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The truth about grain

Feeding grain to small ruminants

Grain feeding can sometimes be a controversial topic among goat and sheep producers. Some producers feed a lot of grain to their livestock, while others do not feed any grain at all. The decision to feed grain should be based on the nutritional needs of the animals and the economics of including grain in the feeding program.

Obviously, forage (pasture, range, browse, and hay) is the most natural diet for goats, sheep, and other ruminant animals. Ruminants are less likely to experience digestive upsets (e.g. acidosis and enterotoxemia) if they are consuming high forage diets.

Novice producers are less likely to have problems with their goats and sheep if they feed them high quality, forage-based diets. In many situations, forage, especially pasture and range, is the most economical source of nutrients for ruminants.

The purpose of feeding grain, commercial feeds, or other supplements to livestock is to provide nutrients that the forage part of the diet is not providing. For example, forage diets often cannot meet the nutritional needs of high producing animals, such as lactating females, especially those nursing triplets; and lambs and kids with the genetic potential for rapid growth. For this reason, supplements are often provided to enable livestock to reach their genetic potential for milk production and growth.

Supplements are usually fed to increase milk production and rate-of-gain. If the increased production increases profitability, supplementation makes a lot of sense (and cents!). Conversely, if the increased costs of supplementation are not offset by increased profits, supplementation is not advisable.

Supplementation of meat goats may not prove to be as economical as supplementation of other ruminant livestock. Supplementation, especially with protein, has been shown to increase the immune response to parasites (worms). In some situations, grain and other supplements are a more economical source of nutrients than forage. For example, corn selling for $4.00 per bushel ($7.14/cwt) is a more economical source of TDN (energy) than hay selling for $100 a ton ($2/40-lb. bale) or more: 9 cents per lb. vs. 10 cents per lb. Energy is usually the most limiting nutrient in goat and sheep diets. Excess energy is stored as fat.

Soybean meal selling for $25 per cwt. ($500/ton) is a cheaper source of protein (CP) than alfalfa hay selling for $200 per ton ($4/40-lb. bale) or more. Protein is usually the most expensive nutrient in goat and sheep diets. There is a tendency to overfeed protein to livestock. Excess protein impairs performance, as energy is required for its removal. It is also detrimental to the environment, as excreted nitrogen ends up in our waterways.

High land values sometimes make pasture a more expensive source of nutrients than harvested or purchased feedstuffs. There can also be considerable costs associated with maintaining good quality pasture: lime, fertilizer, seed, planting, etc.

Times/Situations to consider feeding grain to goats and sheep

There are many different ways to meet the nutritional requirements of goats and sheep. Many producers will be able to meet most, if not all, of their animals' nutrient requirements with high quality pasture or forage. For other producers, the timely use of supplements can substantially increase productivity and profits, without compromising the health or welfare of the livestock.

Flushing is the practice of providing extra energy and/or protein to breeding ewes and does prior to the breeding season and for the first several weeks of the breeding season. The increased weight gain that the ewes and does experience may translate into higher fertility and ovulation rates, though many factors will determine the female's response to flushing.

Thin ewes and does respond best to flushing. Ewes and does are usually flushed with 0.5 lb. to 1 lb. of grain or supplement per day. Flushing can also be accomplished by moving females to a lush pasture prior to breeding. Legume and clover pastures, especially those containing a lot of red clover, should not be used for breeding. The phytoestrogens contained in legumes may delay breeding, although the is limited research to support this claim.


Late Gestation
Nutrient requirements increase greatly during late gestation and are affected by expected lambing/kidding rate. Inadequate nutrition during late gestation may result in pregnancy toxemia (ketosis), low birth weights, weak lambs/kids, and poor milk production. It is common to feed grain to ewes and does during late pregnancy, especially if a high lambing/kidding rate is expected. Ultrasound scanning can be used to determine fetal numbers, so that ewes/does can be fed according to their needs and/or separated into groups for feeding.

If a high quality forage is being fed during late gestation, whole shell corn or barley is usually all that's needed to meet the ewe/doe's nutritional needs. However, if a grass hay is being fed during late gestation, the grain portion of the ration may also need to include a good source of protein and calcium. It is best to feed a mixed grass-legume hay during late gestation and to save the best quality hay (e.g. alfalfa) for lactation when protein and calcium needs are the highest.

Lactation places the greatest nutritional demand on ewes and does, especially yearling mothers, females nursing triplets, and parlor-milked dairy ewes and does. Supplementing lactating females on pasture will usually
improve lamb and

This article was last revised 08.20.17 by Susan Schoenian.

Image by Cindy Mason

kid gains and improve body condition of females at weaning. If is very difficult for a ewe or doe to raise a good set of triplets on pasture without some sort of nutritional supplementation. Giving young mothers and triplet-rearing ewes/does access to more pasture (e.g. a higher sward) is another way of increasing their nutritional intake. Some producers, who do not wish to supplement, choose to remove one of the triplets and raise it artificially.

Creep Feeding
Creep feeding is when supplemental nutrition is provided to nursing lambs and kids. Creep feeding is especially beneficial for flocks that have a high percentage of multiple births. Creep fed lambs and kids grow faster. Young lambs and kids should be started on creep feed as early as 10 days. A creep ration does not need to be complex, but it should be fresh and highly palatable, approximately 20% crude protein.

Grains which are palatable and easy-to-digest are favored in creep rations, e.g. cracked corn, soybean meal, rolled oats. Creep grazing is another method of providing better nutrition to nursing lambs and kids.

Supplementing lambs and kids on pasture

It has become increasingly popular to finish lambs and kids on pasture. Pasture-fed meats tend to be leaner and more healthful than meat from livestock fed concentrate diets. However, some supplementation of grain on pasture does not diminish the attributes of grass-fed meat, while at the same time offering many advantages.

Giving lambs and kids a little bit of grain each day gives the producer a chance to more easily monitor the health and condition of his/her animals. Grain-fed livestock grow faster and are fleshier, which usually results in a higher price at the local livestock auction. They tolerate the effects of internal parasites better. They are tamer.
Grain diets produce a milder flavored lamb.

Drought conditions can shorten the grazing season and create a need for supplemental feeding. One way to conserve pasture resources is to wean the lambs and kids and put them on feed. If hay must be purchased (or has a high opportunity cost), it is sometimes more economical to suppplement goats and sheep with corn or barley and/or a protein supplement.


Poor Quality Forage
If adequate forage is available, but it is of poor quality, it may be advisable to feed a supplement. Protein is usually the first limiting nutrient in dormant forage. Increased protein intake will improve forage utilization. In fresh growing pasture, energy tends to be the more limiting nutrient.

For economic reasons
As previously mentioned, grain and other supplements are often a more economical source of nutrients than forage, especially hay. While goats and sheep usually need to consume a minimum amount of (long-stemmed) forage to keep their rumens healthy, grain can be substituted for hay in order to stretch hay supplies or provide nutrients at a more economical cost. As a general rule of thumb, up to one-half of the hay in a ewe/doe's diet can be replaced with grain or concentrate without much problem.

From an energy standpoint, corn grain is worth 1.9 times as much as the average quality hay. In other words, one pound of corn will replace 1.9 lbs. of average quality hay in the diet. One pound of barley can replace 1.8 lbs. of average quality hay, while one pound of oats can replace 1.6 lbs. of average quality hay.

General Guidelines for Feeding Grain to Ruminants

Do not feed large quantities of grain to ruminant livestock at one time. Large amounts of grain will promote the growth of lactic acidic bacteria, which increases acidity in the rumen and could lead to acidosis. For goats and sheep, a large amount of grain would be in excess of one pound per feeding.

Do not feed large quantities of finely ground grains. Fine grounding increases the rate of digestion and increases acidity in the rumen.

Ideally, feed hay before grain to ensure that the grain is not digested too quickly.

Feed a minimum amount of forage to ensure a healthy rumen. A common recommendation is to feed ruminants at least 1.5 percent of the in body weight in forage.

NEVER change rations too abruptly. The rumen bugs need time to adjust to a new diet, usually a 1 to 2 week period. This is especially true if you are changing from a forage-based diet to one which contains more grain.

Feed grains whole. Cracking grain increases the rate of digestion and may increase the risk of acidosis.

Consider feeding supplements in the middle of the day so that you do not disrupt normal grazing activity.

Provide plenty of feeder space to accomodate uniform consumption.

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