What do Goats Eat? 20+ Foods in their Diet

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: January 1, 2022
Image Credit BillyWallsPhoto/Shutterstock.com
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Domestic goats are one of the most commonly kept livestock animals in the world. They are used for meat, milk, fur, and skin and have been for quite some time. As some of the oldest animals to have ever been domesticated, humans have been living with goats for at least 10,000 years. With over a billion domesticated goats worldwide, it’s important to know how they fit into human civilization, especially when it comes to their diets. These voracious eaters have a reputation for eating nearly anything and have even been displayed as “can eaters” in pop culture. Is that true?

Let’s look and learn: what do goats eat?

What do goats eat?

What do goats eat? - goats in a field of grass
Goats are herbivores that eat almost any plant life, including things like poison ivy and tree bark.

iStock.com/aurorat

Goats are herbivores that eat shrubs, trees, leaves, plants, vines, weeds, and grasses.

Known to eat anything, goats have some of the most diverse diets of any domesticated animal. Although there are 200-300 known goat breeds, they are all relatively similar when it comes to their diets. One of the main reasons these hardy animals are so common is their ability to survive and thrive in conditions that other animals can’t. Part of that hardiness comes from their diets.

Goats are ruminants that digest plant material with a four-chambered stomach. Known as “browsers,” goats typically prefer the soft shoots of new growth, specifically on trees and shrubs. Whether it’s tree bark, flowers, shrubs, or vines, they spend most of their day looking and testing various foods to see what they like most.

Although they prefer tender shoots and shrubs, goats will also eat grasses, weeds, and roots. In fact, many humans will bring goats into a wooded area for the sole purpose of clearing the brush. One of the best adaptations that goats have is that they are able to eat plants that other animals can’t. Since so many plants are toxic to certain herbivores, goats have filled their ecological niches as generalists and happily feast on plants and vines that are considered toxic to others. Capeweed, for instance, is a commonly found field weed that goats will readily eat when most cattle would become sick.

A complete list of foods goats eat

Nigerian goat eating bark from a tree.
Goats are browsers that prefer new growth on trees.

BillyWallsPhoto/Shutterstock.com

Goats are herbivorous generalists and will eat almost any plant. Here’s a list of foods goats eat:

  • acorns
  • althea
  • bigonieas
  • apples
  • bamboo
  • bay tree leaves
  • blackberry bushes
  • black locus
  • bramble
  • cedar needles
  • coyote bush
  • dandelion
  • douglas fir
  • dogwood
  • elm
  • elm
  • ivy (almost all types)
  • ferns
  • honeysuckle
  • kudzu
  • ash trees
  • oak trees
  • pine trees
  • poplar trees
  • poison ivy, sumac, and oak
  • roses
  • myrtles
  • nearly all grasses

Although this list may seem long, it barely touches the full capacity of a hungry goat!

How much do goats eat?

On average, goats are known to eat 3-4% of their body weight in pounds daily. This is made up of various plant life, although goats seem to have a preferred ratio.

When given free rein, goats seem to eat 60% of their diets from brush, woody perennials, broadleaf plants, and brambles, with the remaining 40% coming from grasses like fescue and crabgrass. since goats are so much smaller than other ruminants, they re able to eve into tough spots to get their food. In fact, this agility allows them to forage in seemingly impossible locations like sheer cliffs and dropoffs. Additionally, they don’t seem to mind eating thorny brambles like blackberry and raspberry.

For most goats, 4-5 hours a day is needed to allow them to forage fully. This foraging period is essential for free-range goats as it will enable them to select their favorite foods and get the required nutrients and calorie count to maintain weight. With that 4-5 hours a day, however, goats can put in some serious work regarding land clearing. Many farmers will place goats in areas that need to be cleaned to reduce their workload. Incredibly, there are “rent-a-goat” programs that allow landowners to rent goats to naturally clear brush. A small herd of goats has the ability to clear about an acre every two days. Additionally, as the goats clear, they also fertilize the land with their droppings.

How do goats digest tough foods?

What do goats eat? saanen goat kid grazing
Goats digest their woody foods with a specialized organ called a rumen.

Mircea Costina/Shutterstock.com

Goats are ruminants, meaning they digest their food through a specialized organ known as a rumen. Within a goat’s digestive system, you will find a stomach with four chambers, each with a special purpose. The first two stomachs are used as fermentation vats. They are filled with enzymes and microbes that help break down the extremely tough and fibrous material that a goat typically feeds. This chemical process allows the digestive system to turn what’s essentially wood into sugar.

After a quick “burp,” the goat will chew the plant material a second time and send it back down to the other stomach. Once it’s been processed, it heads towards the intestines, where it is turned into droppings after all the nutrients are removed. From start to finish, it takes about 15 hours for a goat to fully digest its food.

Goat diets in the wild vs domestication

What do goats eat? - An Alpine Goat descends a cliff of a mountain in the Swiss Alps.
Wild goats eat similar diets to domesticated goats, with the addition of mineral licks.

Pablo Mazorra/Shutterstock.com

Although goats are domesticated, their wild counterparts still exist in the world. Wild goats eat similar diets to the domesticated goats that we see today, with a few exceptions that mostly depend on the species. Wild goats will eat almost anything that a domesticated goat will, plus a few extras like mosses and mineral deposits. In the wild, goats will seek out mineral deposits to lick in order to get their needed nutrients that aren’t provided in their plant-based diet. Domesticated goats usually have this supplemented in their water or food directly.

Can goats eat tin cans?

Although we’ve already covered what domesticated goats eat, there are a few things to note about them. Among the most interesting is the perception that goats eat tin cans. While this is popular, it likely comes from the curious nature of goats. As curious animals, they will try anything resembling plants, including cardboard and paper. When it comes to tin cans, they have been known to eat the wrapping paper on the outside, thereby creating the myth that goats eat tin cans.

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