Bison on Tatonka Spirit Ranch in Smyrna enjoy a snack of pumpkins. Giving old pumpkins to livestock is just one way to keep the gourds out of landfills. Credit: Courtesy of Alison Souza.

When it comes to pumpkins, stay out of Willy’s way.

The 1,400-pound male bison is the undisputed patriarch of a small northern Maine bison herd and he loves few things more than noshing on fall gourds.

Luckily for Willy — and countless other farm animals around Maine — this is the time of year when their love of pumpkins coincides with homeowners disposing of pumpkin decorations.

Donating old pumpkins to livestock is just one of the ways you can get rid of old pumpkins instead of throwing them out and adding them to the wastestream. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkins end up in landfills across the country.

Pumpkins contain between 10 and 14 percent crude protein, making them a nutritious snack for livestock and poultry, according to Colt Knight, livestock expert with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“Generally speaking, pigs and chickens love pumpkins,” Knight said. “Ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats vary from farm to farm with their preference to eat pumpkins.”

Regardless of how much a farm animal likes to eat pumpkins, Knight said the gourd should never be their major food source. Rather, it should be offered as a treat.

He also said to avoid feeding rotten pumpkins to animals or birds as they present health hazards due to the bacteria they contain. And always contact the farmer ahead of time to see if they want your pumpkins.

Equally important is making sure the pumpkin has not been treated with anything that could be toxic like bleach, which is a popular method to keep jack-o’-lanterns orange and shiny throughout the season.

Instead of bleach, you can add a cup of vinegar to a full kitchen sink or basin of water. Put the pumpkin in the solution and let it soak for 10 minutes on each side. Then rinse it off, dry it and it’s ready for a fall display that will last all season. 

You can also cover any scrapes or cuts in the gourd’s skin with petroleum jelly to keep bugs and bacteria from getting in and creating areas of rot.

Not only is this a more environmentally friendly way to preserve a pumpkin, it will then be safe for animals to eat.

Up at Tatonka Spirit Ranch in Smyrna, Linda White will only feed Willy and her other 25 bison organic pumpkins.

“When we first got the bison we were told they liked pumpkins,” White said. “We will take them from people, but we need to be sure they are safe for them to eat.”

Once pumpkins are in the bisons’ pasture, White said Willy gets first pick, and has been known to muscle other bison out of his way to get to the best gourds.

For the last three years Helen York has not only accepted pumpkins for her critters, she has actively sought out old pumpkins.

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“One of our neighbors here in Ellsworth asked us if we would like their old pumpkins [because] they were eager to get rid of them,” York said. “It occurred to us then that people might like to have their fall decorative displays cleaned up without the hassle and expense of sending it all to the landfill.”

York printed up cards she hands out to residents and businesses letting them know she will pick up used pumpkins once they are done with them.

“Every year our pumpkin pick-up is more productive,” York said. “Some people are done with the festive fall look as soon as Halloween is over while others like to wait until around Thanksgiving to switch to a winter holiday theme.”

York said her small mixed herd of sheep and cattle and mixed poultry flock are delighted when it’s pumpkin season.

“The sheep and cattle like it best if you break [the pumpkins] open,” York said. “But the chickens will peck their way in to get to the yummy stuff and it’s very strange to see a bird with its head entirely inside a hole in the side of a pumpkin.”

Contrary to popular belief, neither pumpkins nor their seeds are natural animal dewormers, according to Knight.

“The seeds contain cucurbitacin that makes the seeds bitter,” Knight said. “There are a lot of internet claims saying that the compound is a dewormer, but it is ineffective at controlling any internal parasites.”

If there are no nearby farms interested in your old pumpkins, you can compost them.

The simplest way is to place them out of the way on your property where the winter’s natural freeze-thaw cycle will render it into mush as it decomposes. Or you can bury the pumpkin so it naturally decomposes in the ground. As an added bonus you may find pumpkins growing in that spot next year.

If you are already composting, chop up your old pumpkins and mix them into your compost where they will quickly break down into organic matter for next year’s garden. The heat generated by the composting process will prevent the seeds from sprouting.

Regardless of what you do with your pumpkin, York said the important thing is to do something.

“Please don’t send them to the landfill,” she said. “Think of all the time and care some pumpkin farmer spent growing those beautiful pumpkins. Don’t put all their efforts to waste.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.