Small Ruminant Myth Busting

Numerous myths and fallacies about small ruminant nutrition exist. Most of them deserve to die a hard death. One that I most commonly  hear is, “Goats will eat anything.” This statement is false, and I have hours of stories to back this up. In the interest of space, we will concentrate on a few of the more prevalent myths and consider tackling others in a future article.

1. Alfalfa causes mastitis.
If this statement were true, every dairy cow in the United States should be suffering severe cases of mastitis. While clinical and subclinical mastitis is a major issue in the US dairy herd, it is much more complicated than linking it directly to a specific feed source. Mastitis tends to be either of a contagious or environmental source, although there are other opportunistic pathogens that can cause mastitis as well. We will take a deeper dive into the complex issue of mastitis in a future article. Ultimately, alfalfa is not the issue in this situation.

2. You cannot feed grains to small ruminants, especially wethers.
In some circles, people are certain that grain is the source of all evil. In the case of sheep and goats, the problem is not the grain itself: the issue is that grain gets used improperly. When the ratio of Calcium to Phosphorus drops below 2:1, the risk of urinary calculi (UC), aka water  belly in male sheep and goats increases exponentially. In severe cases of UC, the male cannot urinate. Unless treated successfully, possibly by a veterinarian, the male sheep will die. Other issues can occur when the calcium to phosphorus ratio is off, including lower bone density, growth issues in young animals, etc. The occurrence of these types of conditions demonstrates the fact that proper ration balancing is important when feeding livestock. I frequently hear producers blaming alfalfa for urinary calculi problems, yet alfalfa is generally considered a source of calcium and grains are heavy in phosphorus. Grass hay tends to have a very low Calcium to Phosphorus ratio as well, making UC problems very possible while feeding grass hay, which may be contrary to information circulating on the internet.

3. Pregnant ewes/does can survive on grass hay and produce multiples that grow like gangbusters.
Genetic selection is an amazing thing. One can select the traits of their livestock, such as striving for animals that thrive in low input, low nutritional environments. At the same time, genetic selection is a process that takes many years to culminate into the animal that you desire. It is important to remember that genetics is only one factor to success, and in most cases, surviving and thriving are two separate abilities.
Even the most genetically superior animals have nutritional requirements that must be met for them to thrive.

On the nutritional side of small ruminant production, the fact is that grass hay is not created equal. Grass hay quality depends on many factors including field management, early cutting, proper drying time, variety of grass, etc. Protein and fiber content can vary widely, ranging from what could be considered straw up to 14% protein. Generally, South Dakota grass hay tests range from 5-11% CP. When we recognize that animals require a certain amount of protein and not a specific percentage, a general percentage for maintenance level would be around 9-10% CP. Thus, if we are feeding only lower quality grass hay, the animal’s maintenance needs may not be met. Also, we have not even considered other important nutritional factors including fiber, digestibility, mineral and vitamin needs. Livestock in reproductive cycles requires an additional boost in nutrition beyond a maintenance diet to support them in conceiving, carrying, and growing strong offspring.

4. Copper solves all goat health issues.
When scouring the internet it is common to see “more copper” listed as the answer to a variety of health problems occurring in goats. While goats do well on a high intake of copper, it is important to remember that copper deficiency is often indicative of other trace mineral issues. For example, too much of another mineral can cause copper to be bound. The signs of mineral deficiency can include toxicity, as the
symptoms of deficiency and toxicity are very similar in some minerals. Besides, it is rather short-sighted to focus so heavily on one specific mineral. Rather, it is important to consider everything your livestock is consuming and ask what are the mineral ratios, do you have a well-balanced diet, is there something in your water that is impacting overall herd health, what is the quality of your forage, could you have parasite problems, etc.

5. More protein is always the answer.
It is safe to say that in many cases we are not meeting the complete nutritional needs of our sheep and goats. Protein is not the only  requirement in a complete diet. Too often I encounter animals that are underfed or overfed. Additionally, while meeting protein needs is extremely important in maintaining the health of an animal, especially those of a growing animal, there are other components of the diet that
are important as well. Excess protein can indeed be converted into energy (another important part of the diet), yet it is a costly way to meet energy needs as protein tends to be the most expensive part of a complete diet. Research has shown that increased protein is an effective way to combat the effects of a parasitic infection. Yet I once again reiterate the sentiment already expressed: avoid focusing on one part of the ration to the detriment of the rest of the diet. A well-balanced ration is your operation’s best friend.