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Are Goats Picky Eaters (& How Can You Get Them to Eat)?

You’ve likely heard the myth that goats will eat anything, but many goat owners would disagree. They find that many of their goats will only eat some types of hay, and if it touched the ground—forget it! They won’t eat it anymore. So, which one is true? Are goats really picky eaters? And if so, how can we get them to be less picky?

While there’s a myth that goats will eat anything (including tin cans), most goats are actually picky eaters. They commonly won’t eat horse hay or hay that’s been touched by the ground or other animals. This is believed to be a survival instinct as spoiled food and parasites are typically found closer to the ground.

So, while most goats are picky eaters, why exactly is this the case, and how can we get picky goats to eat? Let’s take a further look.

Do Goats Really Eat Anything?

a goat being handfed hay

Goats won’t eat anything, but they do commonly eat odd things such as paper, cardboard, straw hats, and even poison ivy. On the other hand, goats will nibble on just about everything. This is how they feel and test the environment around them. While nibbling, they typically don’t consume the material.

The myth of goats eating everything including tin cans likely came from them eating the paper label off of the can—from a glance, it would have looked like they were eating the actual can.

However, like many animals, goats will eat many odd materials that are not hay. Here are a few of the strange things goats have been known to eat:

  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Straw hats
  • Small rocks
  • Animal products (on occasion)
  • Stinging nettle
  • Poison ivy and poison oak

So, even though the saying, “goats will eat anything” is largely false, there is some truth to it. Although, goats aren’t alone in this. Horses, chickens, and other livestock are also known to eat odd things from time to time.

Why Goats Are Picky Eaters

Goats are picky eaters because of their survival instincts and personality. They sometimes have an instinct to avoid certain foods that could be poisonous, spoiled, or contain parasites. However, a goat’s pickiness mostly comes down to its personality. Often, goats of the same breed and herd will prefer different foods.

To help illustrate this, goats can often be picky eaters and avoid food that is:

  • Old or spoiled
  • Wet or moldy
  • Poisonous
  • Touched the ground
  • Touched another animal
  • Doesn’t have enough weeds or grasses in it
  • Not the type of hay they like (such as horse hay)

Generally, goats like to browse for their food. This typically includes plants that are off of the ground such as green leaves, branches, and vines. They’ll also eat the bark off of trees, which is a big reason why they’re not the best livestock to use in orchard grazing.

goat eating a hickory nut off of a tree
A goat browsing for hickory nuts.

Goats are also notorious for wasting a lot of their hay and tossing it around their pen or pasture. This can be a problem because many goats won’t eat hay off of the ground, so much of it gets wasted. To reduce the amount of wasted hay, you can use the fallen hay as bedding or use a hay net (more on this later).

So, while there are a lot of reasons why goats can be picky, it really comes down to their personality and preferences. You’ll likely have some goats that are the same breed but prefer completely different foods.

Do Goats Know What Not to Eat?

Goats sometimes know what to eat and what not to eat. Their instincts can kick in if they smell spoiled food or if they sense that it’s poisonous to them. However, their instincts won’t protect them against all foods, so you’ll likely need to guide their diet and remove any harmful plants.

It’s thought that a big reason why goats prefer browsing to grazing is that spoiled food and parasite eggs are closer to the ground. However, goats will still graze as well, especially if there’s nothing to browse.

Keep in mind that even if goats don’t graze, they aren’t immune to parasites and worms and should still have a regular dewormer.

Goats will also occasionally eat things such as small rocks to get extra minerals in their diet. This of course reinforces the saying that they’ll eat anything.

What Can You Feed Your Picky Goat?

The best way to get a picky goat to eat is to allow them to browse. However, if no vegetation is available, provide them with pruned branches or take them out on a lead line to forage. If hay is the only option, and your goats won’t eat it, it’s likely not fresh enough or could use a small amount of grain mixed in.

The most common reason why goats are picky with their food is if it’s not fresh enough. Goats often dislike old hay and prefer fresh, high-quality hay with some weeds mixed in. In fact, goats prefer a mix of grasses and weeds to plain hay. However, most goats typically won’t have a problem with fresh alfalfa hay.

If you’re finding your goat is simply too picky for their own good, here’s a checklist you can use to hopefully get them to eat:

  1. Allow them to browse
  2. Allow them to graze
  3. Make sure the hay is fresh and hasn’t touched the ground or other animals
  4. Use a hay net
  5. Use higher quality hay
  6. Use alfalfa hay (and avoid horse hay)
  7. Mix weeds and grasses in with the hay
  8. Mix a small amount of grain in the hay

Hay nets are actually one of the best solutions to get goats to eat. Not only will it prevent waste by reducing the amount of fallen hay, but it also mimics browsing by being higher up off the ground. Goats prefer this type of feeding and have been known to eat more this way.

a horse and goat eating from a hay net
A hay net in use

If you’d like a recommendation on a good hay net to get your goats, check out this hay net on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Goats can be extremely picky, but testing a few different types of food and hays can help find what they prefer and why.

Generally, goats prefer the following (in order):

  1. Browsing
  2. Grazing
  3. Hay

With good weather and enough vegetation, goats prefer to browse on green leaves, branches, and bark. If your property doesn’t have enough vegetation for browsing, you can take them out on a lead line to forage. Of course, this would be difficult to do if you have a lot of goats.

If goats don’t have access to sufficient food from browsing, they’ll look toward grazing on grasses, weeds, and legumes.

When goats don’t have access to either browsing or grazing (such as in the winter), then hay is the next best option. It’s also a good idea to feel and smell the hay yourself. If it’s not leafy, soft, or smells fresh, then your goats likely won’t eat it.

Finally, if your goat is still being picky about their hay, if you haven’t already—try the above checklist from the section “What can you feed your picky goat?“, and see if you can get them to eat.

If you’ve tried all of the above, and your goat hasn’t eaten for over 24 hours, consult your local large animal veterinarian.