The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Goats eating potentially hazardous plants

Dining goat

I always wonder when I see one of our goats chowing down on a wild plant that our other goat ignores. Was Abigail fulfilling a pregnancy craving when she spent a few days chowing down on golden ragwort leaves? The plants' green abundance in the brown winter woods suggests that ragwort might be toxic to deer, and data on a related species shows that the leaves are very high in copper. But everyone knows that goats have higher copper requirements than some of their relatives, and Abigail's previous owner didn't administer Ragwort leaves in winterboluses while Artemesia's previous owner did. I've yet to cross the copper bridge myself, other than providing free-choice minerals and kelp in the coop, so maybe that's why Abigail spent a few days gorging on ragwort...then went off it cold turkey.

Meanwhile, our littler goat always hunts down hog-peanut seeds, even while Abigail is busy chowing down on mountains of honeysuckle leaves a few feet away. Perhaps Artemesia simply likes the nutty flavor, or perhaps she needs more protein to feed her teenage growth spurt.

And then there are the times I catch Abigail scarfing down some dried oak leaves off the forest floor. Could they really have any nutritional value after sitting out in the rain for months? Or does our older goat just need something tough to settle her stomach after gorging on honeysuckle?

After noticing that my own list of favorite vegetables closely matches the list of the most nutritious vegetables, I have to assume that goats and humans alike can tell by taste which natural supplements we need. The trick, I suspect, is to listen to our bodies and learn that just because our eyes want chocolate ice cream, that doesn't mean our stomachs don't want kale and garlic.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I answered an earlier post of yours about goats' preferences, with thoughts on watching what dogs do, how they prefer mucky water (from an algae-ridden and leaf-soaked pond, for ex), and need to taste lots of different soaked grass, etc. And how they go after dried dog poop (it seems). And that I'd thought they need the fermentation, or bacteria as much as any other nutrients. As for herbivores, I do think that old-fashioned subsistence farmers like Silas, who carefully grubbed out dangerous weeds from his hilly pasture, knew that cattle might get sick on some plants, esp. if they were wilted, I seem to remember. Goats are much more like deer, I think, as you observed earlier. My question now is, what do we have in common with goats, in the digestive and elimination processes? I guess an omnivore like a bear would be a better teacher for hunter-gatherers than a pure herbivore? I also wonder if goats ever eat mosses and lichens, the way reindeer do, --and if you know if some of these have been used in soups by Lapps, for ex. the way seaweed is sometimes.
Comment by adrianne Thu Dec 25 10:41:38 2014
Mom --- Interesting you should ask about the lichens. I've been reading a goat book written by an Australian and she wrote "During the really bad drought of 1983-1984, I had a farm with rocky outcrops covered in lichen, the goats at it all, wearing their teeth down but keeping in excellent condition." She does warn, though, that if goats are kept in a small area and are hungry, they will eat poisonous things, like Johnsongrass that is poisonous if wilted, etc. But if free ranging like when I take the goats out into the woods, I suspect that if they eat a little of something weird, they probably need it.
Comment by anna Thu Dec 25 11:21:02 2014
we are currently feeding lots of hay to our goats (zone 4 so not much green left) and they really enjoy it when I toss a few handfuls of dried leaves on their hay. It seems like a treat to them. Next year I will have to gather a lot more leaves so I can feed it to them longer.
Comment by BW Thu Dec 25 14:30:47 2014

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