Livestock Basics: The Differences Between Hay And Straw

Wheat shown as the growing plant with the kernels of grain forming at the top of the stalks and some of last year's straw, wheat stalks used for bedding.

Is it hay or straw? Sometimes, at first glance, it can be hard to see the differences between the two!

Both hay and straw are likely to be needed for your animals, so how can you be sure of which one you are buying?

Hay is a nutritious forage that is harvested for livestock to eat, whereas straw is sourced from the stalks of small grains that are baled after the grain is harvested. Straw has little to no nutritional value, therefore it is not meant to be used as feed. Straw is most commonly used as bedding for livestock.

This hay vs straw thing is something that will come up pretty early in your journey with animals.

No need to worry, this is actually pretty easy to figure out.

This article will explain the differences between hay and straw so you can get what you need for your animals and sound intelligent while doing it!

Hay is eaten, straw is bedding

  • Hay is feed for the animals
  • Hay is made from any of a variety of forages
  • Hay can be made wet or dry
  • Straw is bedding for the animals
  • Straw is made from the stalks of small grain plants
  • Straw has fiber but low nutritional value

Difference Between 1st And 2nd Cutting Hay shows you how to tell which one it is you are buying!

Hay is feed for your animals

If you only remember one thing from this article here it is-hay is for the animals to eat, straw is for them to sit (and poop) on.

If you want to see the difference between hay and straw, here’s my video showing the specifics.

Hay is made for the animals to eat, since hay is just dried grasses or legumes (plants that put nitrogen into the soil like alfalfa).

Hay can be made in multiple cuttings, just like you would continue to cut your lawn throughout the year as it grows.

A cutting is made each time the plants grow enough to be close to reaching maturity, since that is when the highest nutrition is available in the plant.

No matter what cutting the hay is or for that matter what forage is being cut the purpose of hay is that it will be eaten by your animals.

How do you make hay? Check out my article here for the basics.

Hay is from a of variety of forages

Nearly anything that the livestock can eat as a growing plant can be harvested as hay.

Common grasses harvested for hay are orchard grass and timothy.

Other plants used for hay that are not grasses are alfalfa and clover, among many others.

A beautiful picture of grass that could be used for hay, or grazing!
This picture is a mix of grasses in our field that will be cut for hay. The first cutting was already done so this is regrowth.

Interestingly enough, some farmers will plant small grains and harvest them while they are still green to be used as hay or haylage (wet hay).

A small grain only produces straw when it grows to maturity and successfully produces a seed head, until then small grains are a forage crop!

Hay can be made wet or dry

Hay can be harvested and fed as a dry or wet feed.

The main example of wet hay is called haylage, which is a fermented hay.

Haylage: What It Is And Why You Would Want To Use It is an article of mine that explains wet hay if you want to learn more.

Straw is bedding for the animals

The main purpose of straw is to be used as a bedding material for your stock.

The importance of a bedding material is to sequester all of the nutrients coming out of your animals, manure and urine.

These valuable nutrients are held in a stable form until you are able to use the manure pack as fertilizer for your pasture or garden.

Using straw is one of the best ways to keep your animals comfortable and keep control of the manure.

Remember that if you can smell the manure the you are losing nutrients.

Use more straw, keep the animals happy and get the most fertilizer value from their poo.

Here is an article on choosing bedding types, it is focused on horses but the pros and cons of each type of bedding would be the nearly same no matter the animal the bedding material is being used for.

Straw is stalks of small grain plants

Straw is actually a left over harvest from the growing of small grains like wheat, oats, rye or barley.

These grains grow like a grass then, once they reach maturity, put up a seed head (this seed head is where the grain is) that has to be supported by a strong stalk.

The stalk holds up the grain that is then harvested.

The stalk, now called straw since it has been separated from the grain, is either left in the field or baled up as straw.

All small grain plants produce a stalk that can be baled up for straw.

The picture at the beginning of the article shows some green stalks of wheat with the kernels of wheat at the top and some yellow wheat straw.

Once the green wheat matures more it would turn yellow and be combined to harvest the wheat. Then the left over stalks are baled up as straw.

Straw has fiber but low nutrition

If your animals want to eat some of the straw it is okay, you don’t need to worry.

Many animals will try out a small amount of something new to them as an experiment, I’ve especially noticed experimental eating with goats and pigs.

If it is more than just a bite or two of the straw, just realize that they are probably wanting a bit more roughage in their diet.

This is especially true for ruminants who need hay that is more work to chew for their stomach to work properly.

This is an easy fix, just give them some coarser hay than they are getting currently, like a nice first cutting of grass hay so they can chew on the hay and not the bedding!

Nutrient Composition Of Straw Used In Dairy Cattle Diets is a University Of Wisconsin, Team Forage article that shows you specific figures on using straw as a feed source.

Old hay can be used as bedding

Sometimes farmers choose to use hay as bedding.

What? That is the opposite of everything else that is in this article! So true, but it makes some sense once we look into this a bit deeper.

So why would a person let their animals sit on (and poop on!) hay?

The simple answer is usually one of two things:

  • low quality hay
  • straw is super high in price, so the hay is a less expensive alternative.

Low quality hay makes good bedding

Unfortunately, sometimes the hay being made is of poor quality.

Poor quality hay can be because it was made really late in the life cycle of the plant.

Or the hay was cut at a good time but could not be harvested until it got rained on multiple times, which will wash out the color and lower nutritional value.

Either way, the hay is not top quality so it is usable alternative to straw.

Low quality hay as a straw alternative

The second option, that straw is very expensive so hay is used as the bedding material, does happen but it just depends upon the year.

Around here in a wet year when straw is hard to get baled, since it keeps getting rained on.

It is also likely that the local hay producers will have trouble getting hay to dry since everyone is having the same overly rainy season.

We commonly use hay as bedding when it is cheaper than straw, it works just fine.

However, I do have to admit to liking the look of a freshly bedded pen of straw, it is always light and so clean.

But as far as functionality goes, either will work as bedding for your stock.

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