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Do goats prefer tree leaves?

Goat climbing a tree
Writers are fond of telling new goat-keepers that our herds are browsers, not grazers. In other words, goats are supposed to crave tree leaves. But do they really?

Goats eating black locust leaves

Watching our goats graze, my answer is --- sometimes yes, sometimes no. If given a choice between a lush stand of vegetatively growing oats and nearly all tree leaves, Abigail makes a beeline for the oats. On the other hand, black locust leaves always hit the spot over vegetation on the ground.

In the end it seems to come down to succulence, protein, and energy content. Even though goats are ruminants, their bellies are relatively small compared to those of cows. And milk production uses up a lot of calories. So a milking doe like Abigail needs to choose plants of optimal nutrition, which seems to consist of honeysuckle, multiflora rose, black locust leaves, spring grass, and oats. She'll eat tidbits of lots of other plants, but those few offerings seem to make up the bulk of her diet when I allow it.

Cutting trees for goats

In the summer and with insufficient pastures, black locust is the easiest high-quality leaf matter to wrangle for our goats. Luckily, our herd's pastures are located in subpar soil, which is the preferred habitat of this nitrogen-fixing tree.
Black locust resprouting
The trouble is, my current method of cutting one large limb a day for our herd isn't a long-term strategy. Cut limbs do resprout (as you can see to the right), but I suspect I can only get away with coppicing a tree once or twice a year if I want it to survive.

On the other hand, goats have such sensitive mouths that they're able to pick off leaves one at a time, leaving the thorny branches intact. Which makes me think that if I plan it right, I might be able to bend branches down so they're within nibbling reach, then let them bound back up Pastured pulletsto regrow. Or, since we rotate our pastures frequently, it's possible I might get away with simply letting tree leaves regrow while the goats are absent on limbs that are always within goat reach.

Plenty of fun observation and experimentation ahead as we build the optimal goat pastures. What fun! I almost miss the days before we figured out the best way to pasture chickens...but not quite.

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Do you folks have chokecherry trees? Those leaves are deadly when limp. One of my best ewes died after getting ahold of a downed branch. :(
Comment by Julie Whitmore Thu Jun 11 15:24:21 2015
Funny, I was just talking today with the farm vet about this. Something about the wilted leaves brings out the cyanide in them. Not so with fresh leaves.
Comment by Deb Thu Jun 11 20:00:34 2015
I once watched a documentary about old European agricultural methods. I don't remember which one and it was ages ago so that's not going to be very helpful but... I seem to recall that there was something about using pollard trees as hedging and fodder. Where they would plant the trees too close together to create the enclosure and then they would cut them off at 4 foot or so and the cattle could graze the new growth.... maybe something like that could work with the locusts for your goats? If you could get some of the locusts regrowing from a shorter height that the goats could reach on their own.
Comment by Kiina Fri Jun 12 13:34:06 2015
Julie and Deb --- Cherry leaves of all kinds are definitely to be avoided! We do have a few wild cherries close to the pastures, but I'm always careful not to cut their branches. Although I have a feeling that our spoiled goats might not be hungry enough to eat them even if I made the mistake --- I've gotten our girls into the habit of only eating the cream of the pasture....
Comment by anna Fri Jun 12 13:35:59 2015

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime