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Forage for goats

By Paul R. Peterson
Oct 28, 2002
Paul R. Peterson, Ph.D. Virginia Tech

Goats have a reputation for being able to survive and produce on low quality, brushy, and/or woody feed. In fact, goats require more nutrient rich diet than most other ruminant animals. However, because of the way its mouth is constructed together with its unique foraging preferences, a goat will often consume the nutritious parts of species that are otherwise woody and low in quality. Nevertheless, both cool- and warm-season grasses and legumes can provide much greater yields of high quality forage for goats than weeds and brush.

One of the greatest concerns of the goat grazier is often uncertainty over the consistency of production and quality of pasture forage. A key strategy to address that concern is to include a diversity of forage species in the grazing system. Diversity can exist both within and among pastures on the farm. Every species has a somewhat different distribution of growth through the year and site/climatic adaptation; including a diversity of species will ensure that something is green and growing during most months of the year.

There is no "silver bullet" species for a grazing system. No single species will be adapted to the entire farm, nor will it provide satisfactory production throughout the year. The mid-Atlantic region is fortunate in that a large number of both cool- and warm-season species are well adapted.

Legumes are one of the most critical components of a sustainable grazing system. The grazier should have a goal of maintaining 30-40% legume in most of his cool-season pastures. The only cases where legumes may not be desirable are with warm-season grasses or with tall fescue that will be stockpiled to provide winter grazing. (Stockpiled tall fescue pastures that have a strong legume component should be grazed by late fall because legumes deteriorate rapidly after hard frosts.)

Legumes are critical for 3 major reasons. First, they fix atmospheric nitrogen which supplies nitrogen for their own growth in addition to grasses growing in association with them. This is important because it reduces dependence upon commercial N fertilizer with its associated costs and environmental concerns. Legumes are also generally of higher quality than grasses. While protein is the most frequently cited advantage of legumes when compared to grasses, more importantly, legumes have greater intake potential than do grasses. Third, legumes, and in particular alfalfa, help to stabilize the uniformity of pasture production during summer months when cool-season grasses are often unproductive.

The goat grazier should also endeavor to maintain the majority of his/her pasture in a strong perennial grass sod. Sod-forming grasses include species such as bluegrass, fescues, reed canarygrass, and smooth bromegrass. These grasses form rhizomes (underground stems) which enable them to form a turf that is beneficial for a number of reasons. A sod-based pasture protects the soil from erosion as well as compaction. It is especially critical that poorly-drained soils have a good grass sod to protect against soil compaction by animal traffic. The sod also helps to anchor crown-forming legumes in the soil.

While often scorned, tall fescue is a desirable forage base for the goat grazier. Tall fescue is a tough, low-maintenance grass that can provide good quality forage if kept in a vegetative stage. Its excellent performance under stockpiling for fall and winter grazing together with its winter tolerance to hoof traffic are two of tall fescue's outstanding features. While much of the existing acreage of tall fescue is infected with a fungal endophyte that reduces animal performance, maintenance of tall fescue in a vegetative stage and/or dilution of the stand with legumes are two practical means for minimizing the endophyte's effect.

Orchardgrass is probably among the best choices for a cool-season grass in a perennial pasture. Kentucky bluegrass can be seeded along with orchardgrass to help to provide a good sod base. Many graziers find that bluegrass increases naturally as they move hayfields into rotationally-stocked controlled grazing situations. At high elevations or in the more northern portions of the mid-Atlantic, Kentucky bluegrass may provide acceptable production as the only grass species in a mixture with white clover. Smooth bromegrass is a taller-growing grass that also is a good pasture grass in more northern areas. Reed canarygrass is among the cool-season perennial grasses adapted to the broadest range of soil conditions. While it is frequently recognized for its adaptation to wet, poorly drained areas, reed canarygrass also has greater tolerance to hot, dry summer conditions than any other cool-season grass.

Grasslands Matua prairiegrass or rescuegrass is a Brome species that is most commonly referred to simply as Matua. This variety was developed in New Zealand in the 1970's and has been heavily promoted in the US in the 90's. Matua had shown good potential in many grazing situations. It is very responsive to applied N, and has also done well in mixtures with alfalfa. Key to maintaining perennial stands of Matua is allowing seedhead maturation and seed drop at least once per year. Some Matua plants can overwinter, but many do not, so natural reseeding is required to maintain the stand.

Alfalfa, although typically used for hay and haylage production, is an excellent legume for pasture with controlled grazing. It is best mixed with a tall-growing cool-season grass. A number of alfalfa varieties specifically marketed as grazing-type alfalfas are now available. Under well-managed grazing, where defoliation occurs within a few days and plants are allowed adequate time to regrow and replenish reserves before being grazing again, hay-type alfalfa varieties may be just as effective. The most important considerations with alfalfa are to 1) choose a variety adapted to your area with good disease resistance, 2) establish only in areas with a pH above 6.2, at least medium levels of P and K, and not poorly drained, and 3) use rotational stocking. Not observing any one of the above recommendations will seriously limit alfalfa's productivity and persistent and will very likely result in a lot of money wasted.

White and red clover are both excellent legumes for grazing. These legumes should always be grown in association with grasses when being grazed. Periodic broadcast seeding of red clover and sometimes white clover will be necessary in most situations. Red clover is a short-lived perennial that rarely lives more than 2 or at most 3 years. White clover can live for much longer periods, but is very sensitive to stand loss during hot, dry weather. Clovers offer some advantages to alfalfa in grazing situations including 1) not susceptible to alfalfa weevil, 2) less sensitivity to soil fertility and drainage status, and 3) favorable establishment with frost seeding. However, in good conditions and under good management, alfalfa will often be more productive, especially during dry periods.

Cereal rye and ryegrass offer opportunities for grazeable forage during late fall, late winter, and early spring. These species can be no-till seeded separately or together into warm-season grass stubble. Both perennial and annual warm-season grasses can be used for grazing. Switchgrass and caucasian bluestem, eastern gamagrass, and bermudagrass are perennial, warm-season grasses that provide remarkably reliable forage of good quality for grazing during the hot, dry summer months. Annual warm-season grasses include sorghum, sudangrass, foxtail or dwarf pearl millet, grazing maize, and even crabgrass. These species provide reliable grazing once established and can be no-tilled into ryegrass or cereal rye without herbicide suppression or into a cool-season sod after herbicide burn-down in late spring-early summer.

 Dr. Paul R. Peterson is the Extension Agronomist, Forages at Virginia Tech and can be reached at CSES Dept. Virginia Tech

University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0403, Phone: 540-231-9590, Fax: 540-231-3075, e-mail: ppeters1@vt.edu