Hay vs. Straw: A Tutorial

If you thought hay and straw were the same thing, don’t worry. You are not alone. Many people—even some that hail from rural America—can get confused.

In an effort to educate those who have trouble telling the difference between hay and stray, this brief tutorial should help. Let’s tackle straw first.

Straw is yellow or golden colored and is a byproduct of the grain harvest. In other words it is a waste product of wheat. Unlike hay, straw is not usually used as livestock feed because it isn’t very nutritious, especially dry straw. Straw is made by cutting and forming the hollow stocks that are left after grain is harvested.

Light and fluffy, straw is excellent bedding for animals. It also can be used for mulch, keeping the soil moist and preventing the top layer from getting too dry. Straw can also crush weeds and will compost over time.

Hay, on the other hand, is made up of legumes. This includes things like alfalfa and clover or grasses like Bermuda, fescue and oat. Hay is green and several types of hay are used to feed livestock. Specific types of hay will be fed to certain animals depending on the nutritional needs of those animals. For example, hay that contains a great deal of carbohydrates and protein will be fed to working horses.

Hay is made by harvesting plants when they are alive and, in most cases, cut before the seed matures. The hay is then dried. It is important that hay bales do not have too high of a moisture content. If hay is too moist it can get moldy and will not be good for animal feed. Hay is especially important for animals like cows, goats, horses and sheep when there is no pasture for these animals to graze on.

Many people are surprised to learn that high moisture content inside of a hay bale can actually cause that bale to catch on fire. This occurs when heat inside moist hay bales increases during the decomposition process.

Anyone who is looking to buy hay bales should make sure that they don’t get straw bales instead. Straw and hay are often packaged in the same way, and many garden stores use the term straw regardless of whether a bale is hay or straw. While farmers, of course, will know the difference, many weekend gardeners may not.