Thursday, February 7, 2013

Calcium: Phosphorus Ratio - Why Alfalfa is Essential



When raising goats, it is very important to be aware of the role of the calcium: phosphorus ratio in their diet. Calcium is needed for bone development and muscle contraction. Phosphorus is used for kid development, milk production, and normal bodily functions. Too much of either of these compounds without balancing them with each other can cause very serious problems including death from hypocalcemia or from urinary calculi. Goat farmers should always feed twice as much calcium as phosphorus. They should observe a 2:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorus. 

The best way to accomplish this ratio in the diet is through loose minerals and the feeding of alfalfa. Loose minerals are essential for goats for many reasons. One of those main reasons is that they provide a balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio of 2:1. When buying loose minerals, make sure they are specifically designed for goats and make sure to read the label and see that they have the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio. 

Feeding alfalfa to goats is a great way to balance out calcium and phosphorus. Alfalfa hay, pellets, blocks and silage are all very high in natural calcium content. All grains (corn, oats, wheat, barley, etc.), hays, and grassy forages are very high in natural phosphorus. If you feed your goat grains, whether store-bought or homemade, feed your goats non-alfalfa hay, and let them graze on grass, then it is essential that you feed them alfalfa in order to balance the calcium and phosphorus.

Feeding alfalfa daily is very important for pregnant or lactating goats. Pregnant or lactating goats have very high calcium demands when growing kids or making milk. The production of kids and the production of milk leach calcium from their bodies and dietary calcium is needed to replace that deficit. If fed only grain and hay, the pregnant or lactating goat will have too much phosphorus in her body and can suffer hypocalcemia. This condition most often occurs when a doe is close to kidding or when newly freshened. These are times when her calcium demands are highest. Emergency administration of calcium supplements during hypocalcemia can be very dangerous due to sudden increases in blood calcium which can cause massive heart failure. The best way to cure hypocalcemia is to avoid it by feeding the doe alfalfa in her diet starting at breeding and continuing through lactation. 

Wethers must have dietary calcium in order to avoid suffering from urinary calculi. Urinary calculi are hard mineral deposits that commonly form in the bladder of goats. These are similar to kidney stones. All goats can produce urinary calculi but wethers are most in danger of dying from them. Bucks and does are usually able to pass the stones out of their bodies without complications. Wethers, especially those neutered before sexual maturity, have small urethral openings where stones can get stuck and cause blockage of urination. The urethra of a male goat widens with sexual maturity through erection and ejaculation of the penis. Wethers don’t typically become erect or ejaculate so their urethras stay very narrow. Treatment for stones stuck at the end of the urethra includes cutting the tip of the penis to expand the opening and catherization to allow urine to pass. 

Another problem that is particular to all male goats is that their urethra is not a straight tube from the bladder to the penis. It has an S-curve in it called the “sigmoid flexure”. This curve looks very similar to a trap in a sink drain. It also works similar to a drain trap by trapping urinary calculi in the S-curve so they can’t exit the body. Urinary blockage can occur here which makes it very hard to manually remove the stones through catheterization. Abdominal surgery is typically recommended for this problem. 

The best treatment for urinary calculi is prevention through proper diet. Originally farmers assume that grain caused the stones due to the fact that wethers who had diets high in grain commonly had trouble from urinary calculi. Now it is known that grain itself does not cause the stones. The imbalance between calcium and phosphorus in a high grain diet causes stones. Male goats, bucks and wethers, should be fed alfalfa along with their hay and grain in order to achieve the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio. 

Unfortunately baled alfalfa hay is rarely available in the Adirondacks. Luckily most feeds stores in this area sell either alfalfa cubes, alfalfa pellets or chopped alfalfa silage. The price for 50 lbs of all three of these alfalfa sources is about $18, depending on the feed store. 

Alfalfa cubes are finely chopped compressed alfalfa blocks. They are generally not recommended for goats because they can pose a choking hazard. They are very hard in texture and can be kind of big for a goat’s small mouth. Some people soak the cubes overnight in warm water to soften them. Many goats don’t like mushy, wet alfalfa and refuse to eat the soaked cubes.

Alfalfa pellets are powdered, extruded alfalfa. These are much easier for goats to eat and can be fed with the grain ration. They don’t contain very much fibrous material due to being from alfalfa powder. It is best to always feed 3 cups of alfalfa pellets for every 1 cup of grain per goat to maintain the 2:1 calcium to phosphorus ratio. 

Chopped alfalfa silage, sold under the brand name “Chaffhaye”, contains roughly chopped alfalfa that has been slightly fermented through the addition of yeast and a little molasses. The silage is moist and has a sweet smell due to fermentation. The fermentation yeast adds to the digestibility of the silage. Due to the alfalfa being roughly chopped, there is quite a bit of fibrous material in Chaffhaye. This is good because daily fibrous material is necessary in a goat’s diet to keep their digestive system working smoothly. Feeding Chaffhaye will decrease hay consumption due to being high in fiber. The recommended feeding is 2 lbs. of Chaffhaye per 100 lbs. of goat per day. Most goats don’t like Chaffhaye at first but will gradual develop a taste for it. Once they do, they will run you over to get it! 

If you aren’t feeding alfalfa currently, take time to evaluate your goat’s diet to see if alfalfa needs to be added. All goats at any life-stage can benefit from the proper calcium to phosphorus ratio. Lowering grain amounts and increasing alfalfa feeding will contribute to the lifelong health of your goats.

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