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Difference Between Straw and Hay

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Both hay and straw serve a purpose on the homestead, ranch, farm, backyard garden, and beyond. What’s the difference between straw and hay? Let’s dig in and review everything you need to know about straw and hay.

Difference between hay and straw

First, hay and straw are typically made available in bales. Bales of hay and straw come in round bales and rectangle bales for easier transport.

What is a bale of hay or straw?

A formed and compacted bundle tightly wrapped for transporting hay and straw more easily is called a bale. The size can range dramatically, from “pick it up and throw it in the back of your truck” to, “I’m going to need a tractor to move this thing”.

Bales of Straw

What is the difference between straw and hay?

If you’re not used to looking at it, a bale of hay and a bale of straw may look a lot alike and they’re probably found inches apart at your local supply store. However, hay and straw serve very different purposes.

Hay is used as food for ruminant and plant eating animals.

Straw on the other hand is not incredibly edible and is used for non-food reasons. 

An easy way to remember is:

“Hay is for horses” – there, you got it; horses eat hay, not straw.

hay for horses

What is Hay made of?

farming for hay

Hay is often derived from field grasses (typically tall field grass). When the grass is mature, it’s cut at ground level and the stalks, leaf blades, and seed heads are left where they fall. Then the summer sun does its job by drying everything out in preparation to become feed for animals. When the grass is nice and dry, it’s typically baled in rectangular-shapes and used as feed over the winter.

Where did the expression heyday come from?

This expression has nothing to do with the hay you feed to animals. In fact, it’s a germanic word (heyda) which is similar to hurrah! So now you know, hay is still for horses.

What is Straw made of?

Straw can basically be seen as a by-product (incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture something else). In the case of straw, it’s usually made from cereal grain grasses: wheat, rye, and barley. All of these cereal grains have been harvested for the grain-bearing seed head. The leftover hollow stems remain to create what we term: straw.

Natural use for Insulation

Similar to hay, straw is baled up into easier to transport, bales. 

What can straw be used for?

  • Insulating material
  • Bedding for animals
  • Covering for lawn seed
  • Mulching vegetable gardens
  • Ground cover in the chicken coop
  • Backstop for archery
  • Decoration
  • Garden compost (after use)

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What's the difference between straw and hay?


Wednesday 4th of May 2022

Will straw sprout? I have used straw for mulching and it sprouts coarse long grass. I thought I had purchased straw last fall but is sprouted into tenacious "lawn" of course and very fine grasses. Does this mean they sold me hay when I requested straw? How can I visually be certain they sell me the correct product? This has been the worst back-breaking spring of my life due to this "lawn" in my berry patch! I never want to go through this again. So if you can enlighten me to prevent this in the future I would deeply appreciate it. Thank you very much.