The days after Halloween were good ones to be an alpaca on 313 Farms near Anola, Man.
In a normal year, one without an ongoing pandemic, the 14 alpacas owned by Anne and Dave Patman are the centrepiece of programs like alpaca yoga and Dancing with Alpacas. They would star in family photo shoots.
And in early November, once the spooky jack-o’-lanterns adorning neighbourhood steps and window ledges have become just one more thing to throw out, the alpacas get to eat pumpkin.
Why it matters: While large-scale pumpkin feeding might have challenges for a commercial livestock operation with hundreds of head, hobby farms and backyard operations say pumpkin feeding gives their animals a treat, and keeps that produce out of the landfill.
It has become usual practice for the farm to take the area’s extra pumpkins and jack-o’-lanterns after Halloween, Anne Patman said, although only the 10 male alpacas seem to have developed a taste for them.
Those 10, however, usually consume those pumpkins with gusto.
“They just eat them as treats in addition to their regular feed,” she said.
“They’ll eat the seeds and the stuff right out of them too, if they’re not carved. From what I’ve heard, pumpkin is very good for everybody in terms of just getting some vitamins. It just works out for everybody.”
While pumpkin will likely never make a bid for prime commercial livestock feed, it is not unknown, particularly among hobby farms or backyard operations. Community pumpkin drives in places like Ontario and Alberta have made news, as local producers look to divert produce away from the landfill, and into the bellies of pigs and other livestock.
Others, like Robert Johnson of southeastern Saskatchewan, typically just feed their own family jack-o’-lanterns to their herds.
“My bison really like them,” he noted over Twitter.
The practice is already old hat for one producer out of Nova Scotia. Melvin Burns of Moo Nay Farms has already earned media attention for his pumpkin-feeding program, developed over the last five to six years. Thanks to community collection from nearby urban areas, Burns says the sweet-tasting pumpkins now make up a major part of the feed plan for his 40 to 50 pigs.
“As my farm grew, the whole thing just started to grow,” he said. “I just spent yesterday building a grinder to hook onto my trailer… the community is so engaged. There’s probably 60 or 70 tonnes in the subdivision-type communities around here waiting for me to pick them up.”
Where they fit
Pumpkin might not jump to mind as a health food for those who think of them mostly in terms of pie, but a quick internet search will quickly peg fresh pumpkin, sans the extra sugar, as rich in fibre, potassium, vitamin C, and with sky-high levels of vitamin A — although with a low calorie count and high water content, usually more associated with weight loss than the weight gain most would rather see in their livestock.
There’s technically no reason, however, why some of those nutritive highlights shouldn’t transfer over to livestock, feed experts say.
“It has a lot of fibre, for sure,” Mario Ramirez, director of nutrition with Gowans Feed Consulting, said. “It has a high content of water, maybe 50 per cent depending how ripe they are and they have some sugars, some starch, a little bit of protein, so in general, they are good for people and they are good for livestock.”
At the same time, he cautioned, the high water content of pumpkins limits feed value. Those few farmers relying heavily on them, like Burns, will want to take a hard look at their other feeds, and formulate a ration with proper attention to their goals for the herd.
Burns pastures his pigs, he says, and mixes in grain byproduct, collected from local breweries, with the pumpkin he feeds.
According to a pilot study out of the University of Washington, which examined how cull pumpkins might be added to livestock feed, adult pigs made the best use out of whole pumpkins, when added to a normal balanced ration and at up to 10 per cent of their feed, on a dry matter basis.
“Due to the relatively high phosphorus content of pumpkins, the entire ration’s mineral status would have to be analyzed and balanced for optimal animal health, performance, and growth,” the study found. “Pumpkins could also have a place as part of poultry diet as well, with the preceding mineral caveats.”
There are no swine health issues to feeding pumpkin, Manitoba Pork Council general manager Andrew Dickson also said, although he added producers should avoid it if pumpkins are mouldy or rotten.
“I am sure some backyard producer would take them for their use. It’s not something we see as practical for commercial farms,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody would grow pumpkins specifically for feed ingredients,” he said. “I don’t think there would be much economic value there. The value they get is by selling them for Halloween, and then the people decorate (them) and then they don’t know what to do with them — and then you can donate them to people who have pigs or cattle or whatever.
“It looks nice, to see the animals eating and enjoying the pumpkins, but it is also difficult to manage. Nobody would bring pumpkins to a feed mill to mix them,” he added.
The producer would need some way to process those pumpkins, breaking them apart and mixing them with the rest of the ration, he added.
For those on the smaller scale, like 313 Farms, those challenges are mostly moot.
The farm does typically break whole pumpkins in half, “and they just go at it,” Patman said, while the animals usually take advantage of the hole cut in the top of jack-o’-lanterns, or the spaces in a carved face, to get past the skin.
There were, however, fewer pumpkins to go around this year, Patman noted. Last year, the farm had about 50 pumpkins dropped off, thanks in part to the collection efforts of one community member. This year, however, the Patmans’ alpacas got only 10 to 15 such treats, with about six of those coming from one farm, she said.