Hay and straw serve different purposes

Farmers feed hay to their livestock. Straw is best used for animal bedding or to mulch crops. Pexels

Dear Aggie: Is there a difference between hay and straw?

Yes, hay and straw are very different products used for different purposes.

Hay is dried forage that farmers feed to animals during the winter when fresh pasture is unavailable. Hay is made when grasses, sometimes mixed with other forage plants such as clover, are cut, allowed to dry in the field and raked into rows for collection. This is typically done on hot summer days without rain — hence the saying, “Make hay while the sun shines.” Historically, farmers would pile hay into mounds, a method still done today by the Amish. More commonly, farmers use machinery to collect the dry grass and then either press or roll the hay into bales. Bales can be squared-baled, which one person can easily move, or round baled, which is typically moved using heavy equipment. Farmers collect and store hay in barns, hay lofts, under tarps, or in the field.

In late fall and early winter, when pasture grasses stop growing or grow very little, farmers begin feeding hay to their livestock. Ungulates that require hay in the winter include horses, cows, sheep, and goats. Quality hay can also be fed to smaller animals such as rabbits or guinea pigs. Good quality hay that is high in nutrients, to include protein, is critical to animal health. Without hay, farmers could not provide consumers with a steady supply of milk or meat.

Straw, on the other hand, has little to no protein and generally should not be used as animal feed. Straw is made by collecting and baling the stems of grains such as wheat or rye after the grain has been harvested. Straw is best used for animal bedding or to mulch crops such as garlic or tomatoes. Straw has also been used as a traditional building material. Straw strengthens the clay used to make adobe blocks. Straw bales can also be stacked and coated with stucco to form a highly insulated structural wall. Straw bales are often used for decoration in the fall, providing a perch for pumpkins and chrysanthemum.

Gardeners frequently get confused about whether to use hay or straw as a mulch. The use of hay in the home garden is strongly discouraged as it generally contains grass and weed seeds. Hay should only be used in the home garden after it has been thoroughly composted at temperatures high enough to kill those seeds. While hay is sometimes cheaper than straw, the labor and effort to remove weeds that are introduced with hay should not be underestimated. For mulches, gardeners should ask for straw instead.

Question answered by Mike Nuckols, msn62@cornell.edu

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