Meat goat production in cold climates

Meat goat production in the cold climates of the northern U.S. and Canada requires careful management if one is to attain maximum profitability. Under these challenging conditions, meeting the dietary requirements for all stages of goat production (growth, gestation, lactation, dry) is the key to success.  

Meat goat dietary requirements are fairly well known to researchers and extension specialists, but much less so to producers of goats. This article will educate the reader of certain basic principles of nutritional physiology as a prelude to making practical feeding recommendations, as well as herd management tactics that may give the producer an edge when raising meat goats in cold climates.

Nutritional requirements and the utilization of dietary energy

The dietary requirements of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat, fiber, minerals, vitamins, water) may be provided by near endless combinations of feedstuffs, all of which must be digested and assimilated by the goat to support life and enable productivity. All feedstuffs possess some quantity of combustible energy as measured by the calorie content of the nutrients therein. Goats use this energy for maintenance and productive purposes.  

The actual intake of energy consumed/day is called Gross Energy. As digestion occurs, certain quantities of this gross energy are dissipated; the remaining energy is available for maintenance needs and for productive purposes. This process may be described linearly as:  

Gross Energy intake minus energy lost in feces = Digestible Energy, minus energy lost in urine and gases = Metabolizable Energy, minus energy lost in heat increment = Net Energy. Heat increment refers to the calories unavoidably lost during the processes of digestion and assimilation (via usage of digested nutrients).  

Net energy is used, first, by the animal for maintenance (just staying alive, neither gaining nor losing weight) and, secondly, for productive purposes, such as growth, gestation, and lactation. Maintenance needs are for routine movement, for basal metabolism (cellular activities to support life), and for holding body temperature constant with a narrow range.  

As the calories expended as heat increment usefully contribute to maintaining body temperature, the consequence of a dietary heat increment that is insufficient to hold body temperature constant is additional calories must be expended to maintain correct body temperature. In a zero-sum game, these expended calories reduce the calories available for productive purposes. Accordingly, ADG can be reduced, conception rate or fetal life can be imperiled, or milk yield can be adversely impacted. Bluntly put, excessive cold causes an animal to lapse, involuntarily, into ‘survival mode’, with concomitant decreases in performance—an instance of indisputable biological prioritizing.  

About 80% of energy in roughages (grass, hay, silage) and 60% of energy in grains is lost via digestion and assimilation. These figures reflect the typically higher content of indigestible fiber in roughages (causing greater losses in the feces and as heat increment) while grains have higher carbohydrate content and lose more energy in gases (mostly via rumen fermentation, but less in heat increment). When eating a total mixed ration (roughage plus concentrates), mature goats on the average will lose about: 30% energy in the feces, 20% in the heat increment, 5% in the urine, and 5% in the gases—a total of 60% or so. The residual 40% or so of dietary energy is typically split, about 20% for energy for maintenance and 20% for productive purposes. Contrarily, in an extremely cold environment, % maintenance usage increases at the expense of productive usage.  

Therefore, a goat producer must increase the net energy levels of the daily ration and thus provide extra energy for temperature maintenance in order to avoid appreciable drops in performance. This increase cannot be accomplished by providing low-quality, high-fiber hays even ad lib because their net energy values simply cannot supply the increased energy needed for temperature maintenance and for productive purposes (no matter their elevated fiber content and increased heat increment output). Even feeding of high quality forages ad lib may not provide sufficient energy for both temperature maintenance and optimum productive purposes in frigid conditions (think here of growing kids, or of late gestation yearlings, or of thin does carrying triplets and unable to eat adequate high quality forage because of placenta-limiting rumen space).  

The primary solution to the increased net energy needed for goats in winter is to increase the ‘energy density’ of the diet, i.e., its net energy per bite. One can do this most conveniently by adding grain to the diet or by adding 5-10% fat to an existing grain mix. If the forages being fed were of high quality, a pound of grain/doe/day would probably suffice. On the other hand, if the forage were low quality and the temperature low enough, 1.5 to 2.0 lb of grain would be required. And, yes, this solution will increase feed costs; however, it will very likely increase performance enough, as measured by kid crop born and saved and by higher birth and weaning weights, to be cost-beneficial.

Management alternatives

Appropriate shelter

Given all the physiological realities, a producer should first try to improve the microclimate surrounding the animals by providing shelter from wind and rain via well-bedded barns and sheds or, at the least, via windbreaks, trees, brush, and modified terrain. With very rare exception, heated facilities are an economic no-no.

savannah doe and newborn kid seek shelter in brush

Adapting kidding schedules

There are secondary solutions to cold weather issues via certain changes in goat herd management. For example, owners could elect to kid in mid-May/mid-June. Thus the increased nutritional needs of late gestation (6-7 weeks) would be occurring in late early April/mid May or so when cold weather is moderating and less energy is being expended for temperature maintenance. Taking this solution a step further, owners could elect to breed in the spring for fall kidding, mid-September/late October. In this scenario, does would be dry/open and have their lowest nutritional demand during the winter months. Decent forage alone could likely meet their needs, provided the %CP was adequate, as also minerals.  

For those positioned to do accelerated kidding (3 kid crops in 24 months), one of the three kiddings just has to occur in January or so. Feeding extra grain to the does and creep-feeding the kids will make it possible. The increased costs incurred are typically overcome by the increase in kid crop sold.  

a savannah doe with twins

Yet another tactic would be to hold-off breeding doelings until they were 12-13 months of age so as to increase their size and promote higher milk yield and higher incidence of twinning leading to more income/doe. In this case, owners do not save early feed costs, but their does realize more gross, and net, income. Indeed, there are owners who delay breeding until the yearling doe is 18 months of age and twinning rate approaches that of older does. 

This is a particularly good tactic when the herd contains a large percentage of does that stay in production until 9-10 years of age (7-8 lactations). Such animals are thought to have superior milk yield and net income over their life span, as compared to lesser lactations from females that were first kidded at 12 months, and who might/might not twin on their second kidding. Caveat: dairy cattle research in NY and PA over a decade with hundreds of herds found that early-calving heifers (22-25 month of age) did produce less milk in their first and second lactations but stayed in production appreciably longer so that their lifetime yield was statistically greater, and more profitable, than heifers calving at 34-36 months of age. Such a management scheme has not been researched for meat goats.

Creep feeding suckling kids

Another management tactic would be to creep-feed the suckling kids in the cold weather so that reduced milk yield would not adversely impact kid performance. Kids have really good feed conversion when they begin to eat grain at 10 to 14 days and on up to 16-18 weeks of age; they range in FCE 2.5 to 3.5:1 over this duration. If the average FCE were 3.0:1, and concentrates were costing 30 cents/lb, a pound of gain would cost 90 cents. Such kids would sell for at least $2.00/lb even in the summer—an attractive margin. One could further refine this tactic to wean the male kids at 7-8 weeks and keep them on the creep-feed until the cost/lb of gain got up to about $1.50; sell thereafter. The doe kids could remain with the does, but not on creep-feed beyond 90 days. Kids soon learn forage consumption from the dam, and, remember, they don’t have to achieve maximum gain, just optimum gain.  

dr. frank pinkerton

About the author

Dr. Frank Pinkerton is one of the industry’s most highly regarded writers and speakers on meat goat nutrition, marketing and management. His book, A Compilation of the Wit and Wisdom of the “The Goat Man” is available at the Goat Rancher Store. He can be reached by phone at 512.392.4123 or email,

Co-authored by Brian Payne, Keri-Rose Livestock and Consulting.

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