10 Difference Between Hay And Straw


Many different plants have been used throughout history to feed animals. Hay and straw are currently the most popular animal feeds during winter or dry seasons, thus Straw and hay are a huge part of everyday life for many farmers, but because the two overwhelmingly look identical, it’s highly likely that folks who aren’t farmers wouldn’t know the difference. Therefore, what is the difference between hay and straw? And can the terms “hay” and “straw” be used interchangeably?

Hay and straw are commonly confused. Hay is made from the stems, leaves, and seed heads of plants that are fresh. It is cut and baled when it has the most nutritional value, and is fed to livestock. Straw is also made from the stems and leaves of plants, but is cut after of the plants have been allowed to mature and the seed heads have been harvested for something else. Straw has very little nutritional value, and is best used as bedding for animals.

Is there a difference between Straw And Hay?

Straw is an agricultural byproduct consisting of the dry stalks of cereal plants after the grain and chaff have been removed. It makes up about half of the yield of cereal crops such as barley, oats, rice, rye and wheat. It has a number of different uses, including fuel, livestock bedding and fodder, thatching and basket making.

Straw is usually gathered and stored in a straw bale, which is a bale, or bundle, of straw tightly bound with twine, wire, or string. Straw bales may be square, rectangular, or round, and can be very large, depending on the type of baler used.

Hay is essentially dried grasses and other foliage used as animal feed. Usually the material is cut in the field while still green and then either dried in the field or mechanically dried by forced hot air.

During winter months, or in areas where fresh grass is not readily available, ranchers and farmers typically rely on hay to feed their horses and other animals. It is not always as nutritional as regular feed, but it does have enough vitamins and roughage to keep animals healthy for a few months. It might help to think of it as a form of granola or breakfast cereal for animals. Some hay supplies may rot or ferment, rendering them useless for feed but ideal for garden mulch.

Hay is usually dried in small piles or stacks in the field, but a rainy climate may dictate forced-air curing in the barn. Properly cured hay with 20 percent or less moisture may be stored for months without danger of spoilage. 

Crops with thin stems and more leaves are better suited for haymaking as they dry faster than those with thick, pity stem and small leaves. These may include, among others:

  • Oats
  • Desmodium
  • Lucerne
  • Maize
  • Sorghum
  • Napier grass
  • Rhodes grass

Feeding hay to livestock helps reduce the amount of concentrate feeding, and thereby, the cost of feeding. The low moisture content of hay considerably reduces cost. Hay can be fed to sheep and goats, both of which are selective feeders. This means that, if enough hay can be made, then the sheep and goats can be fed excess hay.

Things To Consider When Looking For Hay

When purchasing hay, you can get a general sense of its quality with a visual evaluation. Look for the following characteristics:

  • Maturity – High quality hay will have a high proportion of leaves in the bale, with few or no coarse stems or seed heads.
  • Condition – High quality hay will contain little dust or mold.
  • Color & odor – High quality hay generally has a bright green color and a sweet, fresh odor. Brown coloration, a bleached appearance, or musty odors denote low quality.
  • Foreign material – The hay should be free of foreign objects (trash, sticks, tree leaves), and weeds. Be on the lookout for poisonous plant species in the bale.

What is the process of preparing Hay?

  • Forage is cut before it is fully mature (long before it has seeded) to maximize its nutritive value. Although cutting hay early will result in lower total volume, the increase in nutritive value will more than compensate for reduced yields.
  • Leaves are more nutritious than the stems, and so when cutting forage, it is important that it is cut with as much leaf and as little stem as possible. 
  • Do not leave cut forage to dry in a moist environment, as this will encourage the growth of moulds. These can be extremely harmful to livestock and to people handling it. 
  • The cut forage is laid out in the sun in as thin a layer as possible, and raked a few times and turned regularly to hasten drying.
  • Chopping forage into small pieces after drying will hasten the dying process.
  • The drying process may take between 2 to 3 days. 
  • Hay should not be over dried as it may start to ferment and also become a fire hazard.
  • The dried hay should ideally be stored in form of bales when the moisture content is low, ideally less than 15%. This helps storage and requires less space. 

Key Points: Straw vs Hay

  1. Straw is what remains after common field hay has been winnowed, or stripped of its grain or seed heads.
  2. Hay is grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants that have been cut and dried to be stored for use as animal fodder.
  3. Hay is usually gathered up into bales, and stored for the animals to eat during the winter when the grass is not growing.
  4.  Straw is the dried stalks of cereals while hay is the dried grasses and legumes.
  5. Straw is less compact and fluffier than hay. It dries out quicker than hay when rained on, and is less likely to mold. 
  6. Straw is usually slightly more expensive than hay.
  7. Both hay and straw are dried, but hay may sometimes be green while straw is golden yellow.
  8. Straw can be used as bedding for animals, a material for making baskets or hats, and it can even be used a fuel source for bioenergy. Straw can also be used as a mulch, insulation in a house, and of course, fall decoration.
  9. Hay usually comes from healthy and nutritious plants such as ryegrass or from legumes like clover or alfalfa. Hay will often be a mixture of plants and are produced on perennial crops, and lands that would not be productive for growing other things.
  10. Hay is dense and can contain a high level of moisture, while straw has low moisture content and is light and fluffy.
  11. Straw bales are much lighter in weight than hay so, as such, they are much easier to stack and carry around the garden.
  12. Small-scale farmers can make hay as long as there is enough grass to cut around their farm. On the other hand, it is difficult to make straw because you will need grain crops which are not readily available in residential gardens.