When we talk about feeding ruminants, we must begin in the pasture. Actually with any livestock animal - nutrition's mainstay should ALWAYS be comprised of forage. However, ruminants are unique in that they have a four-chambered stomach allowing them to do well on poorer forages than that of a horse, for example. The forage travels through these chambers while being regurgitated, chewed again, (this would comprise the "chewing the cud" phase) and eventually digested to obtain all the nutrients. This slow digestive process provides even the poorest of pastures to appear like an all you can eat buffet!
Approaching the Buffet Line...
So, if all ruminants can find plenty of nutrition in even the sparsest of pastures...can we just put them out to graze and all will be fine? Yes and no. Yes, the vast majority of a ruminants diet can be found in the pasture, but they would not all approach the buffet line in the same manner.
A grass-based diet is the foundation of a healthy cow's diet. The pasture should be a mixture of mainly native grasses with some legume varieties added for protein. You want a variety here, not simply a plot of fescue. When you need to supplement fresh pasture, first and foremost, reach for dried hay, again a variety is best, as each brings its own nutritive value to the table. What hay, how much, and when to feed is another conversation. If you are ever in any doubt, please speak with your veterinarian to come up with an appropriate ration.
A sheep's diet is a bit more diverse. They fall in between the grass-seeking cows and the "I'll eat anything" goats. Sheep tend to be a bit more selective, but will thrive on a pasture that grows wild. Again, I tend to repeat this over and over again...VARIETY, VARIETY, VARIETY. When you need to supplement, turn again, first, to dried forage. I must warn caution here: sheep are careful little critters to feed. They accumulate copper in their livers more readily than other livestock, and this can lead to toxicity. I usually recommend (and in this case highly so) that you get your hay tested as well as your pasture, especially if either is fertilized. Sheep require copper levels at about 5 ppm (parts per million) in their diet. Toxicity can occur at levels higher than 25 ppm, but have been noticed at levels lower.
Oh, those silly goats! They WILL eat about anything in your pasture; furthermore, they can thrive where most cannot. This doesn't mean put them in a barren wasteland and let them be, it simply means the buffet just got a bit bigger. They will seek a mixture of rougher forages than that of their above cousins, including weeds, brush, branches (with or without thorns), and yes...tree bark. I guess they would be the ones you take to the restaurant that always finds something on the menu! If you need to supplement, again look to dried varietal hay. Adding a bit of alfalfa hay to the mix is a good source of added protein, especially for pregnant or lactating does.
Beyond the Salad Bar...
Let's see, we've filled our ruminant bellies at the buffet with plenty of greens and legumes. But, we feel like there is still a little something missing. What lies beyond the salad bar? And, do we even NEED to venture there?
The short answer is "feeds" and with good quality pasture, supplemented with dried forage - NO, you don't have to wander outside the fence. Then, why do we reach for feeds so readily? And, when we do, how much is enough?
Let's summarize the ingredients of our good, nutritious buffet thus far...
1. Good, mixed-variety, pasture! (first and foremost)
2. Dried varietal forage (where our pastures may lack due to season change, weather, over use, rest, etc.)
3. Supplements by way of salt and/or mineral blocks (again, please use caution with sheep)
4. Other natural supplements when and as needed (if a problem arises or to promote overall health)
5. Feeds when necessary (and they may not be)
When I say "feeds", I am referring to a grain based product. There are some rules here...
This should never be the sole or even the majority of a ruminant's diet as grains can produce too much acid during fermentation in the rumen (one of the chambers in the stomach). If grain amounts are kept small, this should not occur as the bicarbonate in their saliva is able to buffer this; however, if fed in large amounts or introduced suddenly, grains can cause serious problems for the ruminant.
Attempt to feed grains in their whole state, meaning not rolled, crimped, steamed, etc. Any change in the original state of the grain requires heat. This process destroys nutritive elements which is the reason you have reached for them in the first place.
Grains, generally speaking, tend be much higher in phosphorus than they are in calcium. You then, end up supplementing to return balance, and your ruminant's diet now resembles that of well-stocked medicine cabinet.
The Whys of Feeds...
When is it necessary to feed? I can only answer this from my own personal experience and share with you why we do at our Casually Cockeyed Farm.
1. To supplement a forage rich diet in very small amounts. We feed eight mini-nubians (the largest weighing in at about 60 to 70 lbs.) two cups twice per day. This equates to only 1/4 cup per goat twice daily. That's it! This enables us to use the very best ingredients and make this supplement truly a beneficial complement. You can read about our feeding recommendations for other ruminants in the "to feed" section under "learn".
2. To maintain routines. Our goats are on pasture from about 7:30 am until about 7:30 pm. They are then put up in their large stall to protect them from coyotes, as we have many in our area. Offering them a bit of feed in the morning and evening allows us to lead them in and out of the pasture like a well-oiled machine. They know exactly what to expect and are more than happy to accommodate our request. This also works well when trimming hooves or milking!
3. In case we ever had to administer any medications or supplements. To offer a bit of feed at scheduled times allows us to add supplements, dewormers, or medications if needed without any unrest. We actually do add herbal supplement every day as part of their habitual feedings and herbal dewormer bi-monthly. There is never any argument, as they simply eat as expected.
What We Would Find at This Buffet...
What can we expect to find here, and what should we look for?
1. Grains, of course! Concentrates...think high energy! You want this amount to be about 45 to 47 % of the mix. Barley is, in my opinion, a great grain for ruminants and the one that I would have as the fore runner in any recipe; it has been deemed "the goat cereal". Other grains could include oats, wheat, corn, etc. Note: I don't recommend corn during hot seasons.
2. Protein, by way of legumes.This portion of the mix can include alfalfa, clover, split peas, lentils, etc. It should round out about 30 % of your mix. Alfalfa would be my favorite here due to its mineral content. The plant actually reaches to great depths to obtain nutrients that other legumes cannot reach.
3. Beet Pulp. I love beet pulp and it really gets a bad rap. It doesn't fall into the forage or concentrate category, yet is high in fiber like forage. It is a by-product of the sugar beet industry and one of my favorite feeds due to its rough texture. Our goats love it!
A note here (and the reason for the bad rap) I do recommend non-GMO if you can afford to purchase it. Sugar Beets tend to be at high risk for genetic modification, as is corn. And, remember, we are feeding small amounts here - a little goes a long way when simply supplementing a forage based diet. Beet Pulp also often contains molasses; I do recommend the UNSWEETENED brands. There we go - bad rap dealt with! Beet Pulp can comprise about 15 - 20 % of your mix.
4. Other ingredients. I look to seeds when adding anything additional. They can add variety to the protein in the mix as well as healthy omega content. These should be kept at about 8 - 10 %. Examples of beneficial seeds include: pumpkin, sunflower, flax, chia, etc.
5. A well-balanced, natural sourced mineral mix. I prefer ingredients that are found naturally; however, they are more expensive, so substitutions can be made. This mix should include yeast, kelp, salt, and microorganisms (healthy probiotics) and finish out the mixture.
Well, there you have it - a healthy, balanced buffet for the ruminants in our life. One final thought: I cannot stress enough if making your own mix, please have it analyzed. Coming up with a feed that is properly balanced is extremely complicated and a lot of research and testing goes into it. Furthermore, a discussion with your veterinarian would be beneficial as feeds really should be used as supplemental nutrition. When supplementing an animal's diet, you would be considering that individual animal or, perhaps, herd. As all animals are different, so too is offering supplement.