Low-Waste Wooden Goat Hay Feeder

Unlike the myth, goats will not “eat anything”…which may go against your recollection as a child when visiting the petting zoo and the goat not only ate your grain but your cup too 🙂 That goat was just a stinker and bored; they are pretty smart and precocious creatures that need some entertainment at times and seeing a child’s shocked face was probably a highlight.

Goats are a ruminant, which means (in a nutshell, because the system is very complex and amazing) that they eat herbaceous material like hay, browse of shrubs and trees, along with broad leaves and grasses which all go into the rumen (a special part of the stomach that is a type of vat where the plant compounds are converted into sugars and other cool stuff by the symbiotic microbes that live within a healthy ruminants’ rumen). The goats use that finished “vat” material for energy and growth, plus dairy does even make extra protein and fat for their milk output…I think that’s amazing.

A bit too full, but an idea of the Low Waste Wooden Goat Hay Feeder.
The goats move fast, thus the blurry “action” shot.

To remain at the optimum health, a goats’ rumen should never be empty, so they need to have browse available to them at all times. We give fresh hay in the morning and evening feedings and our goats are able to browse outside when the weather allows. We like to give our goats hay in the morning before they go outside to graze, hoping to keep them off of the wet, dewy grass for as long as possible (hopefully, until the sun burns off the dew) since wet grass can cause them to bloat. The hay also acts as a sponge for the wet grass if the goats do decide to gorge on the wet “salad bar” in the pasture. Bloat is a serious condition that occurs to goats when their rumen gets “off kilter” and the microbes aren’t able to process the materials properly. I won’t go into the details of hay (hay is not hay, is not hay, everyone has an opinion and there are probably textbooks on hay…funny huh?), but we use a grass based, weedy hay that our goats love. Our hay also has dried red clover in it as well and we have found that our goats love dried clover a lot more than they like fresh clover. We like the weeds in our hay, because weeds can have deep tap roots that pull minerals from the subsoil beneath the top soil. Goats are very mineral dependent and we like to have a variety of weeds to try to meet that mineral requirement they have.

So, our hay is weedy and full of different plants and our goats have favorite parts. They like to pick their favorites out of the hay and leave the not so yummy (and I am guessing the less than optimum nutritional parts too). They are persnickety creatures that do not “finish their plates” and will not eat everything in their hay feeder to the bottom. That’s why we give them fresh hay every morning and night…not too much to keep them from going out to “work” for their food by browsing and grazing though, so it’s a balancing game of observation and learning.

Now we come to not wasting hay. Hay is valuable and nutrient rich when it is clean and fresh; I don’t want to waste it as bedding, when a less nutrient dense material would suffice for animal bedding, like carbon-rich straw and wood shavings. Plus, if you have ever tried cleaning out a stall, I think most people would agree that matted down hay is the hardest thing to clean out, but straw is much easier (I’m not sure why, but it’s just what I’ve learned…my family and I have some theories that I won’t bore you with right now). I want to squeeze as much nutrition from our hay and get as much of it into our goats (it’s time consuming and costly to harvest hay, so I don’t want to waste those commodities either), but goats will naturally “fight” that process with that persnickety behavior of theirs. Remember when I said that a goat has favorites in the hay? Well, a goat with a normal feeder will pull their favorite hay from the feeder, dropping at least half of it while chewing it and enjoying their surroundings. That’s a lot of wasted hay!!! How do I make a goat feeder with little waste?!

A book that I read a long time ago and probably need to read again now that I might understand more of what he’s saying from my own failures and experiences in goat keeping is Dairy Goats for Pleasure and Profit by Harvey Considine.  In it, he talks about his years of experience keeping dairy goats, feeding them and creating a low waste hay feeder (can you tell Harvey is my hero?)  He shares, among all the other information, in his book a hay feeder design that deters the goats from pulling their heads out after every bite that they take of hay by designing the feeder with slanted slats that bump the goat’s ear if they try to pull their head out quickly.  It encourages the goat to keep their head in the feeder and drop any excess back into the feeder.  It’s amazing.

Dairy Goats for Pleasure and Profit-
a great resource for all things goat related

When we first implemented the feeder, there was a transition time.  At first, it was scary to watch the goats try to figure the feeder out, because some goats were bullies and would butt the others and when one goats head was in the feeder, I was afraid that they would get hurt.  Fortunately, the goats can see if the other goats are coming up and can watch for the bullies.  I haven’t noticed bullying anymore, because we make sure there is enough feeder space for all the goats, even the shyer ones.  When we first implemented the feeders, we had some goats that couldn’t fit into the spacing.  Harvey Considine suggests a spacing, but I think some of our goat breeds that weren’t Saanens had bigger heads, so we adjusted the spacing.  Harvey suggested 5.5 ” on square for mature does and 6.5″ for bucks with a 63-degree angle slant.  Our spacing is a bit wider, but not too wide to make it easy for them to pull their head out after every bite.  On the first day we built our feeder, we never left our goats until we were sure that every goat understood the feeder and was able to use it successfully.

We also built “benches” that the goats step up on with their front feet and then are able to bend their heads down into the feeders to eat the hay.  Harvey suggested this in his book and we never doubted his experience, so we added it to our feeder design.  The feeder works best when the hay flake is laid into the feeder flat and the goat must put his head into the feeder to reach it.  In our video, you’ll see what happens when our feeders are over-filled and how the goats react (and waste).  We also pull out the extra hay and show how the goats act when the hay is lower in the feeder.

Harvey Considine cleans out his feeders before every feeding.  We don’t clean it out that often, but we do clean it out regularly and use the uneaten hay for mulch in our flower beds (a method I learned from Ruth Stout in her book, The No-Work Gardening Book).  Harvey Considine says that some of the chaff of the extra hay can also be a great hay for baby goats, but we have never kept it and reused it in that way.  Hopefully, this post has been useful to others out there who have also noticed the wastefulness that goats’ natural behaviors can cause…and hopefully, this will help you love your goats more and be less frustrated with them :).

Some of our Goats using the Hay Feeder based on Harvey Considine’s Low Waste Hay Feeder Design