Chickens love eating pumpkins, gourds and squash, so don’t throw out your edible autumn decorations this fall. These vegetables (technically, they are fruits) can be used to combat boredom and promote flock health year-round.
Gourd seeds are being studied for their anthelmintic (deworming) properties, while the flesh of many varieties is quite nutritious. In addition, chickens find eating these items highly entertaining. Most varieties store well, so it’s a good idea to stock up in the fall while they’re plentiful and use them throughout the year to keep your flock healthy.
Pumpkins, gourds, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupes and watermelons are all from the Cucurbitaceae plant family, commonly known as the gourd family. Seeds from the plants of this family have been used for hundreds of years as a natural dewormer for livestock as well as humans. (Click here for our recipe on a nutritious mash for chickens made from pumpkin or squash.) Many chicken-keepers recommend feeding chickens pumpkin or squash seeds for a week each fall and spring to help prevent internal parasite overloads. However, despite being frequently recommended for worm prevention, no evidence exists that proves efficacy of the seeds from these plants as a dewormer in chickens. One reason: There has been no driving economic reason to fund such studies.
There has, however, been an increase in concern over parasitic worms becoming resistant to all commercially available synthetic dewormers. As such, researchers have studied other livestock using the seeds of the gourd family plants, hoping that natural dewormers can be found to replace the synthetic anthelmintics that are becoming ineffective.
The seeds from Cucurbita moschata (pumpkin and winter squash) have been shown to reduce worm loads in goats, and the seeds from cucurbita pepo (summer squash) were found to reduce worm loads in mice. It seems reasonable to believe that if these seeds can reduce parasitic worms in other animals, they might also help in poultry.
Why Deworm Chickens?
All chickens that have access to the outdoors probably carry parasitic worms. They just naturally pick them up as they peck and scratch in the dirt. It’s normal for healthy chickens to have some level of these worms, but the worms attach to the stomach lining or otherwise feed off the chickens and prevent them from absorbing all the nutrients that they ingest. When worm levels become too high, it can threaten the chicken’s life.
Signs that chickens have too high of a worm load include visible worms in their droppings or eggs, weight loss, decreased egg production, increased feed consumption and pale egg yolks. Deworming the flock periodically helps prevent worm loads from becoming too high. That’s why it might be beneficial for chickens to be fed raw (whole or ground) pumpkin or squash seeds free choice for a week each spring and fall as a natural preventative measure.
Janet Garman, author of 50 Do It Yourself Projects for Keeping Chickens and owner of Timber Creek Farm, believes that pumpkins play a part in natural worm prevention because of cucurbitacin in the pumpkin seeds.
“This is true for the other members of the gourd family, too,” she says.
The seeds from Cucurbitaceae family members are coated with cucurbitacin, which is believed to be responsible for their anthelmintic properties. The substance paralyzes the worms and their larvae, so the parasites can be flushed out of the chickens’ system. The amount of cucurbitacin contained in a squash or pumpkin can vary significantly depending on variety and maturity, but the seeds from larger, mature members of the gourd family usually contain greater amounts of cucurbitacin. This means that the amount to feed is inexact, and that’s why the seeds are usually fed free-choice to let the chickens self-regulate consumption.
Garman, a former livestock feed-store owner, notes that gourd family members also contain a lot of vitamins and minerals and can be fed to the flock raw or cooked. Because chickens are so entertained when eating them, many chicken-keepers feed whole squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and melons throughout the year. We regularly cut a pumpkin, squash, gourd or melon in half and place it in the chicken run or coop to watch the fun.
Our roosters normally call the hens to food whenever we add it to the run but don’t stop to eat it themselves. However, it’s a different story when a fruit from the gourd family is introduced; they’ll sit down and feast immediately.
Pumpkins, squash and melons contain large amounts of iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorous and thiamine, and they are even better sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, manganese and potassium. They are also excellent sources of dietary fiber but contain little saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The seeds contribute lots of protein, magnesium and zinc. The actual amount of each nutrient depends on the variety and maturity level of the fruit, with nutrient levels generally being much greater in mature winter squashes and pumpkins than in cucumbers, melons or summer squashes.
Use & Storage
You can keep pumpkins and winter squash for months if you properly cure and store them. With the exception of acorn, sweet dumpling and delicata squash, which can go directly into storage, gourd family members do better if they are cured first.
To cure winter squash and pumpkins, simply keep them at room temperature (around 70 degrees Fahrenheit) for 10 to 20 days. After curing, they should be transferred to a dry (60 to
70 percent relative humidity), cool (50 to 55 degrees) place such as a basement or root cellar for long-term storage.
For best results, store pumpkins and squash in a single layer so that they aren’t touching each other. This prevents the spread of any rot. Any that have soft spots, cuts or breaks, or ones that are missing stems, should be used first because they will spoil first in storage.
Because gourd family fruits provide so many benefits for chickens, it’s a good idea to plan on extras as well as store varieties suitable for long-term winter storage. In addition to those sold for fall decorations, you can usually find pumpkin patches or stands that will sell them inexpensively or even give them away after Halloween. You can also offer to take your neighbors jack-o’-lanterns and decorations off their hands. They’re usually more than happy to be rid of them by Thanksgiving.
“I collect as many as I can for storage, in addition to the ones we grow,” Garman says. “With proper storage in a root cellar, pumpkins will last for months. Otherwise, you can cook and puree the pumpkin flesh and store it in the freezer.”
It’s easy to grow all of the Cucurbitaceae plants, and they are quite prolific. But, these plants can take up a lot of garden space, so plan accordingly. They are very frost sensitive and should not be sown outdoors until after the last spring frost. They thrive in warm, nutrient-rich soil. The warmer the soil, the faster they germinate, with the optimal temperature being between 75 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
One popular way to grow them is to sow them in small hills consisting of thoroughly mixed loamy soil and composted manure. Hills should be spaced 4 to 6 feet apart and planted with four or five seeds at a depth of 1 to 3 inches. Once the seeds have sprouted, thin each hill to the strongest two or three plants. For optimal growth, the plants then need lots of heat, light and water.
Summer squash, cucumbers and melons produce edible fruit 50 to 85 days after planting depending on the variety. They don’t store well so are best used when they ripen. Winter squash and pumpkins take between 80 and 105 days to mature. They make great candidates for long-term storage.
Winter squash and pumpkins should be harvested after the fruit turns a deeper color and the rinds harden (usually during September and October), but definitely before heavy frost. You should cut fruit from the vine carefully, leaving 1 to 2 inches of stem attached, and take care not to damage or bruise the fruit. Immature, damaged or bruised fruit will not keep as long in storage and should be used first.
It’s easy to feed the gourd family fruits to your chickens throughout the year, but autumn is great because they are easily obtainable and the protein in the seeds is also highly beneficial for birds that are molting and growing new feathers during this season.
In winter, squash and pumpkins help relieve boredom. By simply splitting whole fruits and placing them inside the chicken coop, you’ll provide your flock with exercise and something delicious to peck at. Garman suggests feeding a nutritious winter treat by mixing pumpkin puree with oatmeal, mealworms, flaxseed, fresh or dried herbs and raisins. Be sure to save enough pumpkins or squash to feed again in spring.
Finally, in summer, feed your chickens the seeds and pulp from any cucumbers or cantaloupe you clean out, and feed the leftover rinds from cantaloupe and watermelon. If you have excess zucchini, feed them those, too; the chickens will devour them.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.