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Diversify Your Sheep Farm

Grow Pumpkins in Barn Waste

By Laurie Ball-Gisch

The Lavender Fleece
3826 N. Eastman Rd.
Midland, MI 48642

When we moved to our farm six years ago, my husband, Daryl, wanted to plant pumpkins-great big gigantic pumpkins for our young daughters to enjoy at Halloween. And he had a dream that one day he and the girls would set up a pumpkin stand in our front yard or go to the local farmers’ market and sell pumpkins each autumn. So every spring Daryl dutifully set out pumpkin seeds. And each summer, to his disappointment, a few, small pumpkins would grow. The soil here is quite sandy, was sadly depleted, and just would not grow pumpkins.

At the same time, I was realizing my dream of having an Icelandic sheep farm and we were busy building our farm business around the sheep and wool.

As all sheep farmers know, part of sheep raising also means lots of barn and barnyard cleanup. I tease my husband that our exercise program is hauling out the straw and hay, mixed with manure-wheelbarrow full by wheelbarrow full (we don’t have a tractor or manure spreader on our small farm). Over the seasons, we would dump wheelbarrow shaped mounds of this sheep manure/hay/straw mixture in rows surrounding the perimeter of the barn and other outbuildings.

Pumpkins grow profusely in strawy sheep manure piles.
Pumpkins grow profusely in strawy sheep manure piles.

Daryl would till this manure each spring into the soil behind the barn, hoping one day he’d be able to enrich the soil enough that it would grow his beloved pumpkins. Whenever he would start his pumpkins, as well as squash, tomatoes and other vegetables, soon the weeds would take over and he would be lucky to find anything in his “jungle garden” by the end of summer. He began to despair of ever growing any pumpkins here.

So each October we would take our children to the local pumpkin farm, a mile up the road, to pick out their jack-o-lanterns. And I would eagerly wait for the annual “truckload” sale of pumpkins starting the day after Halloween. For $10, I can haul home a truck or trailer load of pumpkins, which I feed to the sheep over the next weeks.

Pumpkin Benefits

Pumpkins are great food for sheep and they love to eat them. The seeds are said to have an effect on parasites by helping eliminate worms from the stomach as the seeds are digested and passed on through the system.

Native Americans used pumpkin to cure kidney infections and rid the body of worms and the leaves of the pumpkins may be crushed and rubbed on livestock as a fly repellant (Damerow, Gail The Perfect Pumpkin. Storey Books. 1997, page 153).

The pumpkin, like squash (which are technically fruits) are high in beta carotene (Vitamin A).

If I toss out whole pumpkins that are ripe or even overripe, the sheep are able to stomp and open the pumpkins themselves, in order to eat the inside seeds and pulp. If a pumpkin is still hard, I take an axe to it to break it in half so it is more accessible to the sheep.

Planting Locations

This past spring, as I surveyed our farm, I realized we had some interesting mounds that had not yet been tilled into the soil. Over time the straw/manure breaks down, albeit quite slowly, so we had these long, fairly high mounds of composting straw/manure surrounding the farm.

Daryl had saved seeds from several kinds of pumpkins we purchased last fall and so he had several hundred “free” seeds dried and ready to plant. I suggested that he plant the seeds directly into the straw/manure piles, without tilling the ground. He was hesitant, but since he had so many seeds, he thought “why not?” So all around the farm he and the girls went in mid-May pushing pumpkin seeds into the mounds and mounds and mounds of manure that were redefining our farm’s landscape.

It was quite evident soon afterward that the seeds were germinating well. And indeed, the seeds thrived in-and in fact, exploded-into a riot of pumpkins. And best of all, no weeds grew in this straw mix! Only the pumpkins!

Results & Outlook

Sheep love pumpkins-and vice versa
Sheep love pumpkins-and vice versa

We now have pumpkin vines making a lovely green backdrop all around the farm. Some of the pumpkins are huge-already by early September there are some varieties that are 3-4 feet across. There are some pumpkins that have already turned orange and are ready to feed out to the sheep now. No matter to us that it’s a month early for Halloween-the already ripe pumpkins can be fed to the sheep at anytime.

Sheep waste, in the form of these manure/straw piles is a wonderful medium for growing pumpkins. We have hundreds of pumpkins now, when before, we were never able to grow more than a half dozen. Our farmscape is a riot of green and orange and it has beautifully filled in otherwise ugly, unused spaces of our farm.

Because our girls are too young yet to work at a farmers’ market assisting their dad, we will hold off on advertising and selling pumpkins. But the pumpkins make a great foodstuff for the sheep; the girls can pick their favorites for their jack-o-lanterns, and by saving seeds from the best specimens, we can repeat the pumpkin “experiment” again next year.

I anticipate that at some point in the next few years Daryl will finally be able to set up his pumpkin stand with his daughters and realize his dream of being a pumpkin farmer. And now when I ask him if he can clean out the barn, he has visions of large pumpkins to spur him on!

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