Goats are very active foragers, able to cover a wide area in search of scarce plant materials. Their small mouth, narrow muzzle and split upper lips enable them to pick small leaves, flowers, fruits and other plant parts, thus choosing only the most nutritious available feed. As natural browsers, given the opportunity, goats will select over 60 percent of their daily diet from brush and woody perennials (multiflora rose, saplings, small deciduous trees, black locust, briars, brambles, sumac, privet, honeysuckle), and broadleaf plants (pigweed, dock, horseweed, plantain, lambsquarter) over herbaceous species such as fescue, bluegrass, orchardgrass, crabgrass or bermudagrass. The ability to utilize browse species, which often have thorns and an upright growth habit with small leaves tucked among woody stems, is a unique characteristic of the goat, compared to heavier, less agile ruminants.
Goats have been observed to stand on their hind legs and stretch up to browse tree leaves or throw their bodies against saplings to bring the tops within reach. Goats are more likely than other domesticated ruminant animals to select plant parts containing tannins. Goats even sometimes climb into trees or shrubs to consume the desired forage. In spite of their grazing preferences, goats can be grazed on pasture alone. The feeding strategy of goats appears to be to select grasses when the protein content and digestibility are high, but to switch to browse when the latter overall nutritive value may be higher. This ability is best utilized under conditions where there is a broad range in the digestibility of the available feeds. It is is an advantage to an animal that is able to select highly digestible parts and reject those materials which are low in quality.
In a pasture, goats tend to graze from the top to the bottom of plants and do not like to graze near the soil surface. Therefore, goats will more uniformly graze a canopy than other ruminants will. This behavior results in even grazing and favors a first grazer-last grazer system. This system might consist of using a goat herd as the first group and cattle as the last group. It is most appropriate with lactating does or growing kids whose nutrient requirements are high.
Goats have been observed to:
Grazing time can be influenced by several factors, including the season of the year, the temperature and humidity, the topography of the land, the nature of the plant canopy, pasture availability and social interaction between animals. The season of the year, with changes in day length and intensity of sunlight, cause goats to graze in different patterns. At mean temperatures below 50 F, goats spend very little time grazing at night. At mean temperatures above 50 F, some grazing time will occur at night; and when mean temperatures exceed 77 F, one or more grazing periods will occur at night. During hot weather, frequent movement of goats during the day will increase intake. The topography and size of the pasture also will have an effect on grazing time, as will forage availability and ease of forage removal. Goats will not graze sites within the pasture where urination and defecation have taken place, and this can increase the time it takes to graze. Goats are generally sociable, so if one animal gets up to graze, others will follow.
Luginbuhl, J-M. 2006. Pastures for Meat Goats. In: Meat Goat Production Handbook, ed. T.A. Gipson, R.C. Merkel, K. Williams, and T. Sahlu, Langston University, ISBN 1-880667-04-5.