about the time I need to start weeding my garden anyhow. So, I just harvest the flowering tops and take them to the goats. Since deadnettle is an annual, I leave the roots in the ground to decay as organic matter.
Just like my chickens, my goats love chickweed. Since that plant also loves fertile late winter and early spring garden soil, it’s a welcome weed in my vegetable garden. When it gets big enough, I harvest the whole thing and feed it to the goats, roots and all as their spring transition treat.
8. Devine your Vines
I have lots of cultivated grapes, cold-hardy kiwis, and hops growing on my landscape. These plants must be heavily pruned to get good yields.
So, I let them leaf out a bit then I prune and feed the vine cuttings to my goats a handful at a time. This stuff is like candy to them. So, I try not to give it to them all at once.
Cold-hardy kiwis, in particular, are such a great good feed, I even started growing a few plants just to cut for the goats. You can easily propagate these by layering or cuttings. Once established, they are virtually carefree in many temperate climate areas (other than pruning to feed to the goats).
9. Trim Your Trees
Goats are also bark and wood eaters. If you have downed limbs or tree trimmings, tack them up on a barn wall or tie up on a post. Goats will nibble at the bark when they need it.
Just make sure to avoid the limbs from trees that can be poisonous to goats such as laurel or wild cherry. Also, only offer fruit tree limbs once in a while. Too much fruit tree wood can be bad for goats.
10. Round-Up the Roughage
I give my goats roughage during their dietary spring transition. Things like brown leaves, straw, and dried pine needles don’t have a lot of nutrition for goats. But they really help goats better balance their rumens when they are eating a lot of grass.
11. Take ‘em Tannins
Plant leaves that have lots of tannins are good for goat gut health. If you grow things like cardoons, artichokes, chicory, or ashitaba, those highly tannic leaves are fabulous stomach settlers and are good in bacteria encouragement.
12. Helpings of Herbs
Finally, just like herbs can be helpful to us when we are under stress or going through seasonal changes, they can be great for goats too. My goats get lots of oregano and garlic chives in the early spring transition. I also give them hyssop and mint once they get going. Lemon balm is another goat favorite.
(Read more about the many benefits of growing mint I shared earlier – you will be pleasantly surprised.)
Herbs in large quantities can alter the flavor of milk. So, stick to small handfuls and see how it goes. You can even dry some for later and sprinkle them on their milk stand feed.
Healthy Goats and Healthy Goat Keepers
One more benefit of taking such great care of your goats during their spring transition is that its good for you. Spending time with your goats, getting outside, interacting with plants, appreciating nature (even weeds), and enhancing the health of your dairy herd all improve your health too!