You are not raising goats. . . . you are raising rumens.
The vast majority of health problems encountered with goats are
rumen-related. Overeating, diarrhea, toxemia (plant, mineral, hay, or
grain), listeriosis, goat polio, pregnancy toxemia, ketosis, floppy kid
syndrome, laminitis/founder, ruminal acidosis, bloat, antibiotic therapy
. . . the list of conditions affecting the rumen is almost infinite.
Therefore, an understanding of how the rumen functions is basic
information needed by goat producers. This article is an overview
intended to prod each of you towards learning more about caprine rumen
function and how it affects the health of your herd.
The rumen, which is located on the goat's left side, manufactures nutrients
by using live bacteria (microbes) to convert food matter into nutrition.
Working much like a living compost pile (and smelling somewhat like one,
too), the rumen begins breaking down food as soon as the goat swallows it.
Whatever a goat eats goes directly into its rumen and not through a stomach
as in people or dogs. Goats eat by foraging for several hours, then while
resting, they regurgitate a chunk of this material (the cud) and chew it.
If the pH of the rumen is "off" (it should be slightly alkaline), then the
goat will not get proper nutrition and may become sick or possibly die.
Unlike humans, whose stomachs use acids to digest foodstuffs, goats begin
the nutrition manufacturing process in their rumens before their food is
thoroughly chewed. For this reason, what the goat eats and how much it
eats is very important to its overall health.
The rumen (rather than the goat) must be properly fed in order to keep the
live bacteria healthy and active. If the microbes are completely consumed
or compromised, undigested food becomes toxic and the goat's body cannot
manufacture the necessary vitamins and nutrients which it needs to survive,
much less produce and nurse kids.
Goat require a wide variety of different types of plant materials. Unlike
sheep and cattle, goats must have very high quality forage/feed. And
because goats have such fast metabolisms, offending feedstuffs adversely
affect a goat much quicker than other species.
The rumen is full of beneficial bacteria. Anything which interferes with
the bacterial flora in the rumen is likely to cause health problems in the
animal. To get an idea of what this means, take a 15-liter plastic bag
(about average rumen size) and fill with hay, some water, enzymes, and
bacteria. Then add some grain. Mixing as you go, add leaves, grass, and
more water. Keep the bag closed and heated to approximately 102*F. Then
look at what you have. Or try this: Take shell corn (which people love
to feed because it is cheap and goats like it), add water, and watch it
swell up. That is what happens inside the rumen. Shell/cracked corn is
"goat candy." Like human kids, who will eat candy instead of vegetables
and meat necessary for proper nutrition and good health and therefore
become ill, goats are prone to doing the same.
Listen to a goat's rumen activity. It makes "growling" sounds several
times a minute. The sounds are different with what they eat or drink and
at different times of the day or night. Smell the terrible breath that
occurs when a goat is chewing its cud. Recognize that a goat will
sometimes chew its cud in its cheek like a man chews tobacco. Press your
hand to the left side of the goat's body to feel the movement. Put your
ear or a stethoscope against the rumen and listen carefully. Do this for
several days and with different goats. Learn what is "normal" rumen
activity and which sounds or lack of sounds indicate trouble. Recognize
the rumen sounds of a healthy goat at rest and that of a goat who is
grinding its teeth in abdominal pain.
What goes into a goat largely determines the goat's overall health. A
goat out on forage is, all other things being equal, going to be much
healthier than a goat that is penned and fed by humans. They do not
submit to intensive management without serious problems arising.
Goats will never be successfully "feed-lotted" in the same sense that
cattle currently are. Rumen problems resulting from disease, stress,
and/or overcrowding lead to sick and dead goats. Overfeeding on grain
means disaster, particularly to very pregnant does and kids just beginning
to eat solid food.
"For a healthy goat, feed the rumen, not the goat."*
*My thanks to Dr. Belinda Thompson, Pine City Veterinary Clinic, Pine City,
New York, and her valued client and my good friend Colleen Parsons,
Capricorn Hill Farm, Pine City, New York for making me aware of this
wonderfully useful phrase highlighting the importance of good rumen health
Suzanne W. Gasparotto
Onion Creek Ranch