This week will mark the end of our sheep’s pumpkin supply. Since November 5, we’ve broken and fed out a dozen pumpkins daily: eight to the adult ewes, two to the ewe lambs, and one each to the adult rams and to the ram lambs. We originally got about 360 pumpkins from the drug store; with each pumpkin averaging about twelve pounds, that totals over two tons!
Feeding pumpkins is not only a welcome treat for our flock, now that they’re almost entirely on hay, but it’s also a great nutritional supplement. Most of the girls are in the first or second trimester of gestation, and good nutrition is critical. Most sheep books focus on the importance of good nutrition in the last trimester because of the increasing needs of the quickly growing fetuses. Yet the first trimester is the period during which the bodily systems are formed and the foundation for a lifetime of wool growth is developed. Poor nutrition during this period can cause poor placental development, resulting in low birth weights, higher risk lambs, and poor follicle development that creates lower weight fleeces over a lifetime. The second trimester is equally important as the various bodily systems become better defined and the wool follicles are differentiated. Pumpkins, evergreens, and other “treats” provide nutrients to our sheep that they just can’t get from hay alone. And it’s always better to get nutrients from food than from a vitamin supplement.
As we supplement the hay with the remaining pumpkins, we know that every 80 pounds or so of pumpkins will replace about one 43-pound bale of grass (the average weight of our bales this year), meaning that we feed out one less bale each day to our adult ewes. The difference is much less obvious in our other, smaller groups, but the point is made: not only are pumpkins a great source of nutrition, but they also help offset feed costs, replacing purchased hay with what is essentially free feed.
I know that some people are concerned that pumpkins may be sprayed with insecticides that are detrimental to sheep or to the people who may eventually eat the lambs, but after discussing this with several pumpkin growers, I have not found this to be a serious concern. Not only are pumpkins grown with pumpkin pies in mind (and so the insecticides are typically those used for vegetation intended to be eaten), but the last spraying is typically just after the blossoms have set fruit — months before the fruit is picked and shipped to stores. The pumpkins are safe to eat, for people and sheep!
A bigger concern of mine was what to do with pumpkins that were beginning to mold. In any given year, we find that about 20% of our haul has soft spots or showing signs of rot inside when we break them. I used to be very concerned that the sheep would get sick from eating the rotting fruit — but surprisingly, they did not. After a bit of thought, I think I understand why. The rumen is part of the first stomach, where the fermentation process begins. When they eat pumpkin that is soft or off-color, that pumpkin has begun to ferment — exactly as it will after they eat it! When we break pumpkins that have a bit of mold, our sheep will eat some parts and leave others; I think they can tell which parts are safe to eat and which they should leave behind. I used to cut out the soft parts, but I discovered that the sheep do a much more efficient job finding what they can and cannot eat. We now leave it to them to decide, and then just pick up the leftovers the next day.
I can’t say that I’ll miss the aerobics of breaking a dozen pumpkins each day, but I will miss the happy orange faces of my flock as they dive into the most recent pumpkin casualties in their pastures. I am already looking forward to supplying them with Christmas trees after the holidays — it won’t be long!