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Principles of Ruminant Nutrition

By Dr. David Ffoulkes Phd. Manager Technical Services- Livestock Exports

Pastoral Production, DPIFM, Darwin NT , Australia

The main difference in the way feed is digested by ruminant animals (cattle, buffalo, sheep and goats) compared with other livestock such as horses and pigs is that ruminants have a forestomach (rumen) in which grass, and other feedstuffs consumed, are broken down (digested) by colonies of microorganisms to provide essential nutrients to the animals.

The forestomach contains billions of bacteria, protozoa and fungi which digest most of the feed into smaller particles, helped by the grinding action of the back teeth when the animal is chewing. Ruminant animals chew their food twice, once just after eating, and then later when lumps of food are regurgitated from the forestomach to the mouth for further chewing.

The process of digestion in the forestomach is called fermentation and the nutrients formed by this process are used by the microorganisms for their own growth and biological functions. The digestion process also produces nutrients which are used by the host animal, namely:

  Energy-yielding substances called volatile fatty acids (VFAs), and

  Microbial protein, derived mainly from ammonia nitrogen released from the breakdown of feed proteins

The energy yielding fatty acids pass through the rumen wall into the blood system, providing up to 70% of a productive animal's requirements for energy. The cells of the microorganisms are continuously propelled from the rumen by contractions of the rumen wall, and flow as part of the digesta into the small intestine. Here, the components of the cells, which consists of protein, carbohydrate and fat, are digested by gastric juices and the resulting nutrients (namely amino acids, glucose and long chain fatty acids) are absorbed across the intestinal wall into the blood and carried to body tissues.

Some feed may also reach the small intestine without being completely digested or degraded by the rumen microorganisms. This fraction provides the animal with extra nutrients (sometimes known as bypass or escape nutrients) in a more direct form. The figure shows a schematic diagram of the process of digestion in the ruminant.

A key to formulating high performance rations with tropical feedstuffs is knowing the extent to which nutrients are used in the rumen and small intestine. The supply and balance of feed nutrients can then be directed towards maximising the growth of the microorganisms in the rumen as well as providing bypass nutrients to support the animal's productivity potential.

The level of concentrate offered is determined by the quality of the forage available.


Providing energy and maintaining rumen motion.

Forage Maize : Harvested at grain dough stage ( + 75 days), this forage is very palatable and a good source of digestible energy for fast growing goats, but not sufficiently balanced in protein and energy to support maximum growth rates. Forage maize silage can be a less palatable feed in addition of 0.5-1.0% limestone as a buffer when making silage normally improves its quality. Urea (mix the molasses) is also commonly used to boost the nitrogen content of the silage (5 kg urea/tonne silage).

Maize (Corn) Stover: This refers to the maize plant after the corn has been picked. It is considered a poor quality forage because of its relatively low protein and energy content and digestibility (< 50% dry matter). For this reason, its use is restricted to provide a roughage source for high concentrate rations by feeding 10-20% of the diet (dry feed basis), or up to about 50% fresh basis.

Napier grass (Elephant Grass): The use of this grass, and the hybrid Napier Grass, as a forage source for goats is popular throughout SE Asia because of its potentially high-yielding source of digestible fibre. It is particularly suited for cultivation by smallholder farmers and it can also be used for making silage. Napier Grass requires at least 3 months of growth before the first cut, thereafter it can be cut at intervals of 6-8 weeks and should be replanted every 5-6 years. To prepare for feeding, fresh grass should be chopped (3-5 cm) and mixed into the concentrate feed and fed at rate of 15-30% of the whole ration (dry feed basis) or about 55-65% as fed.

Sugarcane Tops: Used extensively as a forage source to maintain smallholder livestock, the fresh leaves with a dry matter digestibility of + 60% can be used as a roughage source in high performance rations at a rate of up to 25% of the diet (dry matter basis) or about 50% as fed.

Pineapple Pulp: The pulp, consisting of the outer skin and inner core of the fruit, is a bulk energy source for cattle, only limited by its relatively high fibre content. It is therefore usually fed as part of the roughage component of the diet (up to 60% fresh basis). The fresh material is very wet containing + 85% water, and may be dried into a bran for convenience of transport and feeding. Because of its acidic nature, the pulp should be gradually introduced to new goats. The addition of 50 g/head/day of sodium bicarbonate in the concentrate feed during the introduction period may improve rate of uptake by new animals.

Rice Straw: While this is one of the most abundant feedstuffs in Asia , it is also one of the lowest in nutritive value. Protein and energy content is not sufficient to maintain the liveweights of goats and intake is limited by its poor digestibility ( + 43% of dry matter) due to a high content of lignin and silica. Whole straw can be treated to increase its digestibility by 2-6%. A common method is to soak or spray batches of straw with solution of 4% urea per 100 kg of fresh material before stacking and storing under a sealed cover for at least 21 days. The straw is left uncovered for 24 hours before feeding. There are very few reports of high growth rates in goat fed rations containing rice straw. Its use therefore in diets should be limited to 5-10% of the ration as a filler or as a temporary roughage source in the event of no other forage being available.


Providing extra nutrients to balance the requirements of rumen microorganisms.

Maize (Corn): This cereal grain and its byproducts are the most common ingredients found in rations. It is also usually the most expensive feed component because of its demand for human consumption. The grain contains 70% starch which provides a high value concentrated energy source, but protein content is relatively low at + 9%. Some of the starch is digested in the intestine as glucose which may be used in the formation intramuscular fat (marbling). Yellow maize is rich in the precursor of vitamin A, which is a pigment that causes yellow fat when goat are fed high level in the ration. Maize can comprise up to 85% of rations and should be hammer milled through screen sizes of 10-19 mm or cracked by a roller, but not finely ground.

Maize (Corn) Bran: This is strictly the outer coating of the grain kernel which is separated from the grain and therefore has a much lower energy value and more fibre. In practice however, the bran is usually a mixture of milling byproducts including the germ and gluten. The nutritive value of this product is comparable with maize but with a higher fibre content. It is very desirable to have 15-25% of this feed as a fermentable energy source in concentrate feeds containing oil cake and seed byproducts.

Wheat Pollard: A byproduct of flour mills, the pollard consists of bran (wheat kernel and inseperable flour), germ and feed flour, which together form a very palatable energy and protein source for goats and can be fed up to 45% of high concentrate rations. Wheat pollard is also a good source of phosphorus and vitamin E.

Rice Bran: This is an excellent protein and energy source, with relatively high levels of unsaturated oil ( + 15 g oil/kg dry matter) making the product prone to rancidity during storage and producing soft subcutaneous fat. The fibre content of rice bran can vary due to contamination with rice hulls. Good quality bran (<9% crude fibre) may be fed up to 50% of the total ration (dry feed basis), however it is usually restricted to 15-25% of the diet to avoid the deposition of soft fat.

Spent Grains: This is a byproduct of the brewing industry and consists mainly of mashed cereal grains. It is a relatively digestible bulk feed containing 15-20% crude fibre and a good energy and protein source for goat rations. Wet spent grains contain 80% water making transport over long distances prohibitively expensive, unless they can be dried to 10% moisture and preserved with 5% salt.

Molasses: This feedstuff is a residue from sugar production containing 50% soluble sugars which are readily fermented in the ruminant foregut. The byproduct also contains a wide range of minerals, particularly potassium, but is low in phosphorus. High levels of molasses in the diet inhibit digestion of forages in the rumen and therefore its use as a goat feed is usually restricted to about 10% of the ration as an attractant and carrier for urea, or as a binder for pelleting. Rations based on ad libitum molasses should contain 3% urea to provide a nitrogen source for rumen microorganisms, only small amounts of roughage (0.5-1.0% LW) to stimulate rumen motility and a high quality protein supplement which is relatively resistant to degradation in the rumen.

Green Banana: An excellent source of energy which is in the form of starch ( + 73%), however protein content is low and tannin-bound. As with molasses, feeding high levels of bananas in the ration (eg 60% of ration) should be accompanied by a non-protein nitrogen source such as urea (as 10% urea/molasses offered free-choice). Goats relish bananas and no processing is required, however salt should be added.

Urea: Fertiliser grade urea (46% N) is a concentrate source of fermentable nitrogen which can be used in small quantities to supplement basal diets fed to older goats. However, urea must be administered properly to avoid poisoning goats. To raise the protein equivalent of a ration by 2% requires 7 g urea/kg dry feed. This is administered by dissolving urea in a molasses solution or micromixing with a suitable dry concentrate feed such as rice bran before thorough mixing in the ration concentrate.


Resistant to breakdown in rumen and providing extra nutrients to the animal.

Copra: The byproduct of oil extraction process from coconuts, usually by mechanical press, copra is relatively high in good quality protein which is resistant to rumen degradation (pelleting increases this resistance). Oil residues may also be high (2.5-6.5%) depending on efficiency of processing. Copra oil is uniquely high in the saturated fatty acid laurate which is beneficial for marbling of meat. Copra readily absorbs molasses making it more palatable as a goat feed. In the pelleted form, copra can be fed up to 25% of the diet (dry feed basis).

Palm Kernel Cake (PKC): This is the solid residue left after extraction of the oil from the oil palm kernel. PKC has been used in Malaysia as the only source of protein and energy in rations. The protein is good quality and the oil is mostly saturated, but the feed is not very palatable if the oil content is high(expeller pressed PKC has 6-105 oil content) and needs long adaptation period facilitated by adding molasses if high levels are to be fed, it is recommended not to feed more than 50% of the ration as PKC.

Soyabean Meal : This is a high quality concentrate feed one of the best plant protein sources with up to 50% protein (dry matter basis). Soyabeans contain anti-digestive substances (trypsin) which are toxic to pigs and poultry if not inactivated by heat treatment. Older ruminant are not affected by these substances in the unprocessed feed. Soyabean meal is to costly as goat feed because of its demand for pig and poultry rations, but if it is economical to use, rates of 5-10% of the concentrate feed can be given.

Cotton Seed: The delinted whole seed contains + 20% of oil which is 50% unsaturated and + 20 % good quality protein . It also contains 0.5-1.5% of the pigment gossypol which is particularly toxic to pigs and poultry. Cotton seed can safely be included from 10-15% in the rations.

Leucania (ipil-ipil) Leaf Meal : The leaves and small stems from this shrub legume are sun dried to produce good quality protein supplement. Leucaenia leaves contain the toxin mimosine and its derivative dihydroxy piridin(DHP) (2-4% DM). It should be limited to about 10% of the ration.


Cool clean water should always be available to the goats at all times. Always remember that goats won't drink water with urine and manure.








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