Grow your own animal feed right on the homestead! Learn the benefits and how to grow tromboncino squash as a dual-purpose crop for man or beast.
With purchased animal feeds going up in price and even getting scarce, maybe it’s time seriously to consider growing animal feeds ourselves. But if you’ve done any real thinking or research in this area, you’re aware of the difficulties: What will we grow? How much space will it take? How much can we produce, and how can we store it? And does it need to be processed before we feed it out?
Over the years, we at the Sow’s Ear have worked out a list of basic qualities that any crop needs to have if we’re going to grow it for feed:
- It has to be easy to grow. This quality has multiple layers: It must require minimal care and cultivation; it must also have few pests or diseases.
- It has to produce a LOT, and it can’t take up too much room doing it.
- It has to store passively. We aren’t raising our own animal feed just to pay a whacking great electric bill to store it.
- It can’t require processing before you feed it out. Think for example of soybeans, which have to be cooked or extruded; we’re not doing that.
In addition, there’s one more quality we’d really like to see:
Ideally, it should also be a human food crop: something that, in case of food shortages, we could feed to people.
Home-grown Animal Feed: Tromboncino
Fortunately, we’ve found a few varieties that, for us, really fit the bill, and one of our absolutely most favorites is tromboncino (also known as ‘vining zucchini’ or ‘zucchetta rampicante’). We grow hundreds or even thousands of pounds every year, and it is one of the reasons our farm buys almost no feed. Delicious, abundant, and versatile, it’s just a terrific crop.
Feed or food?
Winter squashes and pumpkins were standard animal feed crops once upon a time, and for the homesteader or small farmer, they deserve a come-back. Packed with energy, vitamins, some protein, and even a natural wormer, they’re still one of the best feeds we know. But squashes can be tricky to grow, with squash bugs, vine borers, and mildew all ready to settle on your plants and bring them to ruin.
Tromboncino (other names: vining zucchini, zucchetta rampicante) is a heritage squash that used to be a favorite for small farmers. We think it fell out of favor because it’s not cute, tiny, colorful, or outstandingly sweet. So – what’s to love about it?
Well, first of all, this tasty vining moschata grows like nobody’s business. Developing multiple stems, it will ramp all over the place, especially on anything it can climb, like the garden fence (good) or your young apple trees (bad). And on those gargantuan vines it will grow literally dozens of giant fruits, many topping 5′ in length. No, we’re not exaggerating!
The club-shaped squashes, each up to several inches in diameter when mature, can be harvested when green and cooked as summer squash. Sauteed with onions and garlic, you can’t beat it. Sliced and cold-pickled in brine and vinegar, it substitutes satisfactorily for cucumber. When mature, it forms a hard, tan rind that protects it from rot for months in a dry, cool place. Ours often store from October into March or beyond; peel, chunk, and roast with peppers, onions, and garlic for a dish you’ll enjoy all winter long.
But wait, what have all these recipes to do with an animal feed crop? Not a thing, really, but we can’t help singing the praises of tromboncino in any application!
How to Grow Tromboncino Squash
As animal feed, tromboncino ranks second in importance on our list of home-grown livestock feeds, right after mangel-wurzels. Like that big root, tromboncino is very, very easy to grow:
- Squash bugs and squash vine borers? They don’t seem to affect tromboncino, maybe because it puts out so many arms, or because any vine nodes that touch soil are liable to set down extra roots.
- Mildew and cucurbita wilt? Well, to be honest, it isn’t unusual for us to drench all our squashes once in summer with a good compost or manure tea, but we certainly don’t do it every year; yet our trusty tromboncino plants seldom succumb to anything short of a killing frost.
- Cultivation? As easy as it gets: we don’t baby this giant. Minimal weeding, not even much soil preparation.
So, how do we grow it?
- In late spring/early summer, when we think we’re safe from a serious frost, we direct sow tromboncino every six feet or so along the garden fence, or anywhere else we can let it grow upward. While it doesn’t need to be trellised and is happy to scramble over the ground, it will cover a LOT of area, and we’d rather not dedicate that much space to any one plant.
- Soil preparation: Remove any heavy weed cover and cultivate an area about 18 inches in diameter. Then make a shallow depression and put down a good shovelful or two of compost (it doesn’t have to be your award-winning black gold – rough compost is fine), and cover that with an inch or so of soil.
- Take a squash seed between finger and thumb and push it, pointed end first, an inch or two into the compost/soil mound. Your fingers will leave a dent in the soil; this is great since it will catch and hold moisture when it rains. Plant three seeds per mound to make sure of getting at least one healthy plant.
- Mulch all but the top of the mound, and as far out from it as you have mulch to spare – a foot or two, at least.
- You’re done! Give them a little rain and some sunshine, and those seeds will come popping up. If you get three plants to a hill, you might thin down to the two strongest, healthiest, or best placed, but these guys don’t seem to mind crowding much. Do try to mow around the mounds until the squash plants clamber off the hill and take off running; you don’t want the plants to get shaded out while they’re small. Then, just get out of the way! Harvest what you want for fresh use and let the rest mature on the vine.
Storage of this giant cucurbit is easy: low temperatures and humidity can keep it happy for months. We put ours in the basement or cellar and it does just fine at about 60 degrees. Do what you can to keep the rodents out, though! They like tromboncino as well as we do, digging into the seed cavity and devouring the protein- and fat-fortified seeds. No wonder: Not only are those seeds valuable as a protein- and fat-rich food, but they also contain a naturally anthelmintic (dewormer) compound called cucurbitacin. So this is going to be a valuable winter feed crop!
Serving the Super Squash
Often we use a single squash for people, pig, and poultry food. We might chunk a section of the neck for roasting or sauteeing. The rest of the long neck is roughly chopped into a few pieces and fed to the pigs, while we usually offer the body cavity, split to show the seeds, to the chickens. One large tromboncino might make a meal for a grown pig, while the seed cavity offers the day’s protein and fat for a dozen or two of laying hens.
Our ruminants – cows, goats, sheep – seldom eat anything but pasture plants but put one of these long-neck squashes within reach and they, too, will make short work of it.
Tromboncino is a nutrient-dense food, packed with carbohydrates, fats, proteins, soluble fiber, and lots of vitamins and minerals. It’s an energy food that fits well in a food-for-health diet. Our pigs, ruminants, and chickens all love it, and since the people on our farm like it, too, we use lots of tromboncino every winter!
With feed costs rising and store shelves going bare, it’s time farmers and homesteaders began declaring their independence. No more obligatory concentrated feeds for us – farms used to produce all their own feeds, and they can do it again. And with so many calories that are so easy to grow, let tromboncino help you reduce or eliminate your animal feed bill this winter.
Shawn and Beth Dougherty have been farming together since the 1980s, for the last twenty years in eastern Ohio, where they manage 27 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’, as well as a monastery farm of 100 acres. They write and travel on farming, dairying, farm-raised animal foods, and off-grid captured water systems. Shawn & Beth are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.