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Burundi Goat Rehabilitation Project

Alliance Burundaise pour la Coopération et le Développement &
Austrian Help Program

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Why Do Goats Prefer Browse Over Grasses?


    D. de Treville.  An earlier version was published in: THE GOAT RANCHER MAGAZINE, Sarah, Mississippi.  September 2003; the original version appeared in ChevonTalk.

It is well known that goats naturally prefer brush and trees to grasses - an adaptation that evolved in response to arid,   semi-arid and savannah conditions found in the Middle East and Central Asia, where the only year-round fodder in many places is brush together with a variety of hardy trees.  And as a matter of fact, many of these species have higher protein content than grasses, particularly those that are leguminous.  On the negative side, many also have quite high tannin or mimosine contents - a fact rendering them toxic if consumed in excessive quantities.  But goats solved this problem, in evolutionary terms, by becoming more tannin and mimosine tolerant than many other grazing/browsing species.


Sahelian Arboreal Goats in a B. aegypticus tree


Some examples of the protein differences between shrubs/trees and grasses:  the content of young pigeon pea leaves and Leucaena leaves is ±20%, whereas young Sudangrass is ±12% protein - and if made into hay the percentage of protein is even further reduced.  Mixed grasses at cutting - if young - can be ±20%, but once adult the percentage will be reduced by half.  The same grasses when aged may have protein contents of approximately 4% and suitable only for maintenance. 

By contrast, adult/aged LEAVES will retain higher protein content than aged grasses and therefore goats win out over many other breeds in the great race for protein during the dry season.  Hence, goats are uniquely adapted to gain more protein and energy under harsh conditions that grazers - a fact in the Northern Hemisphere that has been obscured by reliance on cow/horse/sheep based inputs, as well as by the general absence of year-round browse or graze.

Sahelian goat & B.  aegypticus- Zootechnie des régions chaudes

These facts - if not technically understood - are certainly understood in terms of herd management and husbandry in many parts of the Southern Hemisphere.  In pastoral societies of arid, semi-arid and savannah  regions of Africa and the Middle East, for example, herds  follow a gradual migratory route that is keyed to the rains.  Being in one area for only a brief period of time, these animals have little chance of developing heavy worm burdens. 

As well, because of dry conditions for most of the year, the primary food available are trees and shrubs which are well above grass height. The same has been found with feral goats in Australia, where herds will have a self-defined browsing territory that can average over 350 square kilometres. 


In settled areas of Africa and the Middle East, goats are either herded or tied to a stake by a rope and moved several times a day.  Sometimes, goats are just left to find their own food around the village and cropping areas after harvest, where they can benefit from crop leavings.  As well, several goat owners may jointly hire someone to herd their animals during the day. It is uncommon for these small, subsistence-oriented farmers to have more than 2 to 6 goats.  Indeed, no one but the exceptional, large farmer has fences. 

Chopping Trypsacum grass for forage  on a farm in Burundi

Where there is not enough forage, farmers in more temperate regions will plant Trypsacum or other fast-growing grasses and these are cut on a daily basis and fed green.  As well, farmers may plant different forage trees and use these as protein rich supplements along with cut-and-carry grasses and browsing.


No concentrates, no hay and very little pasture grass.  Goats are a lot closer to being feral than a fully domesticated barnyard animal.  And – as one commercial goat producer in the USA recently pointed out – Boers in the States may soon be breeding back to regain original traits that may be being inadvertently bred out of them by emphasizing confirmation and growth traits, for example, over other survival traits keyed to specific environments.   As well, by the wrong kinds and / or too much food - particularly concentrates that don't allow proper rumen development: the most UNIQUE AND ECONOMICAL ASPECT of all goats.

The alfalfa-concentrate diet commonly found in North America is a little like the goat equivalent of a hamburger-fries-coke diet: a lot going for it in terms of the 'yum-yum factor'  - but oh-boy!  Look what the results are after years of that kind of diet! 

I don't think goat owners are, on the whole, to blame for this.  The problem lies with a livestock (meat-milk) industry in many industrialized countries that is based on high-input, 'hot' concentrates and rich hays (for cattle, sheep and horses.  However, neither leafy high protein legume hays nor rich concentrates are foods for which goats were adapted – nor will these feeds necessarily put the best rumen and therefore good muscle and condition on them. 


But since the 'larger' industry (and culture) has favored this style of upkeep, goat owners aren't presented by the livestock industry with many alternative choices, unless they live in the Southwest with its large areas of nearly year-round browsable-grazable lands.  Or, in the Southern Hemisphere, in semi-arid and low-rainfed regions  of Brazil, South Africa and Australia where extensive grazing/browsing is practiced.

This breed of goat in semi-arid regions of  S.W. Morocco is able to climb high up into local olive trees. - Zootechnie des régions chaudes

You folks who are in Texas definitely have an advantage in raising your (meat) goats in conditions similar to those in which they naturally evolved.  Further north in the States, you have to be higher-input feeders, but more good and varied hay and fewer concentrates would seem to make sense, in developing good rumens and reducing the risk of contracting enterotoxaemia and other feed-based ailments.   We just have to face it, that goats are closer to gazelle and other 'sprinters' of the browser world, than to slow-moving grazers; hence, more difficult to confine and 'fatten up' (who ever saw a fat reindeer?  Only Santa is fat!)

As for our own free-range management of the project's foundation and multiplication herds, we have herders - 2 herders per herd (for security) - and these go out from 7:30 - 12:00 and again from 2:30 - 5:30. (For good upkeep, goats should have a MINIMUM of 6-8 hours daily on pasture/rangelands in order to properly fill their rumens.)  Due to our temperate climate, we have year-round browse, with a 6-7 month rain season, and a 5-6 month dry season.

Our Management Strategy

Our goats are given no grain unless under exceptional conditions.    We have second through fourth generation German Alpines crosses (with Central African Goats) whose rumens are well adapted to this arrangement.  The Boers are from South Africa and completely range-fed.  We want to keep theseanimals and the F1 to F3 crosses accommodated to these conditions because the small farmers with whom we work have no other options.  They are low-input, subsistence-based producers.

Central African Goat-German Alpine crosses browsing a  grapefruit tree

A troop of project does being taken down  the shores of Lake Tanganyika towards the commonlands to browse


We're breeding first for survival - and second for fast growth, low worms and larger goats, to meet small, poor farmers needs.  F2 and F3 animals that are constantly wormy, poor keepers, or require exceptional medical input to keep going are generally culled – as well as full-blooded Central African Goats, crossed with the Alpine and Boer, who have similar health or maintenance difficulties. 

If we were to give what, from our perspective, is a fully pampered (raised on concentrates, high protein hay, and excessive wormers) F2 or F3 buck to a farmer association to use in their crossbreeding, the animal would languish or die.  It would likely have an underdeveloped rumen and its level of tolerance to parasites and other ailments would be quite low.  We do give concentrates in special cases and particularly to members of the foundation herds but that is all.  We do grow Leucaena trees (very high in digestible protein and in the 'yum-yum factor') around the outside of the compound and these are used particularly for sick goats or those that are otherwise off their feed.  It's the farmers' equivalent to concentrates - high protein but with the advantage of also being high fiber.

We have no skinny animals (unless sick) and no fat animals.  All are very thrifty.  Of course, what we 'lose'  - and where you may gain with high-inputs - is fast growth and weight gain.  But for us and for  many other goat farmers in the Southern Hemisphere,  we are compensated with the production of animals that are low-input, who almost never have feed-induced ailments and who survive under minimal conditions:  adapted to their environment.

S. African Boer-Central African Goat cross bucklings at 6 weeks that will become the breeding bucks for  small farmer goat association

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